by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011
A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.
As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.
As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?
That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.
Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.
The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.
But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.
One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.
When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.
Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”
Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.
As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)
With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.
Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.
The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.
But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.
Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:
“I want you to be gentle.”
“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”
“I don’t like it when you run away.”
We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.
Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?
This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.
Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.
We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.
There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.
The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.
It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.
Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.
How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.
Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.
Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.
Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.
Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.
The “S word” – Sharing
Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.
Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?
Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.
In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!
If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.
Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.
Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.
The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:
- having dry diapers for longer periods of time
- letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
- showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
- wanting to wear underpants
- disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers
The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.
Eating and weaning
Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.
Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.
Toddlers like to have choices.
Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.
One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.
It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.
I’ll let that one settle in on its own.
It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.
It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.
Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.
Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)
Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?
Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.
This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.
Enjoying your child
Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”
A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.