Toddlers are the cutest little bundles of mischief on the planet, aren’t they? I can barely even handle the make-my-heart-burst cuteness one moment and then the I’m-at-my-wits-end frustration, counting down the minutes until naptime the next. Life is just so much more colorful, and hilarious, and messy, and exhilirating, and exhausting, and delightful with a toddler around. After having experienced four different toddlers now, I’ve figured out a couple things… kind of. I have good days and bad days as a mom of toddlers, and I’ve realized that it is when I keep these 10 rules for parenting toddlers at the forefront of my mind that I really enjoy my toddler more and react to their less than helpful behavior more appropriately. So, I thought I would write them down and review them often because they are easy to forget in the heat of a toddler moment! Hopefully, you’ll find them helpful as well.
#1 Toddlers are in their autonomy versus independence stage. (Haha. That’s my degree in Family and Human Development talking. I know you are so impressed. 😉 ) Up until now they have been experiencing life as kind of an extension of you. Like literally an extension of your very tired arm most of the time. You were a very critical part of their survival and they relied on you for pretty much everything. But now- look out world because they can do some things on their own! They can walk and and talk and play and climb and feed themselves… and empty the entire bottle of shampoo into their bath water and crack a dozen eggs in 30 seconds flat and decorate your walls with sharpie… Suddenly they realize the joy and excitement that comes when they figure out how to do things on their own.
Most toddlers become very protective of this new found ability and want to do everything by themselves. “I do it!” becomes their favorite phrase. As in–“Honey, can I help you pour the milk on yo… I DO IT!” “Sweetheart, let’s buckle you in yo… ” “I DO IT!” “Darling, let me brush yo…” I DO IT!” This is a good and healthy desire that I recommend you do all you can to nurture– unless of course you want to have your 28-year-old child still living in your basement surviving quite comfortably on your home-cooked meals. 😉
So, Rule #1– If you can possibly let them do something by themselves without putting them in danger or inviting disaster- do it. Let them build confidence in themselves as they learn new skills. Sometimes this is harder and messier, and usually it requires you to pretend you aren’t standing their ready to catch them if they fail or fall– but it will help you avoid battles you don’t need to be fighting, and it will help them in the healthy development of their independence.
#2 “Mine!” A word toddlers learn and use with great frequency as they are marking their territory and staking their claim on the various toys that are adrift in your house. Sharing their toys is not their favorite thing in the world. And let’s be honest– even as adults we don’t love other people taking our stuff whenever they feel like it. In one breath, you may be asking your toddler to share their favorite toy with a friend, and in the next breath you are scolding them for getting into your make-up, or your purse, or touching your phone. It can be a little confusing. So, let’s go easy on these little people for not immediately having enough altruism at 2 to be able to give freely to any and all that want a piece of their turf. Quite frankly, the skill of sharing is one some people don’t master in a lifetime. Just because they throw an embarrassing tantrum in their playgroup when someone takes their toy does not mean they will grow up to be a heathen. They will learn from your example over time how to share when it is appropriate. And hopefully they will learn from your example that it is okay to have boundaries as well.
If they are verbal enough to communicate to you which toys are most precious to them, you might be able to have a conversation before friends come over about sharing and decide which toys they feel comfortable sharing. Put their favorites away and see how they do. Sometimes a little advance notice will make it easier for them to share. Sometimes it won’t. And that is okay. Until they are a little older, it might be a good idea to plan playdates on nuetral ground, like a park, where none of the kids feel like their territory is being invaded.
Truthfully though, toddlers will often amaze you with their generous, compassionate hearts when out of the blue they are willing to share without even being prompted. Just don’t stress about your child’s willingness to share or place unreasonable expectations on your little friend. They’ll figure it out eventually.
#3 Arguing with a toddler is futile. One day, my mom was watching my 3-year-old daughter. I walked into the kitchen and heard her going back and forth with my daughter over something my daughter was sure was one way, and my mother was lovingly trying to help her understand was another way. I said, “Mom, are you really bored or something? Are you really gonna waste your time arguing with a 3-year-old?” We both laughed. There is really no use arguing your point. Unless you really are bored and are looking for some vibrant, though less than stimulating conversation. 🙂 If a toddler has made up their mind about something, no amount of reasoning will bring them to your side. I don’t care if you’ve been a used car salesman for 20 years. They aren’t going to budge. Because, let me let you in on a little secret: toddlers are not yet reasonable, bless their little hearts. Pretend they are that friend who you love, but who has differing political views– agree to disagree and move on.
There’ll be no arguing with this here cowboy!
#4 Toddler proof or reap the consequences. If you were going on a diet, would you leave all kinds of candy and an open box of Krispe Kremes in plain site on the kitchen counter lying in wait to sabatoge your efforts? Well, if you aren’t interested in cleaning up disaster after disaster, then you can’t leave opportunities for disaster all over your house. If you can break it, squeeze it, spill it, spray it, color with it, or cut with it– it better not be within your toddlers reach.
Just because they might be to the point now that they know they shouldn’t do something, does not mean they have developed the self-mastery to stop themselves from doing that very tempting disastrous thing. And sometimes they really don’t know they are doing something they shouldn’t. They are just on their everyday mission of discovery and messes are the natural result. So, we as parents need to be a little more accountable on this one. It is okay to tell them no and explain why they shouldn’t do what they did that made the mess, but getting overly upset or punitive with them for our lack of preventative care is not really fair.
If they are repeatedly doing something that you have no way of preventing and you know they know it is wrong, some kind of natural consequence or timeout is in order. But just remember that an ounce of prevention can save you a pound of frustration. Be sure to distinguish between accidents, innocent world-discovery messes, and mischeivious destructive behavior and handle each accordingly.
#5 The art of distraction is as critical at this stage of development as it is for your infant. Use it like it’s going out of style! Many (but not all) tantrums, melt-downs, fighting, and sad moments can be prevented or ended with the art of distraction. My son loves the moon. If he is having a melt-down at night, I take him outside to see the moon. End of melt-down. If all his sisters are leaving and he doesn’t get to go, I get him involved with a toy he likes in the other room so he doesn’t even notice when they leave. Tantrum prevented. When he gets restless while we are waiting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and I don’t want him to touch the germ-ridden waiting room toys, (why are they even there?!) I play a game where I make fists and as he points to each of my fingers I pop them out and count them. He is delighted by it, he learns his numbers, and I don’t have to chase him around the waiting room with hand sanitizer. It’s a win win. And let’s just say it is not a bad idea to keep a stash of dum-dum suckers in the car and your purse for desperate moments. Just don’t wallow with your toddler in their sad or angry place by trying too delve to deep into why they are sad or angry. Distract them into a happy place as fast as you can.
#6 Make time for one-on-one interaction with them. You will notice your toddler is particularly clingy, whiny, or mischevious on the days when you have so much going on that you are constantly putting them off and trying to keep them entertained with something other than you. How do you feel when your spouse comes home and you’ve been waiting all day to talk to them and they are totally engrossed in their phone- or go straight to their laptop to do more work? Not my favorite and sometimes it can make me a little onery. Obviously not your kid’s favorite either and it can make them a little onery.
You may think you don’t have time to spend playing with your kid that day, but I’m telling you– you don’t have time not to. If you will stop what you are doing and spend a half an hour playing with your toddler, it will make a world of difference in their day– and yours too. They will usually play happily on their own for hours if they consistently get one-on-one time with you here and there throughout the day. They really just need to feel that connection with you– that’s all that whiny voice is about.
#7 Give them options and let them choose when you can. There will be tons of things you are going to have to force your kid to do for their own good all their growing up years. But, it is our job as parents to help them learn how to use their right to choose how they live their life for good, so that by the time they are adults, they are ready to face tough decisions and make good choices. This is going to take some practice. Find opportunities to let them practice making choices everyday. For example, ask them if they want oatmeal or eggs for breakfast. Ask them if they want the red cup or the blue cup. Ask them if they want to go for a walk or read a book. Ask them which of two shirts they want to wear that day. Ask them if they prefer Coke or Pepsi. Just kidding. Don’t give your toddler caffeine. Unless you are crazy and a glutton for punishment.
Presenting your child with options as opposed to forcing them to do what you want them to do all the time is a great parenting practice all throughout their growing up years. When they replay your voice in their minds- is it a repeating track of commands or is it a two-way conversation about life? Show them you value their agency and that you trust them to make a good decision. This will hopefully help decrease their desire to disobey you out of spite as they get older. They will respect you and your counsel more if you take this approach. Start doing this in the toddler years and you will help them set a course for good decision making for the rest of their life.
#8 Respect their need for sleep. Things can get ugly fast with an overly-tired toddler. If they are misbehaving in this state, it is not the time for lectures or time-outs. Nothing you say will pull them out of their screaming rage, their crying fit, their wild rampage on your front room, or sometimes their crazy, giggle-laden, running-in-circles-around-the-room-with-underwear-on-their-head silly state. This is the time for a nice cozy bed and new, fresh start when they awake. Try your best to give them a regular sleeping schedule. It makes a world of difference for most kids… and adults incidentally.
#9 Hitting, biting, kicking, screaming. What do we do about it? Well, we do our best to model good behavior. We give them quick, consistent, natural consequences when they misbehave. We encourage and compliment loving, compassionate behavior. We teach them how to apologize. We remove them from certain situations when necessary. And then we just hang on and endure. Because honestly, I have seen some of the kindest people I know look on with horror as their kid attacked another kid, and nothing they tried really worked to stop the behavior entirely. Their kid just kind of grew out of it eventually. And with a lot of the things that toddlers do, it is just a phase as I talked about in this post. That doesn’t mean you do nothing, it just means hang on if nothing works because chances are they will grow out of it eventually.
#10 Enjoy your toddler! Drink them in. Seriously. This is one of THE GREATEST stages of childhood and it goes by waaaay too fast. Toddlers are so stinking adorable and they say so many funny things in their early forays into speaking! Write it down. You’ll forget. I promise. Their reactions to discovering new things in their world are priceless, and watching them play is extremely entertaining. It is worth letting a little laundry go and eating Little Ceasars more often than you ought to to buy you some time to just sit and watch them before this stage disappears. Try not to get so caught up in the frustrating parts of toddlerhood that you miss the delightfulness that is toddlerhood. Just take some to time to stare at them and to discover our amazing world all over again with them. Even if it is just for a moment here and there in between cleaning up messes– it will make it all worth it. 🙂