Disastrous parenting – toddler edition

SCENE 1: Mom and toddler are visiting your home.  Said toddler is everywhere, all at once it seems.  Any item within reach, from knick-knacks to books to the contents of the kitchen cabinets (which said toddler knows how to open) are grabbed, banged, placed in her drooling mouth (she’s teething), or thrown across the room.

Mom’s reaction?  She says, “Janie, that’s a no-no.” – and DOES nothing about it.

SCENE 2: A group of moms and toddlers have gathered for a “playdate.”  It’s been “O.K.” given the daunting task of conversing on an adult level while trying to keep 6 toddlers occupied, safe, and relatively free of toddler-sized-conflict.  As the first family attempts to leave, the toddler in question screws up his face, falls with a loud “thump” onto his diaper-cushioned bum, and screams pitifully at the top of his lungs while tears flow like a river.  You can make out these toddlerish words through his wails, “No WANNA go!  Nooooo!!!!!”  Mom bends over to her precious boy and says (in a voice remniscent of a fairy god-mother or female Santa), “It’s time to go Brandon…. say good-bye to your friends… didn’t we have fun?…. Look!  Katie is being good and getting on her coat!  Maybe when we get home we can have a treat!”  Then, looking to another mother who is nearby she says, “Oh… he’s SO exhausted!  I think somebody needs a nap!”

These are two of many scenarios that play out daily in the world of parenting.  Not uncommon.  Not exaggerated at all.  And they are examples of how I think today’s parents are not only doing a disservice to those around them, but ALSO handicapping their children for the future.  I’ll explain.

A parent’s job in the actual task of parenting is to “TRAIN” their children (Proverbs 22:6).  Training is undertaken to bring about some specified, tangible result (think of an Olympic athelete’s training).  In this case, the desired outcome is a respectful, Godly individual who has learned to revere and respect God first, authority second, and others third (notice that THEIR self-interest is not even on that list).  Practically, that means that their outward behavior shows that at the heart level they are repsectful, Godly, etc.  (Proverbs 20:11) A parent who wants to TRAIN their child toward this end is aware of the need of being in control of EVERY situation, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing (we’re talking about toddlers here… the method will vary as a child gets older) so that they can TRAIN the child toward the desired end.

For some, this will take a complete overhaul or change of mindset.  You don’t think of yourself as authoritative in the life of your child (for many reasons, probably).  You want to be their “friend” not their parent.  You want to let them “be themselves” and explore the world (not a bad thing, but most people, when being themselves are selfish and inconsiderate.  Is THAT the person you want your child to be?)  No matter what thinking you have on the subject, the reality is this:  YOU are the PARENT.  YOU know best what is in the interest for your child’s well-being both now (in the immediate, emotional moment) and in the future (the person you and God desire them to become).  In situations like the ones noted above, NO training was taking place – only accommodation, coddling, toleration of wrong behavior, and excuse making.  This DOES NOT benefit your child.  It only teaches them that THEY call the shots, not you (or God) – which is handicapping them for dealing with the realities of life.  The eventual result, in the best case, is that the child will grow up with a sense of entitlement and “I matter most” in their minds.

Many parents are pulling their hair out concerning how to handle their toddlers because they haven’t properly gone about training them how to behave properly.  But it’s not too late!  Toddlers, though very immature and full of energy, STILL need to be taught how to behave politely, properly, considerately toward others (a huge task, I know), and in a way that honors God!  It not only needs to be taught, but required of them!  Don’t underestimate them!  Don’t write things off because of their immaturity!  Don’t make excuses for wrong behavior (“He’s SO tired”)!  You CAN teach and train your child to be different, now, in all of these areas – and they CAN get it! 

And by the way, this is a LOVING act – not a harsh one!  It’s for their good and in the best interest of your family and an act of love toward the world you and your child live in!  It’s an act of kindness, a blessing you are providing them, a tool you are equipping them with.  You are giving them the priceless gifts of wisdom and self-control – two qualities sorely lacking in our “my-feelings-matter-most” world.  As a parent you HAVE to take a long view on this.  Try to look ahead to foresee what your toddler’s current behavior patterns will take him to as an adult.  Look at all the adults you know (maybe in your own home) who can’t do what’s right because their feelings of selfishness, entitlement, and personal inconvenience dominate them.  Is THAT the kind of adult you want your child to become?

I don’t write about this from a Pollyanna-ish perspective.  I have 5 kids – my youngest just exiting the toddler years.  I can tell you from experience that my kids were not exceptionally well-behaved or compliant from the womb.  I had strong-willed ones, stubborn ones, high-energy ones, ones that were smarter than me, manipulative ones, emotional ones – but by God’s grace they were all trained by the time they were 3 or 4 years old to be respectful of people and property, genuinely loving and thoughtful toward others, kind and sharing, and a true joy to be around.  They are not perfect, I am not perfect, and the process is not finished.  In fact, there are very clear areas we are dealing with, in each of their lives, even as I write.  But the point is this: it CAN be done with God’s help.  God has provided the wisdom, His Spirit, and the will for us to be GREAT parents who raise GODLY children.

I’ll cover much more practical stuff in future posts, but for now I’ll walk through the scenes above and tell you what should have been done.

SCENE 1: The parents (mom and dad) should begin at home, teaching Janie what is acceptable for her to handle and have at her age.  Certain things/areas should be off limits (electrical outlets, kitchen cabinets, jumping on furniture, for example) and enforced (swats, spankings, slap on the hand, etc.).  With loving consistency, Janie will learn quickly what is acceptable and what is not.  She should also be taught not to throw anything indoors – again, the consistent and immediate physical consequences will make the difference in whether or not this training “takes.”  In all of this the parents need to highlight that respectful and considerate behavior (define those words for your kids, on their level) makes Jesus happy.

Fast forward to the visit to a friend’s house.  Mom should discuss Janie’s behavior BEFORE they get there.  Remind her not to throw stuff, stay out of cabinets, etc.  Our children do remarkably well when we let them know what to expect, and what is expected of them.  Reiterate the importance of repsect for people and property.  Emphasize respecting others.  Upon arrival (until Janie is practiced at being respectful and considerate – in a general sense), mom should have some activity in hand (dolls, coloring book, etc.) that Janie can do while in the same room as mom.  This way mom is available to tell her “No” and give her a swat if she forgets her boundaries.  The main things that were wrong in scene 1 are that Janie didn’t know her boundaries and that mom said, “no” but never enforced it.  Janie knows that mom doesn’t REALLY mean it…

SCENE 2: Again, traning before the fact does wonders.  If Brandon had been told prior to arriving at the playdate that he would be expected to leave happily and obediently when mom called him, or else he’d receive a spanking at home, he would have been much more compliant (providing he really BELIEVES he’ll get the spanking when he gets home, which is an issue of prior consistency).  Again, stress how important respect for others, consideration, self-control are to God (yes, use the word self-control and teach your kids what it means, and that God’s Spirit desires to produce it in them in order to make God happy).

Once you arrive at the playdate, should he resort to the manipulative behavior of falling to the ground, crying, screaming, etc. – then mom is on the hook to make her authority respected.  A quick swat to the seat of the pants and a firm, “No, you do NOT cry and throw a fit when it’s time to go.  You say, ‘O.K. Mommy’ and then you come,” is what is needed.  Notice that not only was the wrong behavior defined, but a right behavior was given as well.  Our kids need to know what TO do, not only what not to do.  Some of the key things that were damaging in Scene 2 were: toleration of wrong behavior, attempts at distraction, comparison with other children, attempts at coercion, lack of immediate discipline, excuse making. 

More to come in the future… comments are welcome!

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4 thoughts on “Disastrous parenting – toddler edition

  1. As the parent of a strong-willed two year old, I understand the need to set boundaries and be consistent and reliable to my son. I also realize that he learns so much more than I realize by watching how I act and what I will permit.

    That said, I have to disagree with the constant use of physical consequences to behavioral problems. If a toddler is swatted, smacked or otherwise hit every time a boundary is tested than I fear they will learn to obey by fear (not a trait I encourage) and they will learn to that physical contact (hitting) is an appropriate way to get people to do what you want them to do later in life.

    It am not flat out against corporal discipline. I think that spanking a child can be done in a thoughtful and careful manner. However, constant swatting or slapping of a toddler may undermine the loving household that we want to provide for our children by making them afraid. Spanking a child should never be be done in anger or frustration and should always be done in the same consistent way. The punishment should be accompanied by reassurance that they are still loved.

  2. Hi Josh, thanks for the comments,

    You may enjoy reading some of the other articles I’ve written on the subject of parenting and spanking. I think we are on the same page in a lot of places, and perhaps on a different page in others. I always welcome feedback.

    I too would discourage “constant” use of physical consequences for every misbehavior. However, I don’t discourage it when used according to parental and Biblical wisdom. The fears you expressed about what it might teach the child are very common, but honestly have very little backing either scientifically or Biblically. No doubt, you will find articles or studies that claim to show such patterns, but upon closer evaluation, they prove to be very biased and unscientific in their methodology.

  3. What about when your toddler is sick? My son has been sick and teething latley and throwing alot of fits. What would you recommend? Also, he has been slapping me lightly when he is mad or wants attention. He also never wants to come in from outside and I have to practically drag him upstairs. what should I do?? He is 20 months old by the way.

    • Hi Sarah, thanks for your participation…

      Sickness brings an entirely different consideration into the situation. While fits or tantrums are never acceptable, you are wise to consider the reasons behind them (such as sickness). There is always room for a bit more leniency during times of illness, since illness does not last forever. But be cautious not to give him excuse to behave badly by going overboard. Even though he is sick, I’d still firmly say “No. No fits!” Don’t be afraid to look and sound stern. He needs to know you mean it. If he continues in spite of this – perhaps do the same, even with a firm (but not too painful) swat to his thigh (the fat part of his leg). Again, he needs to know that such behavior is unacceptable, even when he’s sick. And for your own peace of mind, remember that you are teaching him self-control by doing this, so your actions are providing him something that will serve him for a lifetime.

      Regarding the slapping – we had a few of our children who would do the same thing. Some would argue that your spanking of him is what has taught him to do this when he’s upset… but that’s far from the truth. Every child is selfish enough to try to “bully” his desires into reality. Some do it physically like this, others manipulate. What makes the difference in how they do it is personality or temperament. Either way, it’s a willful streak that can’t be allowed to continue because it will lead him into a lifetime of considering himself before he considers others – the exact opposite of what Jesus taught and modeled for us. You want your child learning to consider and love others, even when the child is not at his best. In the case of the slapping, and the resistance to coming inside, I’d spank immediately, the second he behaves that way. In each case you accompany the punishment with, “NO! You don’t hit Mommy,” or “NO! When Mommy says it’s time to come in you do NOT throw a fit!” Again, don’t be afraid to show your anger. You are angry at his wrong behavior, not him. The suddenness of your response is part of what will enable him to remember your attitude about those things when he’s apt to respond that way again. It’s unexpected to him – and will leave a strong impression on him that won’t fade quickly. When he begins to submit to what you are saying, you praise him, “Goood! Thank you for obeying Mommy!” And when times are not so tense, make sure you are spending a good deal of energy sweetly loving him, praising him, and showing him your tender care. If that’s going on at other times, outside of the disciplinary times, he will be confident of your love when the discipline comes. In fact, he’ll connect the two as different manifestations of the same love – which they are.

      I hope this is helpful… I can tell you, in the case of each of my 5 (the youngest is 7, the oldest is almost 19), these approaches to discipline have produced very respectful, self-controlled, loving children who often go out of their way to show love to others. They are not perfect children… but are a joy to be around generally.

      Thanks again for being part of the conversation.

      Overall, keep in mind that an almost 2-year-old knows (intellectually) absolutely NOTHING about consideration, kindness, proper submission to authority, etc. It is YOUR job to teach him that, and he’s old enough to learn, even if he couldn’t verbalize it or describe it. He NEEDS you to help him get a leg-up on life by learning these vital character traits at this young age. It’s a long process, and takes hard work on your part – but your consistency and diligence to do so will reap huge rewards in his character in the future.

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