Six ways to tame a toddler

Yesterday afternoon a little after 3pm, Wally was asleep upstairs and I was lying on the guestroom bed working on my computer.  Jay had been playing quietly in the family room but then I heard him begin to walk in my direction.  I snapped my laptop shut, dove beneath the covers, and pretended to be asleep.  Jay paused in the doorway for a few seconds, assessed the scene, and went back to whatever he’d been doing.  When I was convinced that Jay had gone, I sat back up and recommenced to write.

I knew that if Jay saw me awake, there was no chance he’d leave me alone.  We’ve established a naptime routine where I lie in the bed and Jay has the option either to join me or to play by himself.  He knows, though, that whatever he chooses to do, he has to leave me alone so I can sleep. If he’d seen me awake and working, he would have concluded that naptime was over, and that he had a legitimate claim on my time again.

This situation points, I think, to the power of routine to shape how kids behave.  Most of the time when I tell Jay to go play by himself, he only tries harder to get my attention.  But there are a couple times in our daily routine where he’s expected to be on his own.  One is naptime.  The other is first thing in the morning.  When Jay wakes up we take him out of his crib, hand him an alarm clock (set for 8:05am on weekdays, 8:30pm on weekends), and remind him of the deal: He has to play quietly by himself in his room until the alarm sounds, or else he has to go back into his crib.  Stunningly, improbably, against all odds, it works.

There are other ways to get kids to do what you want them to.  The other afternoon Caroline and I were at the playground, pushing the boys on the swings, and we came up with six ways to coerce Jay and Wally:

  • Routine. “You need to go upstairs and get your pajamas on because we always go upstairs and get our pajamas on after dinner.”
  • Bribes.  Yesterday I really needed ten more minutes to finish writing an article.  I told Jay that if he left me alone he could have a Girl Scout cookie.  For the price of a box of Thin Mints it seems possible we could do away altogether with hired childcare.
  • Threats. “If you don’t go upstairs and get your pajamas on right now we’re not going to read books tonight.” We use threats more than we’d like to, and though Jay almost always relents in the face them, the victories feel hollow and unsustainable.  I’m just waiting for the day Jay replies, “Oh yeah?  Well I don’t give a #$&@ about reading time anyway.”
  • Moral Suasion.  “Be nice to your brother because it’s the right thing to do”—that kind of thing.  We try this sometimes with Jay but invocations of right and wrong seem to bounce off him.  I’m hoping he develops the capacity for guilt sometime soon so that we can replace some of our coercion-through-threats with coercion-through-moral-principles.
  • Parental Authority. This is related to Moral Suasion—“You need to wash your hands because I told you to”—and like Moral Suasion, it hasn’t really worked for us with Jay so far.  I can’t tell if that’s because Caroline and I are feckless, because we’re raising a spoiled middle class American child, because Jay’s a sociopath, or because he’s just not old enough yet for this kind of coercion to work.  I’m hoping it’s the latter.
  • Anger.  I’ve written before about the downsides of anger as a coercive tool: It’s often uncontrolled, it scares Jay more than it teaches him, and it has diminishing returns: I have to yell louder each time to have the same effect.  That said, I think there is a place for anger in the parental repertoire. When Jay throws his food on the floor and I yell at him, he’ll often just snap back at me.  But when he runs into the street, I think my angry reaction helps to reinforce just how important it is that he not do that again.

My favorite of these is definitely Routine.  Routines are so neat and clean and easy to manage once you invest the time to get them up and running.  And when our routines really start clicking, it’s like family life runs on autopilot.  This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Caroline and I look at each other and think: Why not have four more?


7 thoughts on “Six ways to tame a toddler

      • The power of moral authority is that it’s true and consistent all the time (even when no one’s looking). The power of parental anger is that it is surprising, hard to predict, explosive. So inconsistency makes anger more effective but moral principles less so.

      • You know I was typing out my reply early this morning and I had this nagging suspicion that I was missing something. And indeed I was 🙂

  1. I’ve spent some time in special educations classrooms, as you know, and recently worked with the most troubled and troubling group I have ever encountered. It seemed to me that moment by moment we were trying different strategies to keep the students from fighting with each other and their teachers, using profanity, trashing the classroom, refusing to do any work, or running out of the building. This post got me thinking about what worked and what didn’t, because it so accurately described the startegies we used.
    Based on that experience I would say “routine” has the greatest chance of any meaningful success.
    Bribes were rarely paid since the kids just couldn’t keep it in mind long enough to perform the desired task. Threats were mostly meaningless to them and they would actually use the “#$&@” word in response. Moral suasion had little meaning to them at their ages. Teacher authority could at times work, but it never left you feeling like, well, like a teacher. Anger might be used as if it were “shock and awe” but these students weren’t shocked or awed by very much.
    So it was routines – rigorously planned, explained, and implemented – that worked best. The students actually carried around their own plans for each day and seemed to take pride in knowing (sometimes before their teachers) what they needed to do now, and what they needed to do after that. Each task was followed by a reward, but these could be diminished over time. What we were trying to create, as parents do as well, is self-governing individuals who felt good about their choices and accomplishments.

  2. Why do routines work? Because they give a person comfort/security in knowing what is going to happen. Threats do work but there has to be consistacy in the application of the consequence and above all alignment between the parents. If the little one senses, and they have much keener sense in this mattter than we suspect, a discrepancy between the parents’ resolve they will exploit it. Bribes are another issue for another day, nuff said, they can backfire sometimes. Why does anger work? Because of fear. Not knowing what is going to happen will get their attention but soon they will become inured to it. The “run into (or toward) the street” version of anger is different because I believe they sense the fear in the parent who is yelling. Moral Suasion – it’s too early for that to really work. Somewhere around 5 years of age the little ones seem to get this thing we call a “moral sense” – the rightness and wrongness of an action. It is rare when it comes earlier. That’s my take on this for today. Love, laughter and light.

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