The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum

The madness began at snack time, which we offer in our RIE parenting classes once the babies are all mobile and able to sit independently. Participation in snack time is always the children’s choice, and they quickly learn and enjoy the routine. They are requested to sit on the floor at the snack table (or on stools once they’re walking and able to sit at a slightly higher table). We ask them to wipe their hands, choose bibs, eat as much or as little of the snack (bananas) as they wish, and remain seated until they decide they are done.  We gently, but assuredly prevent them from leaving the table with food (video demonstration).

The children in this class were 12-13 months, and we’d been doing snack somewhat successfully for about six weeks. But on that day, there must have something in the air, because all the toddlers were testing me like crazy, sitting down and then popping up again, climbing on the table. It was a mutiny. One of the dads thought it would be funny to take a picture (ha-ha).

YES final best cropped mutiny at snacktime (3)

Lily’s testing was especially forceful and persistent, which was surprisingly out of character. She had always been a remarkably peaceful, mild and graceful baby.

Again and again Lily climbed onto the table and had to be helped down. Offering her the option to “get down by yourself” quickly became pointless, because she was clearly ‘out of herself’ and possessed with some fervent agenda.

“You want to climb on the table, but I can’t let you. I’m going to help you down,” I repeated…repeatedly.

Finally, Lily’s mom asked if she should come and help me, because it was impossible for me to assist the other children while Lily kept popping onto the table.

I could see Lily’s mom was perplexed and concerned. “Hmmm…maybe she’s confused because at home she sits on a stool next to her sister,” she suggested.

Suddenly doubting myself, I considered this for a moment. Could she be confusing the table for a stool?  It didn’t seem possible. Lily’s way too smart for that.

As Lily’s mom took over and was stopping her from climbing on the table, Lily became increasingly upset, started yelling, crying, having a total meltdown. I could see how this rattled her mom. I asked her, “Has she ever acted this way before?”  She said no and looked worried. I sensed she thought that Lily really wanted something to eat and was maybe hoping I would change the rules of our routine to make it work for her. The thought of doing so certainly crossed my mind. I was seriously questioning myself.

After five minutes or so of intense crying and struggling, Lily finally calmed down, sat with her mom for a bit and then started playing again, never having eaten a bite of banana.

Although Lily seemed fine, I was still uncomfortable because I knew Lily’s mom was disturbed by this episode.  Then a few minutes later she realized: “We’ve had family staying with us for the last five weeks…and it’s been fun, but disruptive and stressful. Maybe…”

Aha!  So perhaps sweet, gentle Lily had some overpowering feelings stuck inside her that she needed to release, and RIE’s therapeutic “all feelings welcome” environment plus our patient, persistent limit-holding was what allowed her to do it.

Young children are self-healing geniuses, have you noticed? Sometimes their tantrums are an expression of immediate discomforts like fatigue or hunger. Other times, however, they have a backlog of internalized feelings and will seem to deliberately and (seemingly) unreasonably push our limits so that we will hold steady and resist, which then opens up the escape valve they need to release these emotions. But this process can only work for them when we are able to set and hold limits and bravely accept their feelings. 

Experiences like Lily’s profoundly reiterate for me that we must trust our children’s self-healing abilities…and know that every one of their feelings is absolutely perfect.

The following week in class Lily did something else she’d never done before. As soon as she entered the classroom, she crawled straight over to me and put her head in my lap. After our debacle the week before, she seemed to be saying thanks…or sorry, but I really think it was thanks.

The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits

Limit-pushing behavior can confound even the most attuned parent or caregiver. Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us…

Sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have “unusual” ways of expressing their needs and feelings. If it’s any consolation, these behaviors don’t make sense to our children either. The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are.

In other words, your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you or her friends, siblings and pets, dump her food or water onto the floor, whine, scream and call you “stupid”, but her impulses made a different choice. And though she smirks, this isn’t out of ill will.

Rule #1: never, ever take a child’s limit-pushing behavior personally. Our children love, appreciate, and need us more than they can ever say. Remind yourself of these truths multiple times daily until you’ve internalized them, because a healthy perspective on limit-pushing is a crucial starting point. Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behavior as if they are our peers.

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

1. SOS, I can’t function

Young children seem to be the last people on earth to register their own fatigue or hunger. They seem programmed to push on, and sometimes their bodies will take possession of their minds and transmit SOS messages to us through attention-getting behavior.

When I think about my own children’s limit-pushing behavior, the examples that immediately come to mind are about fatigue…

There was the day at RIE class when my toddler son (who has always seemed to have social savvy) suddenly started hitting and pushing.  Aha. He’s tired and has had enough of this, I realized. I let him know I heard him and that we’d be leaving: “I don’t want you to hit. I think you’re letting me know you’re tired and ready to go home, right?” But then I got involved in a discussion with one of the other parents and forgot for a moment and, no surprise, he hit again. Oops. Totally my fault. “Sorry, B, I told you we would leave and then started talking. Thanks for reminding me we need to go.”

Then there was the family trip when one of my daughters, age four at the time, uncharacteristically spoke rudely to my mother. Taken aback for a moment (how could she?) but determined to remain calm, I intervened: “I can’t let you talk to Grandma that way….we’re going to go.” I ushered her out of the room screaming (my daughter was the one screamingalthough I wanted to). As I carried her to a private space where she could meltdown with me safely, it hit me… We’d been traveling for six or seven hours. Of course she’s exhausted and just letting me know in her four year old way. Duh. My fault again.

I cannot count the number of times my children’s behavior has hit the skids because they were suddenly overtaken by hunger just twenty minutes after they’d been offered food. And their inevitable responses — “I wasn’t hungry then” — always seemed so unfair. Apparently all is fair when it comes to love, war and toddlers.

2. Clarity, please

Children will often push our limits simply because they haven’t received a straight answer to the question, “What will you do if I do such-in-such?” And then they might need to know, “Will it be different on Monday afternoons? What about when you’re tired? Or I’m cranky? If I get upset will you do something different?”

So by continuing to push limits toddlers are only doing their job, which is to learn about our leadership (and our love), clarify our expectations and house rules, understand where their power lies. Our job is to answer as calmly and directly as possible. Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behavior, that we can handle it, that it’s no big deal at all.

3. What’s all the fuss about?  

When parents lose their cool, lecture, over-direct, or even talk about limit-pushing behaviors a bit too much, they can create interesting little dramas which children are compelled to re-enact. Punishments and emotional responses create stories that are frightening, alarming, shaming, guilt-inducing or any combination.

When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behavior, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully) which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behavior he tried out a couple of times.

For instance, counter to the example I shared about my daughter speaking rudely to Grandma, which for me clearly indicated that she was out-of-herself and unraveling, my response would be far more minimal if a spark of rudeness was directed at me. Rather than react and risk creating a story around occasional whining, screaming, “you’re stupid”, “I hate you”, etc., I would dis-empower those behaviors by allowing them to rolllll off my back. Perhaps I’d acknowledge, “I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.” (Always, always, always encourage your child to express these feelings.) Again, testing us with these behaviors from time to time is age-appropriate, and if we react we may encourage this to continue.

Sometimes children will smile or laugh when they know they are re-enacting a story, but this is usually an uneasy, tentative smile rather than one of happiness.

4. Do I have capable leaders?

Imagine how disconcerting it is to be two, three or four years old and not be certain we have a stable leader. The most effective leaders lead with confidence, keep their sense of humor and make it look easy. This takes practice, but not to worry, children will give us plenty of “chances” through their limit-pushing behavior until we get this right.

As Magda Gerber advises in Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect: “Know what’s important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s opposition will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This is turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents.”

5. I’ve got a feeling

Children will sometimes persistently push limits when they have internalized feelings and stress that they need to release. Trusting this invaluable process and calmly, but firmly holding the limits for our child while welcoming his or her feelings is the quickest and healthiest way to ease this need for limit-pushing. (For details and an example, please read The Healing Power of a Toddler’s Tantrum).  Maintaining an “all feelings allowed” attitude will nip most limit-pushing behaviors in the bud.

6. The sincerest form of flattery (sort of)

Children are sensitive and impressionable, and we are their most influential models, so they will absorb our behavior and reflect it through theirs. For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends. A child is likely to behave more erratically whenever her parents are upset or stressed about anything, especially if her parents haven’t openly shared these feelings.

7. Seems the best way to get your attention these days

If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behavior, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.

8. Have you told me that you love me lately?

When children feel ignored or even just a bit out of favor with us it rattles them, and fear shows up in their limit-pushing behavior. Reassuring hugs, kisses and “I love you” will certainly help to mend these bridges, but the messages of love that matter most are heard  through our patience, empathy, acceptance, respectful leadership, and the genuine interest we take in knowing our child.

To love toddlers is to know them.

Problems With Gentle Discipline

One thing I’ve discovered since beginning this blog is how tough it is to come up with general guidelines for a parenting topic that is as specific-to-the-moment asrespectful discipline. I’ve needed to examine and re-examine the effective responses that for me have become second nature. I’ve struggled to explain in words interventions that are so much easier to demonstrate in person.
So I appreciate the feedback I get from readers. Your comments and questions compel me to clarify Magda Gerber’s respectful approach to parenting through specific examples.

The comment below is in response to my post “If Gentle Discipline Isn’t Working, This Might Be the Reason”, and it exemplifies many of the more general guidelines I recently shared in “The Real Reasons Toddlers Push Limits”:

Okay – so I’m trying to do gentle disciplining, but my 3-year old daughter can be incredibly challenging sometimes. To start, when she is doing something I don’t like, she will purposely refuse to look me in the eye. I could be in the most delightful mood, but when she is doing something she knows I don’t want her to do, she will avoid looking at me. Here are some examples of her behavior:

She jumps on her 1-year old brother, seemingly unprovoked, and “hugs” him tightly around the neck from behind. I pull them apart. I make sure son is okay. I pull daughter aside and try to look her in the eye and say, “I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?” Unfortunately, she will not look me in the eye, and trying to force her seems unnecessarily aggressive. Within 15-20 minutes she will often try the same behavior again.

The second scenario goes like this: Daughter dumps the water she was drinking on the ground and throws in her dinosaurs proclaiming that they are taking a bath. I say, “Daughter, I don’t want you to dump your water on the floor. If you want to play with water, I can fill up the sink. All you have to do is ask me. Let’s clean this up together.” I give her a towel, and I get down on the floor with her to clean it up. We start drying the floor together, and then she starts wringing out the towel in another spot on the floor. I again try to get her to look me in the eye to let her know that dumping water on the floor is unacceptable, but she refuses. We then clean up the new wet spot, and she again wrings out the towel in another spot. I give up and tell her she has to go play with something else like Legos, and I finish cleaning up the mess.

Any suggestions?

Kate – my suggestion is to 1) recognize that this is typical sibling behavior;  and 2) say much less. This is way too much focus and lecturing: “ I will not let you hold your brother that way. That is not a safe hug. You may hug him around the belly, but you must let him go if he doesn’t want to be hugged. Right now he doesn’t seem to want to be hugged. Would you like to give me a hug instead?”

Your daughter may be looking away because she feels scolded and shamed, when what  she needs is to know is that you understand her impulses and will prevent her from following through with them. If you get there too late or are unable to prevent the action, just give a brief reminder: “I don’t want you to hug his neck, that isn’t safe,” and then completely let it go. At another time mention to her, “I know how hard it can be to have a little brother… I imagine he makes you angry sometimes.”

Also, it seems you are misunderstanding your daughter’s behavior. She is not strangling her brother because she wants to hug…and she is not dumping water because she wants to play with water. She is doing these things to express her feelings (anger, rage, jealousy, etc.) and also to gauge your response… She knows full well that this is unacceptable behavior, so your responses are only drumming into her that she’s a “bad girl”…and the danger there is that children can begin to identify as the “bad, disappointing one”.

So, the best way to help her stop doing these things is to understand, and calmly stop her without a lecture or emotional reaction. Matter-of-factly say, “I don’t want you to dump the water. Can you help me clean it up?” Then, let it go, forgive immediately and believe in your daughter, so she will be able to garner your attention in more positive ways.

Let Your Kids Be Mad At You

I always write my posts from personal experience, though I am rarely the protagonist. This story is especially personal and, honestly, it feels a bit risky to share, but it’s important, so I’m taking the plunge…
I had the perfect mom. We adored each other and had a wonderful relationship right up until her death four and a half years ago. She loved to laugh and make others laugh, and everyone who knew her relished her company — her children and grandchildren most of all. She was perpetually and reliably loving and supportive. I always felt she was in my corner and my biggest fan.

My mom had only one major flaw: she talked on the phone. How could she ignore us for those ten or fifteen minutes? Oh, and occasionally she went to the bathroom and closed the door (the nerve!). But otherwise my mom was absolutely, incredibly perfect, and I will always, always think so.

Then there was me. I remember a mostly happy childhood, yet it was evident early on that I lacked confidence.  Even though I had lot going for me on the outside, I don’t ever remember feeling entirely comfortable in my own skin, the way the children I work with and my own children clearly do.

In my late teens, as my public career began to flourish, my insecurities really took root. Part of my job as an actress was appearing forever cheerful and ‘on’ at parties, publicity events and on the set, all of which I managed relatively gracefully. Deep down, though, I was dying. It was the 80’s, so of course I did my share of drinking and drugging, which had the effect of helping me to feel some false confidence and a comfort that I’d never really experienced before.

I’ll fast-forward through the details, but suffice it to say that at 25 I was an emotional time bomb. When I finally slowed down enough take stock and face my demons, I was flooded by the feelings I’d been avoiding and stuffing away all those years. I wasn’t prepared for the accompanying anxiety, or especially the self-loathing and depression, never mind the panic attacks. I was a mess, and for a long time I cried from morning ‘til night. I cried a river… and I actually think this is what helped to heal me.

After a few years of very intense work on myself, I slowly, slowly began the process of self-forgiveness and acceptance.

But what was so wrong with me?

This whole experience seems especially bizarre to me now that I have a 21 year old who could not be more different than I was at her age. Like my other two children, she is grounded, secure, capable and self-confident.

So again, what was the matter with me?

I got an inkling several years later, and this brings me back to my mother. By then I was happily married with two kids. I was having my daily phone conversation with my mom when she made a comment (in jest, I’m sure) that I objected to a bit. There was an old joke in my family that I was useless in the kitchen. This was certainly based on fact, had been true for most of my life, and I had always happily played along with it.

But since becoming a mom I’d changed a lot. I’d become the responsible person I needed to be. I’d figured out how to cook for myself and my family. I didn’t feel that I deserved the label “pathetic-in-the-kitchen” anymore.

So, although I’m certain I didn’t even raise my voice (because I had never raised my voice to my mother so long as I can remember), my feelings were hurt, and I got a little defensive. I objected to her comment.

She hung up on me.  I called her back, but she didn’t respond. I tried again…and again. I left messages. But she wouldn’t speak to me. It took five days, and for those five days my anxiety was through the roof. I couldn’t breathe. I was in a constant state of panic. And strangely, deep within me I knew this place…it was familiar.  I don’t remember when or how, but I knew I’d felt this terror before.

Eventually my mom took my call…and neither of us ever mentioned what had happened. I was so grateful and relieved to be breathing again that I would not have dreamed of saying anything that might drive my mother away from me.

My dear mom had never laid a hand on me. Never punished me. Never yelled at me. But she clearly could not handle my feelings. The result was I felt innately bad and wrong for ever having them.

So I’ve made a special effort to accept all my children’s emotions, especially their anger…to let them know that it’s always okay for them to be mad at me. I’m not going anywhere.

I’ve been far from perfect, but the good news is that with kids, we do get points for trying, especially if we confront and repair our mistakes. “I’m sorry I lost my patience.”

We are human, and our kids are incredibly forgiving.

6 Gifts That Encourage Child-Directed Play

In case you haven’t noticed, play is hot. Once taken for granted as a universal childhood right, in the last decades aggressive marketers of early learning products and a focus on standardized testing have horned in on this valuable developmental time in a child’s life.
But lately it seems our collective appreciation for child-directed play has never been stronger, and there could be no better news for our children…or for us. The physical, cognitive, creative and psychological benefits of child-directed play are well-documented. Less acknowledged, though, is a secret that really shouldn’t be one: quietly observing our children playing is a magical experience for parents.

Learning to be a responsive play observer takes thoughtfulness, restraint and practice, but once we get this down, we’ll discover more delightful moments of joy, humor and surprise than we ever thought possible. And we need these daily parenting “bonuses” to balance the more difficult moments and break up the monotony. We’ll also get more guilt-free breaks from parenting because we’ve encouraged our children to hone their independent play skills in our presence (but that’s another post).

Essentials for nurturing child-directed play are safe, enclosed spaces and open-ended objects, equipment and toys that encourage creativity, discovery and extensive exploration. As a self-confessed child-directed play geek since my infant introduced me to its wonders nearly 21 years ago, my personal favorites would be too long to list here, so I’ve chosen just a few play accoutrements I thought worth sharing:

smaller cropped balls (3)

I’m 100% on board with GeekDad’s brilliant “5 Best Toys of All Time”.  But my list is focused on play objects that are just as inspiring and challenging, yet also durable, mouthable, don’t poke eyes, can be safely used without our supervision.

1. Best classic toy 

For me, balls are it, hands down (or in the air!). Balls of all sizes, weights and texturesare fun to grasp, roll and toss. Balls encourage movement and play for children of ages and are perfect for solo or group play. I’m often asked about ideal gifts for a one year old, and I couldn’t imagine a better one than a laundry basket filled with a variety of balls. My personal favorites for toddlers are the cheap bouncy balls found in supermarkets (like the lavender one at the bottom right of this photo).

better cropped stainless steel

2. Favorite untoys 

There are way too many favorites to list, but if I had to narrow it down to just a few, I’d definitely include stainless steel cups and bowls. They’re cool and smooth, make interesting sounds, are stackable, reflect light and look pretty in a play area.  Notice how joyfully this four-month-old experiments with one of the larger bowls:

cropped canisters

I’m also a fan of jars with screw-on lids like the ones I share in “Unexpected Toy Find!” and canisters like these:

talenti

Some of us have made a tremendous sacrifice… We’ve bravely devoured Talenti gelato for the sole purpose of providing our children with these really cool screw-on lid containers (in quart and pint sizes): 

3. Most versatile for natural motor development

side steps

This step climber, which turns over to become a rocking boat, is the most pricey item on my list, but if you have a young infant (who will use this piece until age 3, at least) or can share this climber between a group of parents, it’s well worth the expense. 

Safety precautions need to be taken with this equipment, and I should probably address those first:

The step climber is suitable for children of all ages beginning in infancy, but I don’t recommend turning it over until children are closer to two or experienced walkers. Either way, there should always be a mat, rug or other soft surface underneath.

Closely supervise children on this equipment the first few times they use it and whenever it is in use by more than one child. “Spot” rather than rescue, catch or otherwise remove children from the equipment, unless the child is too upset or exhausted to attempt getting down herself. (And if that’s the case, pick the child up rather than helping her down, so as not to give her a false of sense of her ability). Helping children with motor activities hinders their safety, because it gives them false impression they are able to jump, roll or step off of equipment independently.

3 in a boat working it out

One of the most common unsafe parenting practices is holding children’s hands to help them down steps. (For a story that illustrates, please read “Don’t Stand Me Up“.) Young children are impressionable and develop habits with astonishing speed. In a recent class, I was surprised to see a 14 month old whose parents have been diligently nurturing her natural motor development take a standing step off the step climber and fall. I was glad I happened to be there to break her fall (which is the goal of spotting — it’s very important to allow the child to fall as he or she would, so she understands the effect of her action). It was obvious to me that this toddler had been walked down steps recently, because she would not have taken a chance like that otherwise. The parents realized this must have happened with the substitute caregiver they’d hired for a couple of days. Through our patience and spotting during class this toddler quickly readjusted, remembering how to crawl down safely.

2 char, atticus and jack in boat

But enough warnings, here are some of the awesome skills children learn on the step climber and rocking boat: 

charlotte, atticus and jack in boat
3 in a boat

Infants practice climbing and descending the steps, first by crawling up and then descending either face-first or backwards (trust and spot them). Later they might descend seated on their bottoms and then, finally, they learn to step, which tends to be immediately followed by stepping down while holding the biggest toys they can find. Kids love challenging themselves.

I especially appreciate the way the rocking boat helps toddlers and preschoolers develop social intelligence as they experiment with it in conjunction with their peers. They learn to slow down their rocking to accommodate children climbing on or off, and they practice balancing together. We should be nearby with younger ones to spot, support and prevent toes from getting caught underneath, but we’re definitely not needed to rock the boat. Children learn more and are safer when they can control it. Some of the most joyful moments of togetherness in our RIE classes happen when children discover rocking with a peer. (Photographed at Resources for Infant Educarers)

Boy-in-purple-cony

4. Dressing up and more 

traffic cone
fafu play dolls

Generally, the rule of thumb for stretching creativity and imagination is less is more. Scraps of fabric can be all children need to create costumes and fantasy play. What I love about the products Fafu designs is that they take plain and simple up just a notch, which is just enough to spark the imagination, inspire open-ended role play and child-created stories. I also appreciate the versatility of Fafu toys. For example, one of their basics, the Cony, can be at least two types of hats, a cozy bed for a doll or animal, a telescope (yes, there’s a hole at the tip), or even traffic cones for toy cars and trucks. Like all the best toys, the possibilities are endless! (Fafu is offering 10% off to readers using the code word: janet)

purple back jack

5. Comfort for the audience

Child-directed play flourishes when parents are attentive observers and remain in the audience as much as possible. When we relax and stay put we provide our infants, toddlers and preschoolers a “secure base” they can return to as needed and, let’s face it, this is much more relaxing and rewarding than following our children around all day, especially when we can floor-sit on a cozy back-jack seat. I never got around to getting one of these for myself at home, so they certainly aren’t necessary, but they’re definitely nice.

Note: these seats aren’t safe for children unless supervised.

6. Mood lifter

When I was attending RIE parent – infant classes with my first baby, a parent asked our instructor Hari if we should play music for infants and toddlers during playtime. Hari responded that children don’t need background music, but if there is music that we enjoy, we might play it.

Hari’s advice resonated, and I utilized it most during the sluggish, seemingly endless late afternoons I endured with all three of my children — that period between naptime and dinner that parents fondly refer to as “the arsenic hour”.  For me, music was the antidote that seemed to lift my children’s spirits along with mine. My tastes ran from pop and rock to classical, folk and even to music geared toward children (that I loved, too).

Stop Feeling Threatened By Your Child’s Behavior

When I consult with parents about their children’s more challenging behaviors, I sometimes offer a visual that I hope will put otherwise volatile situations into perspective. I’ve been reluctant to share this on my blog for fear it might be misinterpreted, but since so many of the parents I hear from continue to struggle with remaining centered and calm when their children push limits and buttons, I decided to risk it and share my descriptor: teddy bear behavior. I know — teddy bears are objects, babies definitely are not. I’ll explain, but first, a bit of context…

Our children are born sentient — as present as you and I — and so our primary job is forging person-to-person relationships with them, relationships that are honest, caring, respectful and unconditionally loving.

Yet all children exhibit behaviors that are impulsive and irrational, especially during periods in their development when they need to resist us in order to test their wings (like the toddler and teen years). How are we supposed to respect our small “person” when she can be so disrespectful, hurtful and downright rude?

Some might conclude that young children are nothing more than thoughtless beasts (and that would explain the “taming your toddler” type of advice, which includes distractions, tricks, treats and other manipulative interventions). It’s easy to get personally offended, or fear that we’ve failed our child somehow, that we didn’t teach her appropriate behavior or respect.

Triggered by our anger, frustration, fear, or guilt, we are likely to respond in a manner that unfortunately creates even more challenging behavior. Truly, when children repeatedly test, it is more often than not the direct result of our previous responses.  That is why remaining calm and centered matters. A lot.

The easiest and surest way to calm ourselves is perspective, which might mean reminding ourselves that the toddler screaming and swinging at us is a tiny person who has spent only 2 ½ years on this planet. She needs us to tolerate her screams and stop her from hitting, but a response of anger or confusion would be unsettling to her, to say the least.

And so I suggest that parents suffering the slings and arrows of a child’s behavior consider it in the context of something cuddly and benign,  like a teddy bear.

Teddy bear behavior includes occasional hitting, kicking, biting, screaming, whiningrefusing to follow directions, resistance and rejection, “I hate you” (in all its forms), and grumpy teenagers scrutinizing you under a microscope and criticizing every single thing you say, do and wear. It is age-appropriate and can certainly be annoying, but it is essentially harmless. If we can perceive teddy bear behavior for what it is and respond appropriately (for more on that please read HERE and HERE), it will be temporary and not progress to chronic, dangerous or harmful.

Teddy bear behavior is sparked by:

The two’s and teenage years are classic teddy bear territory, but ages 4, 6 and early adolescence (ages 9 and up) can also be teddy bear periods.

Teddy bear behavior is eased when we:

  • Feel unthreatened, breathe, let it rollll off our back, project confidence
  • Prevent it whenever possible (by giving children safe “yes” places to explore, for example, rather than free access to markers and white sofas).
  • Set limits calmly, clearly, early
  • Acknowledge all desires and feelings and encourage children to express them (“You feel like throwing the trucks. I can’t let you. That’s unsafe. Are you upset about Daddy leaving for work? You sometimes miss him when he goes. Over there are some safe toys you can throw.”)
  • Discern needs and do our best to meet them

Perceiving teddy bear behavior doesn’t ever mean treating children like teddy bears, objectifying them, ignoring them, or talking down to them with patronizing words and cutesy voices. Children are whole people who always deserve our respect and authenticity. However, once teddy bear behavior has subsided, they might want a cuddle, whatever their age.

RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action)

In recent weeks, several readers have asked me to write a post they can share with family and friends to explain the RIE basics. Admittedly, ‘simple’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t my specialty, evidenced by the hundreds of 1000+ word blog posts I’ve written, all conceived to be under 700 words. With that caveat, I will give it a try. (Feel free to skip to the bullet points at any time.)

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are and what they need.

RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware. Through our sensitive observations we learn not to jump to conclusions; for example, that our babies are bored, tired, cold, hungry, or want to hold the toy they seem to notice across the room. We learn not to assume that grumbling or fussing means babies need to be propped to sitting, picked up, or rocked or bounced to sleep. We recognize that, like us, babies sometimes have feelings that they want to share and will work through them in their own way with our support.

We learn to differentiate our children’s signals from our own projections. We become more aware of the habits we create (like sitting babies up or jiggling them to sleep), habits that can then become our child’s needs. These are artificially created needs rather than organic ones.

In short, RIE parenting asks us to use our minds as well as our instinct, to look and listen closely and carefully before we respond.

Sensitive observation proves to us that our babies are competent individuals with thoughts, wishes and needs of their own, and once we discover this truth there’s no turning back. Then, like Alison Gopnik, one of several psychologists on the forefront of an exciting new wave of infant brain research, we might wonder, “Why were we so wrong about babies for so long?

Practiced observers like RIE founder Magda Gerber weren’t wrong. More than sixty years ago, Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, knew what Gopnik’s research is finally now proving: infants are born with phenomenal learning abilities, unique gifts, deep thoughts and emotions. Pikler and Gerber dismissed the notion of babies as “cute blobs” years ago, understood them as whole people deserving of our respect.

Gerber’s RIE approach can perhaps be best described as putting respect for babies into action. Here’s how:

1. We communicate authentically. We speak in our authentic voices (though a bit more slowly with babies and toddlers), use real words and talk about real things, especially things that directly pertain to our babies and that are happening now. We encourage babies to build communication skills by asking them questions, affording them plenty of time to respond, always acknowledging their communication.

2. We invite babies to actively participate in caregiving activities like diapering, bathing, meals and bedtime rituals and give them our full attention during these activities. This inclusion and focused attention nurtures our parent-child relationship, providing children the sense of security they need to be able to separate and engage in self-directed play.

3. We encourage uninterrupted, self-directed play by offering even the youngest infants free play opportunities, sensitively observing so as not to needlessly interrupt, and trusting that our child’s play choices are enough. Perfect, actually.

4. We allow children to develop motor and cognitive skills naturally according to their innate timetables by offering them free play and movement opportunities in an enriching environment, rather than teaching, restricting or otherwise interfering with these organic processes. Our role is development is primarily trust.

5. We value intrinsic motivation and inner-directedness, so we acknowledge effort and take care not to over-praise. We trust our children to know themselves better than we know them, so we allow children to lead when they play and choose enrichment activities, rather than projecting our own interests. We encourage our children’s passions and support them to fulfill their dreams.

6. We encourage children to express their emotions by openly accepting and acknowledging them.

7. We recognize that children need confident, empathetic leaders and clear boundariesbut not shaming, distractions, punishments or time out.

8. We allow children to problem-solve and experience and learn from age-appropriate conflicts with our support.

9. We understand the power of our modeling and recognize that our children are learning from us through our every word and action about love, relationships, empathy, generosity, gratitude, patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty and respect. Most profoundly, they’re learning about themselves, their abilities and their worth, their place in our hearts and in the world.

Note: these are not Magda Gerber’s official RIE principles (which are found HERE).

The outcome of all this? I couldn’t agree more with the promises stated on the RIE site: “RIE helps adults raise children who are competent, confident, curious, attentive, exploring, cooperative, secure, peaceful, focused, self-initiating, resourceful, involved, inner-directed, aware and interested”.

But what I’m most grateful to Magda and RIE for is the deeply trusting, mutually respectful relationships I have with my children. Respect and trust have a boomerang effect. They come right back at you. As Magda promised, I’ve raised kids I not only love, but “in whose company I love being.”

When Your Toddler is Stalling

Some of the fondest memories I have from my oldest daughter’s toddler years are the almost daily visits we’d make to our neighbor’s vegetable garden a short distance from our home. As we’d meander down the road, my tiny tour director would guide us to stop along the way and smell jasmine, pick up rocks and leaves, notice shadows, listen to birds, savor a taste of honeysuckle.

After several minutes, we’d finally enter our neighbor’s garden through her creaky metal gate and linger there, relishing small samples of her basil leaves, green beans and crunchy snap peas. Invariably, this trip would take the whole morning, because we were inhabiting an alternate time zone: toddler time.

In toddler time we’re fully present each moment, yet blissfully ignorant of the moments passing. Toddler time is all the time in the world.

But sometimes our young children can seem to intentionally slow down and stall in a manner that can drive even the most patient parent batty. A parent asked about this phenomenon in an online RIE parenting discussion group and found my response helpful, so I thought I’d share it here:

CARA:  My daughter is 2.75 years old (32 months) and has started taking forever to do things. How can I handle this respectfully? For example, when it’s time for her nap she will walk so slowly, stop at every chance (“What’s this dot on the floor; I need a different toy; I’m thirsty (then won’t drink water)…). She seems to be doing this with most activities- getting ready to eat, washing hands, cleaning up, diaper changes and getting dressed, going to nap, etc. I give her plenty of time and warnings but I can’t wait forever! This is especially frustrating when we are trying to get somewhere and she suddenly becomes a snail. Thanks!

Other parents offered C some valid suggestions…

TAMMY:  Do you have lots of one-on-one special time together? She may be asking for more attention?

MELANIE:  I try to acknowledge what they see from their world. They are exploring and discovering. Remember they have no concept of time. Start things a few minutes earlier. For example, if stalling before nap, start 5-10 minutes earlier. Best case you will have extra snuggle time, and that is a win-win for everyone.

Then I chimed in…

ME:  I have a couple of thoughts, Cara. She is definitely exploring her power in these situations… and I imagine she senses your annoyance, which makes this even more of an interesting experiment for her. So, I would differentiate for yourself between the times it doesn’t matter to you and the times when you don’t want to wait for her. When it’s something you don’t mind waiting for, totally let it go… and say something like, “Just let me know when you’re ready (to change her diaper, get dressed, take a bath, etc.), I’ll be here with my book (or in the kitchen, etc.)” Or you could decide to tag along with her while she dawdles, while letting go of your agenda completely. Either way, you will be very relaxed waiting, which will disempower the stalling and also give her the chance to be the one to say “I’m ready”.

Then when she is obviously stalling…and you don’t feel relaxed about it, give her a helping hand. “You are having difficulties making it to the bedroom, shall we hold hands and walk together or do you want me to swoop you up in my arms?” If she says no, no, no, I would either say, “Okay, then I’m making the choice to swoop with you”…and do it confidently, or call her bluff and say, “Okay, then I’ll wait for you in the bedroom. Looking forward to our book if you can get there in time.” If she says “look at the spot, or I’m thirsty”, etc., you might reply, “We won’t be doing that now because it’s bedtime, but please show me the spot when you wake up. I’ll look forward to seeing it”.

In short, be confident, unruffled and unafraid to insist and follow-through if you need to. Sometimes childrenneed to know that we care enough to insist. This is quality time.

CARA:  Whenever she is taking a long time to do something and I don’t need her to go faster, I’ll say exactly what you said (“I’ll be doing xyz. Let me know when you’re ready”) and she actually is ready faster than I expect. It’s just worse when we don’t have a ton of time to wait (even if I allow an extra 10-15 min) and she definitely knows that I want her to move faster. Like bedtime. Ugh! I really think that I just need to be firm and confident (like you said) and not allow her to let it take over an hour. Thanks for confirming my thoughts!

ME:  Yes! She is probing for a leader in those situations, so be that loving person she needs.

Then another mom, M, joined the discussion and shared insights…

MEG:  The concepts you explained in your answer above have been some of the most helpful points I have gained from your posts here and on your blog. I see that many of us who aim for “gentle parenting” end up, in our quest to be gentle, as passive and permissive instead. We let ourselves get annoyed and our kids get an unhealthy sense of too much power, then they spin out of control. Then we end up turning to authoritarian, punitive responses out of our frustration. This is what I love so much about the RIE approach of firm, empathetic limits. It allows us to bypass permissive and authoritarian parenting and be the confident yet kind leaders our kids need.

Also I have a side question–how would you apply that approach to an older child that you can’t just “swoop up”? I usually ask my olders (5 and 7)–“Would you like to walk by yourself or shall I escort you?” Is there any other approach that can be used?

ME:  “Escorting” sounds good. All that really matters is your confident attitude, which means facing the resistance and other feelings that come your way with fearlessness, and conviction in your leadership.

MEG:  Thanks for the input. I have seen that it’s not that the child needs to be “forced” into doing something, it’s more that she needs to see that the parent is calmly taking the reins. So many times they are simply, through their behavior begging for a limit!

An Answer to Toddler Testing

The words we use with our children matter, especially in trying moments. They convey perceptions about our child and the situation at hand. For example, if our infant or toddler tests us by hitting and we say, “I won’t let you hit” (with all the calm and confidence we can muster), while gently holding his or her hand, our child then learns:

My parent is a capable leader who isn’t thrown by my behavior and feels confident about preventing me from hurting him/her.  I am safe. 

My parent speaks to me honestly and directly. I am respected.

I won’t let you…” also affirms to us as parents:

I am a capable leader and on top of this behavior, not at all threatened or challenged. 

Even though my child is too young to share her thoughts with me, I engage with her as a whole person deserving of my respect.

“Thank you for letting me know…”  is another powerful phrase I was reminded of by this note from a concerned parent:

Hi Janet,

My husband and I are struggling with how to handle our two year old. He’s testing limits like crazy lately, which we know is developmental and to be expected, but we have to tell him we won’t allow him to do this or that over and over again. We’re also aware that his mood and behavior are affected by the presence of a new sibling.

Our major concern is him not listening in situations where he could get hurt. For example at my brother’s house there is a door and then stairs that go down into their basement. The stairs have no siding and a big drop. S will open the door and start going down the stairs backwards, unaware of how close he is to the edge. We remove him and close the door telling him he’s not allowed to play on the stairs. We explain that he could get hurt, but he continues to do so if the door is unlocked. How can we handle this in a way he understands that there’s danger?

And, of course, there are times we need him to immediately listen to us. For example if he starts running towards the road. I feel like he should be listening better, and part of me feels like I’m parenting wrong because he isn’t. We’re struggling and would so appreciate any guidance you may have. Thank you.

Lacey

Lacey,

“Testing like crazy” sounds like your little guy is having a bit of an emotional crisis, which makes perfect sense since you have a new baby. This is a scary and sad transitional period for almost every child. He’s grieving the loss of the exclusive relationship he had with his parents. The feelings will come and go. This is a process you can support, but neither you nor your boy can control.

Your son is listening, but he’s too overwhelmed to be able to follow your directions. He doesn’t need to hear what you won’t allow him to do over and over again — he knows –because he is attuned and aware, like all young children are.

What he does need you to do is communicate that you understand that his feelings are all over the place (that he’s testing like crazy because he feels crazy), and that you will always love him and keep him safe.

So when his behavior is unsafe, help him by locking up unsafe areas, putting away unsafe objects, calmly removing him from situations, holding his hand so he cannot bolt, or holding him on your lap, while sincerely assuring him you understand. “You wanted to keep playing on the stairs, but that isn’t safe. Thank you for letting me know you need me to keep you safe.”

“Thank you for letting me know you aren’t safe around your sister right now. You and I can sit together as soon as I’m done nursing her. “

“Thank you for letting me know you need me close to help you stop pushing your friends. I’ll stay next to you.”

“Thank you for letting me know you need me to help you stop bothering the dog.”

“Thank you for letting me know…” works because it lets our children know we:

Understand

Aren’t angry

Have their “back”

Want to know what’s going on with them

Through this simple phrase we can:

Model compassion, respect, manners

Remind ourselves that our children’s challenging behavior is not a personal attack, but rather a call for our attention and usually a manifestation of their discomfort

Be our child’s safe zone, provide relief

Bonding With Our Children Through Conflict

When you think about bonding with your child, what images come to mind? For me its kisses and hugs, gazing into each other’s eyes, playing together, laughing together hysterically as I did recently with my son when he asked my help with a poem he was writing for school.
But there’s another type of bonding experience our children need that is as deeply affirming and crucial, perhaps even more so, than sharing affection and laughter. This one requires a dynamic that can be challenging for parents: setting a limit and fully accepting our child’s displeasure

Janet,

I found your blog when I was pregnant with my son, and I’ve been looking for a way to tell you just how much it has meant to me and to our relationship. I think I may have just found a way to express at least a small piece of it. The experience was very powerful to me; the idea that my son could see me as his ally even when I was setting a limit that he didn’t want to accept.

I had known this conflict was coming. On Christmas night, my husband had allowed L to sleep with his new trains. All seven of them. And at 2:30 in the morning, the inevitable had happened – L woke and was not able to find his favorite, and he started crying. I had gotten up and helped him settle down again but now, at bedtime the next day, I was determined that it wasn’t going to happen again. Nor did I want to spend the next six months finding and carrying seven trains up the stairs every night.

“L, you may choose three trains to take to bed with you. Which ones do you want to take?” I asked.

“Want take them all!” was his predictable response.

“I know you’d like to take all of them. Tonight you need to choose three. The rest will be here when you wake up in the morning. I’ll bet you’d like to take Thomas and Percy. Can you choose one more?”

“Want Bertie!” Whew, I thought. This might be easier than I was expecting. “Good!” I said, “Now would you like to walk upstairs, or shall I carry you?”

Suddenly, L realized what I was telling him, and started to get upset. “No! Want Troublesome Truck!”

“Okay, you can take Troublesome Truck, but then we need to leave one of these downstairs. Do you want to leave Bertie?” Oh, no. That was very upsetting.

We went round and round for a few minutes as L processed the idea of only taking three trains and became increasingly upset. I sympathized, repeating over and over, “It’s really hard to choose only three, isn’t it? You sound really upset.” After a few minutes I said, “You seem to be having a hard time choosing. I can choose for you. Let’s take Thomas, Percy, and Bertie.” As I started to pick L up to take him upstairs, he became almost hysterical.

And then something really remarkable happened. He pushed away from me, and when I said, “I know this is really hard,” he fell into my lap weeping. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him cry so hard, and he simply clung to me while he wept as if his heart were breaking.

If I ever needed confirmation that RIE works, this was it. As I sat holding my distraught 2 year-old, it seemed truly remarkable that while he clearly understood that I was the source of this challenging and distressing new limit, I could also be the source of comfort he needed to work through his feelings.

Eventually the storm passed, and as he started to calm down I said, “Let’s take these guys upstairs and have a bath.” By the time we got upstairs L was calm, and he went to sleep happily with the three trains.

Predictably, he had to test the limit at naptime and bedtime the next day, but the distress of that first night never repeated itself. After a day or two, the “three train rule” became the new norm, and he’s never felt the need to test it again. I am so unspeakably thankful that RIE taught me the skills to deal with this situation the way that I did; the realization that I could be a safe harbor for my son – even when I was the cause of his distress! – had a feeling of “rightness” to it that I don’t think any other approach would have given me.