Sprout is wobbling on the edge of being a toddler. While he isn’t walking yet, he’s cruising from piece to piece of furniture and has more and more non-basic wants. This emotional development is leading to the introduction of the dreaded D word – discipline, along with its cousin, “No.”
For the most part, we try to limit how much we need to say no. Although Sprout is starting to understand what no means, he doesn’t really grasp it yet, so we don’t want to overuse it. It doesn’t mean that Sprout can do whatever he wants. Rather, we try to avoid the negative situation in the first place or change it. Instead of telling him not to put the remote control in his mouth, we just put it out of his reach. Other situations may be annoying, but are tolerable and not worth fighting over. We gave up on putting a bib on him because it became a tug of war where he ended up with more food on his shirt with the bib than without. Sometimes he wants to be picked up when I need to get ready for work, so I at least try to give him a hug even if I can’t carry him around.
On the other hand, there are certain behaviors that are simply intolerable and that Sprout actually can control. When he was first born, he would randomly flail his arms and legs. But now even when he doesn’t have the capacity for self control, but he does have the necessary fine and gross motor skills to avoid hitting me in the face.
Along these lines, most of the intolerable behavior is actions that hurt other people. I’ve been saying, “No biting,” “No hitting,” and “No scratching” a lot. But the most common one is “No pulling!” He loves playing with my hair while nursing, but I can’t tolerate him yanking it.
The other two behaviors are really annoying and gross, albeit not physically harmful. The first one is blowing raspberries while he has a mouth full of food, spraying it all over himself and whomever is feeding him. Similarly frustrating is his insistence on flipping over when we’re trying to change his diaper. While neither are the worse thing in the world, they both interfere with essential activities and we want to discourage them.
With all of these behaviors, I truly believe that Sprout doesn’t have ill intent. He doesn’t understand that other people have thoughts or feelings yet, so the idea that he’s causing someone else pain is pretty incomprehensible. Being gentle or careful requires a lot of focus, so when he doesn’t, he’s just in default mode. This is especially true when he’s really tired and just wants to flail. As he gets older, we need to keep reminding ourselves that he doesn’t always understand how the world works or have the emotional maturity to make certain decisions.
Also, I realize that the things we’re asking him to do are relatively complicated and difficult to understand. He can touch my hair or face – as long as it isn’t too violently. He can blow raspberries – except when he’s eating. He can flip over and crawl – except when we’re changing his diaper. Putting together the “if-then” combination is pretty challenging for him to comprehend, even though adults do it all of the time.
With this in mind, we’re generally taking a “positive parenting” approach, with some tweaks as necessary. While there’s a lot written on positive parenting, the Bible of the movement (as far as I can tell) is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. While I adore this book, most of the tools require your kid to speak fluently and as such, are of limited use with a not-quite-yet toddler. Fortunately, Dr. Harvey’s Karp’s The Happiest Toddler on the Block provides some good advice on transferring these skills to parenting toddlers, even if I wish he would acknowledge his sources far more.
A major aspect of positive parenting is setting the stage by encouraging and praising good behavior. When he touches my hair without pulling, I tell him, “Nice, gentle hands!” When he allows us to change his diaper without flipping over, I blow raspberries on his stomach, which makes him laugh.
If he starts up with the frustrating behavior, our first step is to respectfully acknowledge and if needed, voice, his needs and desires. Unfortunately, even Sprout’s non-verbal communication skills are limited, so sometimes we don’t know what he wants. This part is often about us figuring out what he’s trying to tell us through the annoying behavior. While sometimes he’s blowing raspberries to be silly, other times it’s because he’s done eating. Although I thought he was hitting me in the face for no reason, it turned out he wanted me to turn my head to reach my hair. We don’t want to reinforce the behavior, but at the same time we shouldn’t ignore what he’s trying to express, even if it’s not in quite the right form.
Next up, we provide alternatives. When he’s too tired to keep himself from pulling my hair, I offer him my hand to high five or slap. If we make funny sounds while feeding him or let him hold onto a toy bird, he doesn’t spit out his food everywhere as much. And a steady round of funny noises and This Little Piggy keeps him focused enough while changing him that (sometimes) he doesn’t want to turn over.
If he continues with the annoying behavior, we then communicate our feelings to him, saying “No!” and when appropriate, combined with “Ow!” (sometimes involuntarily!). We try to use a stern voice and facial expression to express how serious we’re being; I summon up the voice I used when I was substitute teaching.
If Sprout still continues the behavior after a couple of warnings we then proceed into mild discipline territory. The most common approach is taking away whatever is causing the problem, like tucking my hair behind my ear if he keeps pulling it or putting him down if he’s biting us. If it isn’t an object that’s a problem, but our attention, we remove that for a moment. We just turn away from him briefly to communicate that what he is doing is not acceptable. (This is especially important when what he is doing is genuinely funny but something we don’t want to encourage!) Dr. Karp calls this “gentle ignoring,” and I think it’s a useful tool.
As Sprout gets older, we don’t anticipate integrating punishment into our methods except in the most extreme circumstances. Instead, we hope to work our way towards participating in more joint problem solving and allowing natural consequences to work themselves out. Positive parenting requires a lot of patience and empathy, but I think all of us will be better people in the end.