I recently received an email from someone looking for some gentle suggestions for her two year old, who’d been continually testing limits and responding to requests to do just about anything with a resounding, “no.” It is a question I get a lot, and believe me when I say:
I do. It’s hard to be 2, 3, 4. Hard on the child, and by extension, hard on the parents as well. I don’t think any age has taught me more, inspired me more, and challenged me more than the toddler and preschool years. Those are the years that I most have to practice patience. Those are the years that I most need to count to ten (or 392) before responding to certain behavior. Those are the years that make me a better mother.
That’s nice, you’re thinking, but what do I do about it?
A big problem for the littlest kids is a sense of frustration at not having control over a world where so many decisions are made for them. A lot of people will advise that you “pick your battles”….. decide what areas in which you can give your child some freedom, and what areas in which you need to stand your ground. And for a long time, I would have told you the same thing. Seems like sensible advice, right?
But I don’t pick my battles anymore.
I don’t want to view any interaction with my children as a battle. A battle implies that it is me versus them, and that there will ultimately be a winner and a loser… I get my way this time, and they get their way next time. What I want instead is to find our way. I want my children to know that I am their partner, and that I am on their side. Is it just a matter of semantics? Maybe. But if my goal is to have a closer, more harmonious and connected relationship with my children, I can’t imagine that thinking of a word as acrimonious as “battle” will help me get there.
When I find that I’m going through a more difficult patch with any of my kids (and it happens sometimes, especially when they’re little) the first thing I try to do is to take a giant step backwards to look at the situation with a fair perspective. I focus on the child – and our relationship – rather than whatever the behavior is that I’m finding frustrating/annoying/hurtful. I know that when I’m uncharacteristically snapping at my kids, picking fights with my husband, or generally pissed off at the world, there’s a reason for it. Address the reason, and the issue will go away… address my behavior, and it’s only going to tick me off more. Why would we think kids would be any different? If it was in fact me with the “bad behavior” I would want someone to listen to me, and empathize with me. I would want someone to sincerely ask, “What can I do to help?”
I want to be that person for my kids.
So often with my three year old the problem is one of two things: either she’s not feeling connected to me, or she’s feeling frustrated from a lack of autonomy. Maybe I’ve been too wrapped up in other things. Maybe I’ve gotten complacent and have been giving her too many knee-jerk responses. Maybe I just haven’t been there the way that I should. So rather than “pick my battles” I do very nearly the opposite:
I get re-connected. I renew my commitment to being as present as I possibly can. I make our relationship (not my desire to have things done a certain way) the top priority. I say yes. When I remain open, flexible, and creative, I can meet her needs and mine, without ever resorting to a battle.
She doesn’t want me to comb her hair? No problem. We’ll do it another time, with lots of conditioner and lots of laughs while she plays in the tub.
She doesn’t want to put on her shoes? She doesn’t have to. I’ll bring them along, and put them in the car so she has them when she needs them.
She doesn’t want to sit at the table at dinner time? That’s very normal for a three year old. We can make her a monkey platter, and she can eat from it when she’s hungry.
She wants to wear rain boots, tights, a tutu, and her brother’s t-shirt… all on top of a Spiderman costume? Her choice to make.
And when those times come when I truly do have to say ‘no’? She accepts it, because she knows that what matters to me most is not blind compliance, but her. She knows that I will always strive to meet her needs, to listen to her wants, and to HEAR what she has to say. Which, after all, is all she really wanted in the first place.
Isn’t that what all of us want?