Managing phone reliance

Media mogul Simon Cowell has reportedly ditched his phone for over ten months, and has been quoted to say the withdrawal from technology has been good for his mental health.

Cowell expressed how irritated he was with the quality of interaction he had with those around him, and how – ever since he ditched it – he was more aware and paid more attention to the world and people around him.

Researchers have gathered data to show that the addiction Cowell had with his phone is not limited to him only. In fact, it is so widespread, that more than half of phone users check it within 15 minutes of waking up. Four in ten people believe that our partners use the phone too much, so much so that it becomes a point of contention.

Cowell has a young son and it might have been that he realised how he was breaking off playing to check his phone everytime it beeped.

It is also not good for children to see the adults around them swarmed by technology. But it is not easy for us to ditch the phone altogether.

Employers demand their employees time and attention outside of the office by sending documents with the expectation that they will have been read by the next meeting, and then expecting things have been dealt with, or demanding their response with a text message.

Many of us, unlike Cowell, do not have executive assistants to deal with such matters on our behalf, or to filter out emails and text messages. We do not have buffers. So while we don’t want it intruding, but we can’t exactly do without it completely, we need to navigate the disconnect that proves difficult, or else our children will adopt our bad habits as the norm.

What can we do? We can try to limit the time we handle emails and text messages to specific moments in the day. Having twenty minutes twice or thrice a day to deal with all these matters does not mean a reduction in overall time, but does mean that the time away from these periods is not tainted by work-related matters and the feeling of being on-call all the time, especially when we are with our children.

When we are with our children, give them new areas of pursuit. This can be listening to music, such as Baroque music. Classical music is said to be good for the mind, while Romantic music stirs emotions. If children are not into that kind of music, other forms of music might also provide a welcome distraction, both for us and them.

Just make sure it is playing from a normal radio or similar device – not a phone!

Teaching our children new skills to cope

According to Seth Stephenson-Davidowitz, a data scientist who uses data to draw insights into human behaviour, people are less inclined to tell the truth face to face or in a survey, because of perceived reaction and perception. This means that they are afraid of what people might think of them and hence try to soften or cushion their words. The problem with this though is that information around us is hence not necessarily the best source. The data scientist believes that because there is a higher perception of anonymity afforded computer users – people believe they are anonymous when they are not, but that is a post for another day – many go on Google to search for answers to thoughts and hence the data trends are more accurate.

One of Stephenson-Davidowitz’s research on data trends has focused on depression. According to data searches, August 11 and Christmas Day are the happiest days of the year – there are less searches for the word depression, while depression is highest in April, the month called the “cruelest month” by poet T S Eliot. Google data also suggests that climate matters a great deal. But also highlights that money is the perhaps a strong underlying cause – searches for depression are less in areas which a large percentage of people are college-educated, which – for those of us in the UK – means they have degrees, and are not to be confused with sixth-form college.

While we all know that money underpins a lot of our concerns – those who have financial freedom, and power, a BBC report revealed the extent to which it can affect us. A young man who took up a job as a delivery driver found himself in debt because of traffic violations, and that, coupled with the low-paying job he was on, meant he earned next to nothing and this mental stress caused him unfortunately to end his own life prematurely.

We all have worries about job security and for many adults that live from paycheck to paycheck with huge financial commitments, we must be careful that this stress does not impact on our children. Children that live in such households where there is latent stress grow up to be more negative and resentful, and fearful of life, instead of embracing it.

What can we do in such situations? After all, the modern world for most people creates tensions for us, and increasing demands of work, family, commitments and family and personal needs all never fit into of what a friend of mine calls the Tetris of Life.

We can find outlets of expression for us and for our children. Music is often seen to be a good outlet because it only costs a device (a phone which most of us already have) and some bandwidth. But listening to music is passive, involves mental processing and receiving input, and when they listen to more music, they are already cramming more into their minds and suppressing more mental triggers which want to manifest themselves in activity.

Instead, encourage them to try doing some activity instead. Take up a skill like learning to draw or playing an instrument like the piano which will give them outlets of expression. And these are activities they can do indoors in colder season (climate is another trigger for searches of “depression” in Google).

Like many other composers in the past, children can learn music to channel their inner emotions and give them an outlet from the stresses of their life and those that we may inadvertently transfer onto them.

Learning a musical instrument is not just a good idea for children, but for you as well, for the same reasons. Learning the piano activates different parts of the brain which relieves the pressure on the cortex and the word-processing part of the brain and gives you some form of mental escape – instead of being lost in the maze of Google searches without a way out. And speak with someone too, and try to dissipate the stress of the environment around you.

Quotes on Parenting

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

The best gift, and investment, you can give your child is your time.

When we choose to be parents, we accept another human being as part of ourselves, and a large part of our emotional selves will stay with that person as long as we live. From that time on, there will be another person on this earth whose orbit around us will affect us as surely as the moon affects the tides, and affect us in some ways more deeply than anyone else can. Our children are extensions of ourselves.

To bring up a child in the way he should go, travel that way yourself once in a while. Your children need your presence more than your presents.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.

Your kids require you most of all to love them for who they are, not to spend your whole time trying to correct them.

Your children will become what you are; so be what you want them to be.

If I had my child to raise all over again:
I’d finger paint more, and point the finger less.
I’d do less correcting, and more connecting.
I’d take my eyes off my watch, and watch with my eyes.
I would care to know less, and know to care more.
I’d take more hikes and fly more kites.
I’d stop playing serious, and seriously play.
I’d run through more fields, and gaze at more stars.
I’d do more hugging, and less tugging.
I would be firm less often, and affirm much more.
I’d build self esteem first, and the house later.
I’d teach less about the love of power, and more about the power of love.

Daring children to fail

It seems that we are such a goal-oriented society and measure our progress by the attainment of success, that we have forgotten that in failure there is much to learn to.

Think of a child making a Lego set. He or she follows the instructions, and then perhaps after a nunber of steps encountes a point where the pieces do not fit as the diagrams intended.

What do you do? Should you just break up the whole thing into the constituent blocks and then start all over again?

Strangely enough, this is how some people approach their learning.

Some piano players that I have encountered, for example, are so intent on getting it right, that when they make a mistake, they merely keep returning to the first bar, and try playing again from the beginning hoping to get a complete error-free version.

The problem with doing this is that you get familiar with the opening stages of the process. You don’t really learn as much as dealing with the difficult stage. What you are doing is repeating the process and banking on, or gambling on, that the next time you do it right something will magically sort itself out.  You have not really learnt to deal with the obstacle, as you have attempted to do the thing again and hope it will be right.

Imagine if you were that child playing with Lego. You hit a snag and somewhere something must have gone wrong.

What should you do?

You should retrace your steps, until you get to the point where you can identify what you have built does not match with the instructions. There you learn where you went wrong, how you misintepreted the instructions, and how to watch out for that step again if you ever decide to build your model from scratch.

If you do ever make a mistake and then decide to start from scratch, you may think your perserverance is a positive factor, but actually it is not. You are merely masking a lack of initiative to solve problems by hoping hard graft can make up for a lack of perserverance and the will to develop intelligent problem-solving skills.

Daring to fail is not a bad point. It gives us the opportunity to gain maturity and intelligence by overcoming the problem ahead of us.

In life, everyone frequently hits a snag. This presents an opportunity for growth. This is what we should teach our children. Dare to fail, dare to make mistakes, so that in overcoming them we grow. You don’t need to produce perfection. If you don’t try for the fear of making an error, you have lost out on the opporunity for growth.

Achieving Greatness

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.

We often wish for our children to achieve good things in life. Perhaps they have a skill that could be nurtured. Perhaps it could be art, music or drama. Maybe a child shows an engineering bias or a love for machinery, or craftwork. We want them to be the best they can be, to do the best they can achieve. But often we could end up visualising the final product, conveying it to them, that we neglect to convey to them the little steps we take to get there.

Too often we forget that to achieve big things we have to do things in little stages. To get from A to Z, you can’t just fix your eyes on Z and hope that by the sheer force of willpower you will be able to drag yourself all the way. It is possible, of course, depending on the size of the task, but willpower can be discouraged if you pull for too long with no end in sight, and affect the effort as well. Imagine you are pulling a heavy car tyre from one place to another, using a rope. (Why you would do that is beyond the scope of this discussion, but this is only a hypothetical example.) If you pull the heavy weight and have to move it one foot at a time, if you keep your eyes and thoughts transfixed on the end goal, then you are really going to be discouraged by how the gulf seems to be still there even though you are shifting with all your energy with each tug. And after you have done that for a while, you will feel discouraged and that will manifest itself in your effort. You will pull with less energy – why invest all the energy for little return – and when you end up in that state, it will turn out to be a negative cycle. You pull less, you move less, and finally you stop.

It is much easier mentally to break the big task into little stages and work towards the completion of each stage. Have you ever heard of people who have accomplished big projects, then told others of how, had they realised it was going to be so big at the time, they would have never started?

The achievement of a great task starts with little steps.

So perhaps a good life skill to teach our children, before we teach them to work hard and never to give up, is to be able to break tasks up into little things, to strategise. Then direct full effort into fulfiling each stage. Otherwise brute effort without direction is a waste of effort.

Teaching children the art of conversation

Have you ever had a closed conversation? You know, the type where you try to demonstrate interest in another person, but end up getting rebuffed by short, simplistic answers, which appear to signal irritation and that you are wasting another person’s time by getting in the way of more important activities they would prefer to be doing.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine.

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay.

Some children are not aware that their responses may constitute closed answers. They may not realise that it is hard work on the part of the person asking the questions to keep thinking of ways to keep the conversation going. Perhaps children have not learnt the social skill of this yet, that in an interchange both parties have to contribute.

You: How are you?
Child: Fine. What about you?

You: How was your day?
Child: Okay. What about yours?

Teaching children this structure of social exchange is a good life skill we can impart to them. In the above examples, it is just three simple words they can utter, but the empowerment is not in the words, it is the knowledge that by using such phrases, they are signalling intent to continue with the conversation and showing maturity in being able to do so.

Children from as young as four can be taught this skill. We should not expect that this kind of social skill comes without being taught, but we can show to children, demonstrate through role play, that this is how adults sometimes participate in an exchange too.

Children can learn that when someone asks them “How are you?” the correct response would be “Fine; how about you?”

When the adult that initially asks this is a conversation receives the response then the onus is on them to keep the conversation going, because the child has already fulfilled the obligation in continuing the social exchange.

The response may not necessarily be “How about you?” It can be a question, anything else that pushes the conversation back across.

“I’m fine, what did you do today?”

“Not bad. Have you been busy?”

An exchange that goes back and forth, allowing both speakers to provide information in turn is a meaningful exchange. We should teach our children meaningful exchange in order as an important skill.

It all starts with something as simple as “How about you”.

Why and how to encourage openness to learning

One of the traits that should be inculcated in children is arguably the importance of keeping an open mind. Why is this so? Well, keeping an open mind means being able to enjoy and welcome new experiences, which result in learning something new. Imagine two different children – one goes out of the house to play and makes friends and embraces new experiences by which he or she is enriched by, and these experiences go on to form the basis of newer experiences which result in the child having a good all-rounded childhood. The other stays home and does not try, does not want to extend himself or herself. Being around the second child is very tiring because you are trying to motivate him or her all the time and not really getting much out of it.

But how do you yourself feel when you have to learn something new? The thought of a new experience perhaps depends on what the experience itself is – if it is something closer to our hearts, we feel a sense of excitement at it. But if it is appears to be something more radical, we are less certain (“okay…..”). But it is good to keep an open mind, for the reasons we have explored above. And in situations where we have a sense of reservation, or even caution at the thought of learning something unfamiliar, it is good to appear to try, so that we do not pass on our reservations and slightly negative approaches on to the children. The extension of oneself is a life-long skill that everyone – not just children – should learn.

In a new situation, our initial reaction could be of unwillingness, and then some people overcome it, while others are content to remain within it. We must try to find the will to overcome it, and not dwell on the initial negative outlook.

How do we encourage our children to keep an open mind? The first is of course to develop the trait within ourselves. And then encourage our children to try. Trying is possibly one of the best skills to encourage our children to do. And we could set up situations where the trying is more important than the achievement itself. For this reason, it is good idea to encourage the attainment of skills, where there is not necessarily a fixed final product, but one where the child is free to determine what he or she wants to achieve using the skills of learning.

For example, if we encourage a child to tinker on an instrument, such as a drum or tambourine, show them how it makes noise and what they can do with it, and them leave with it, rather than instruct them with a “do this” pattern and keep drilling them to achieve it. That is not learning, and that form of learning is closed, where the input of the child is seconded to the expected product. It does not breed openness; on the other hand, it builds a layer of negative receptivity.

There are various skills that are good for building an attitude of openness to life. Dance, for example, is good. Let children experience music and create their own dance. Painting or drawing is another – show them how to use the brushes or pencils and colours and let them create what they want, then appraise in a non-judgemental way. Modelling and duplo bricks are also viewed as creative products because there is no one correct way. And in the little things in life, try to encourage a different way of doing things. If your child likes running, try to encourage him or her to run a different path, or do it hopping or backwards if they can manage it! Look for ways to be creative, to build openness to learning. It is a beneficial skill for life.

Different Parenting Styles

We often talk about the kind of child we have, but how often do you hear of someone talking about the kind of parents there are? Here are some common types.

The Pause Parent
Pause Parents somehow manage to stay calm when their children aren’t getting on, even if they’re hurling abuse at each other. This is quite a feat, because sibling squabbles drive most parents crazy. The noise is exasperating and there’s always the worry that they might really hurt each other. Instinctively, most parents intervene when there’s an argument.

But Pause Parents know that if you dive straight in, you can inadvertently make things worse. You might take sides where you shouldn’t, say horrible things you don’t mean or mete out punishments you regret later. By keeping calm, Pause Parents give themselves a chance to think through what’s going wrong and the best way to solve it.

We’re not talking about disasters here. If someone is being tormented to the point of tears or given a black eye, of course Pause Parents would break it up immediately. But they try not to let low-level, everyday bickering get to them. They know how effective it can be to stay quiet and sort it out later when everyone is feeling more rational. Even natural Pause Parents can sometimes find it difficult not to interfere when their children fight. But by zipping their lip and saying nothing, they often get amazing results.

The Cheerleader Parent
Cheerleader Parents are great at fostering good relationships between siblings by being positive. They notice when their children are kind or thoughtful towards each other and try to ignore it when they aren’t. Like Pause Parents, they resist the urge to get involved every time their children bicker and they give them lots of positive attention the minute they start being more friendly. This encourages siblings to treat each other nicely and reinforces the bonds between them.

Cheerleader Parents use lots of specific praise to make each child feel appreciated and special for who they are. They know that when their children feel good about themselves, they’re less likely to be competitive. They also try very hard not to label or compare their children with phrases like, ‘He’s my well-behaved one,’ or ‘She’s always naughty.’ They realize that each child has a good side and a bad side, and that it’s natural for them to show both at different times.

The Tuned-In Parent
Tuned-In Parents know that conflicting emotions are often the root cause of sibling arguments. They’re brilliant at helping children process the feelings behind jealousy, meanness, attention-seeking or whatever it is that’s making them turn against each other. Once they acknowledge the feelings behind bad behaviour, they know better behaviour often follows.

So when their children argue, Tuned-In Parents try listening to each one of them in turn. Once children feel understood, they’re more likely to stop fighting. Even better, they may begin to understand the other’s point of view, which will help them build a better relationship in the long term.

The Physical Parent
Physical Parents know that when their children feel well, they’re more likely to get on with each other. They’re more tolerant and less irritable if they have regular exercise, good food and enough sleep.

So instead of looking for deep psychological reasons for rivalry, Physical Parents keep them off junk food, shoo them out of the house to play and get them to bed on time. They find that this can stop frustration and resentments from building up. These parents are also good at being affectionate and showing each child individually how much they’re loved.

The Sorted Parent
Sorted Parents are forward thinkers. They’re great at anticipating trouble between siblings and avert disasters by setting up clear expectations and boundaries. They know it’s much easier to head off problems beforehand, rather than trying to untangle them when everyone’s already wound up. This tactic is particularly useful in big families because of the potential for convoluted disagreements.

Putting in the groundwork ahead of time gives them a better chance of being heard and boosts their authority. When an argument does blow up unexpectedly, they don’t get disheartened. They know they can think through what happened and work out how to prevent it next time. Sorted Parents are also good at teaching their children how to handle frustrations. You may not be able to prevent them from annoying each other, but you can talk through better ways of expressing themselves than snatching, kicking or calling each other names.

The Commando Parent
Commando Parents have natural authority and they’re very good at being in charge. Instead of pleading or nagging their children to stop fighting, they are clear and direct about what behaviour is acceptable and what will happen if they step out of line.

These parents make it very obvious where the boundaries lie and don’t allow niggly disagreements to escalate into something worse. They realize they can’t force children to like each other, but they don’t let their children get away with swearing, thumping, or destroying each other’s stuff.

When trouble does flare up, Commando Parents are very good at containing it quickly. They aren’t shy about stepping in and they’ll certainly enforce consequences if they have to. It can be hard to gain this kind of authority, especially if sibling rivalry is already deep-rooted. But it is possible, and Commando Parents know how to make it happen.

The Laid-Back Parent
Laid-Back Parents are good at encouraging their children to do things for themselves. They don’t feel they have to watch them every minute of the day and solve every one of their problems. They trust that, more often than not, their children will treat each other well and can work through minor disagreements on their own.

Laid-Back Parents know that a certain amount of fighting is not only inevitable, but beneficial. Learning to share, negotiate, handle arguments and cope with jealousy are important parts of growing up, so they feel that if they stepped in every time to arbitrate, they’d be doing their children a disservice.

They’re also happy when their children spend lots of time playing together on their own because they know how good it is for their relationship. These parents aren’t neglectful: they wouldn’t hold back if someone was getting hurt. But most minor bickering doesn’t get to them, because they trust that their children are fine and can sort things out for themselves.

You’ll probably find you are a combination of two of three of these types and adopt different styles depending on the situation. And while the above are stereotypes, you may find it works to know how another kind of parent would act in that situation and how you may amend your parenting style accordingly.

Managing Screen Time

If you feel like blaming your children or teens for their fixation on screens, just think of the times when you, as a sensible adult, have stayed up too late, against your better judgement, watching something unmemorable on television. Or the times you’ve been lured into checking out just one more Facebook post or YouTube video. If we, the mature adults that we are, find it so easy to get sucked into Screen World, just imagine how much more tempting it is for our children and teens. It’s only when we are in charge, when we are the deciders of what happens in our homes, that we are able to do our job of transmitting the values, skills and habits that we believe are important. When we are not in charge, our children’s immature values will prevail and will be reinforced.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the advice about making parenting less stressful by ‘picking your battles’. What this usually boils down to is avoiding situations that would result in your child or teen whingeing, complaining, arguing, pleading, crying, slamming doors or throwing himself on the floor. The problem with picking our battles is that it’s the opposite of the teaching and training we need to do in order to transmit our values, skills and habits. In this context, what I mean by teaching is making sure our children and teens know what they should do. And by training I mean guiding them into the habit of doing what they know they should do.

Children often resist this teaching and training at first because changing habits is rarely easy. It’s natural for children to react to new routines and habits and rules with some complaining, crying, arguing or even tantrums – at first. So let’s not view this annoying behaviour as a ‘battle’ to be avoided. Let’s think of these negative reactions as immature ways of expressing uncomfortable emotions. A tantrumming child hasn’t yet learned how to express his upset in words, or perhaps he is so overwhelmed by the strength of his emotion that he temporarily forgets how to control his actions. Or it could be that this sort of misbehaviour has worked in the past, at least some of the time, to get your child some of what he wants. Whingeing or shouting or arguing might have bought him a bit more time to do what he wants. Or he might have noticed that sometimes you give up out of frustration or exasperation. Or maybe he’s learned that the crying and whingeing are guaranteed to get your attention.

Our job is not to avoid our children’s negative reactions, but to teach and train more sensible reactions. We will enjoy our role as teachers and trainers much more when we remember that children are, by definition, immature. They want what they want. They believe they need what they want. Let’s allow them to feel their childish feelings. Let’s not think of their upset feelings or the resulting misbehaviour as a battle. In a battle someone wins and someone else loses. But teaching and training isn’t about winning and losing; it’s about changing habits. Being in charge is not a static state of affairs. Over time you will probably refine your values. And as your children grow and develop, their needs will change. You will naturally continue to cycle back through the steps below until your children leave home.

Assessing

Before you can decide to take action consistent with your values about screen time, you need to discover exactly what’s happening.

Assessing (and reassessing) the current situation includes deciding whether what is happening in your home fits with your values. This step also includes listening to your children’s opinions and wishes. However, you will always have the final say because you are wiser and because it is your job to guide children towards the values you believe are right.

Planning
In order to plan effectively, first you need to clarify (with your partner if you have one) what your values are. This enables you to decide which rules and routines will guide your children towards those values. It may not be easy to come to an agreement with your partner. Although your fundamental values may be the same, how you each tend to put them into practice might be very different. Consistency between parents can be difficult to achieve. But we don’t have the luxury of deciding to ‘agree to disagree’. It’s not fair to our children to expect them to feel comfortable with two different sets of rules in the same home.

As you put your plan into practice, you will find yourself revisiting these steps many times, assessing the current situation in your home to see the results of your actions. It’s tempting to jump the gun, but don’t assume a strategy is not working based on how the first week or two go. Stick with a new strategy for at least a month. This gives your child time to get used to the new rules and routines. If a rule or routine isn’t going according to plan after a month or so, you will need to pause to assess what went wrong and then decide what you want to tweak.

Getting in charge of the technology in your home and staying in charge probably won’t be easy. You will be swimming against the tide, and you may get criticism from your extended family (especially if your child’s grandparents believe that love equals indulgence), maybe from other parents at the school gates, maybe even from your closest friends. On the other hand, your family and friends may be cheering you on, and they may want to learn from you how to get back in charge.

Staying consistent will be difficult at times. Humans are not by nature very good at being consistent; we change our minds and our plans a lot. And getting back in charge can feel like hard work, for one thing because dealing with our children’s initial fury about the new screen time rules and routines can be very upsetting. You may feel frustrated, angry, guilty, confused. You may feel like giving up. You will need to keep your wits about you; you won’t be able to let your guard down. That can feel exhausting at first, until the new routines are firmly established.

Parenting as a journey is a popular metaphor. A journey has a starting point and a destination. The starting point is that you’re not completely happy with what is happening with electronics in your home: your child is too much in charge and your values are not prevailing. You won’t reach your destination in one giant leap. You’ll be taking lots of small steps. And to complicate matters, you and your partner may be at different points in this journey towards getting back in charge.

When you use the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, screen time problems will be significantly reduced, and most can be eliminated. Even a severe problem can be transformed. Soon it will become a moderate issue, and then it will become a mild issue. Eventually, with consistency, it will end up a very mild issue. That is probably the best result you can hope for, given that our children will always be surrounded by the influences of Screen World. But you can live with a very mild issue because your children’s objections will fade over time.

Your children and teens will find renewed pleasure in non-screen activities. You will get more cooperation and respect. You will see more self-reliance and responsibility. You will have the immense satisfaction of seeing your children and teens developing more mature values and habits. You can make all this happen.

Some reasons for toddler misbehaviour

Limit-pushing behaviour can confound even the most attuned parent or caregiver. Why would our sweet darling throw her toy at us when we’ve just asked her not to, and then add insult to injury by smirking? Is she evil? Does she have a pressing need to practice throwing skills? Maybe she just hates us…

Sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have unusual ways of expressing their needs and feelings. If it’s any consolation, these behaviours don’t make sense to our children either. The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are. In other words, your child very likely understood that you didn’t want her to hit you, her friends, siblings, and pets; dump her food or water onto the floor; whine, scream, and call you “stupid”; but her impulses made a different choice. And though she smirks, this isn’t out of ill will.

Always remember to never, ever take a child’s limit-pushing behaviour personally.

Our children love, appreciate, and need us more than they can ever say. Remind yourself of these truths multiple times daily until you’ve internalized them, because a healthy perspective on limit-pushing is a crucial starting point. Respecting children means understanding their stage of development, not reacting to their age-appropriate behaviour as if they are our peers.

Here are the most common reasons young children push limits:

1. SOS! I can’t function.
Young children seem to be the last people on earth to register their own fatigue or hunger. They seem programmed to push on, and sometimes their bodies will take possession of their minds and transmit SOS messages to us through attention-getting behaviour. When I think about my own children’s limit-pushing behaviour, the examples that immediately come to mind are about fatigue:

There was the day at RIE class when my toddler son (who has always seemed to have social savvy) suddenly started hitting and pushing. Ah-ha. He’s tired and has had enough of this. I let him know I heard him and that we’d be leaving: “I don’t want you to hit. I think you’re letting me know you’re tired and ready to go home, right?” But then I got involved in a discussion with one of the other parents and forgot for a moment and, no surprise, he hit again. Oops. Totally my fault. “Sorry, B, I told you we would leave and then started talking. Thanks for reminding me we need to go.”

Then there was the family trip when one of my daughters, age four at the time, uncharacteristically spoke rudely to my mother. Taken aback for a moment (How could she?) but determined to remain calm, I intervened: “I can’t let you talk to Grandma that way….we’re going to go.” I ushered her out of the room screaming (my daughter was the one screaming, although I wanted to). As I carried her to a private space where she could melt down with me safely, it hit me — we’d been traveling for six or seven hours. Of course she’s exhausted and just letting me know in her four-year-old way. Duh. My fault again. I cannot count the number of times my children’s behaviour has hit the skids because they were suddenly overtaken by hunger just twenty minutes after they’d been offered food. And their inevitable response — “I wasn’t hungry then” — always seemed so unfair. Apparently all is fair when it comes to love, war, and toddlers.

2. Clarity, please.
Children will often push our limits simply because they haven’t received a straight answer to the question, “What will you do if I do such-and-such?” And then they might need to know, “Will it be different on Monday afternoon? What about when you’re tired? Or I’m cranky? If I get upset, will you do something different?” So by continuing to push limits, toddlers are only doing their job, which is to learn about our leadership (and our love), clarify our expectations and house rules, and to understand where their power lies. Our job is to answer as calmly and directly as possible. Our responses will obviously vary from situation to situation, but they should consistently demonstrate that we’re totally unthreatened by their behaviour, that we can handle it, and that it’s no big deal at all.

3. What’s all the fuss about?
When parents lose their cool, lecture, over-direct, or even talk about limit-pushing behaviours a bit too much, they can create interesting little dramas which children are compelled to re-enact. Punishments and emotional responses create stories that are frightening, alarming, shaming, guilt-inducing, or any combination.

When parents say more than a sentence or two about the limit-pushing behaviour, even while remaining calm, they risk creating a tale about a child with a problem (perhaps he hugs his baby sister too forcefully), which then causes the child to identify with this as his story and problem, when it was just an impulsive, momentary behaviour he tried out a couple of times.

For instance, counter to the example I shared about my daughter speaking rudely to Grandma, which for me clearly indicated that she was out-of-herself and unraveling, my response would be far more minimal if a spark of rudeness was directed at me. Rather than react and risk creating a story around occasional whining, screaming “you’re stupid,” “I hate you,” etc., I would dis-empower those behaviours by allowing them to roll-l-l off my back. Perhaps I’d acknowledge, “I hear how angry you are about leaving the park. That really disappointed you.”

Always, always, always encourage your child to express these feelings. Again, testing us with these behaviours from time to time is age-appropriate, and if we react, we may encourage this to continue. Sometimes children will smile or laugh when they know they are re-enacting a story, but this is usually an uneasy, tentative smile rather than one of happiness.

4. Do I have capable leaders?
Imagine how disconcerting it is to be two, three, or four years old and not be certain we have a stable leader. The most effective leaders lead with confidence, keep their sense of humor, and make it look easy. This takes practice but — not to worry — children will give us plenty of chances through their limit-pushing behaviour until we get it right. Know what’s important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s opposition will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This in turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents.

5. I’ve got a feeling.
Children will sometimes persistently push limits when they have internalized feelings and stress that they need to release. Trusting this invaluable process and calmly (but firmly) holding the limits for our child while welcoming his or her feelings is the quickest and healthiest way to ease this need for limit-pushing. Maintaining an “all feelings allowed” attitude will nip most limit-pushing behaviours in the bud.

6. The sincerest form of flattery (sort of).
Children are sensitive and impressionable, and we are their most influential models, so they will absorb our behaviour and reflect it through theirs. For example, if we snatch toys away from our child, she may persistently snatch from friends. A child is likely to behave more erratically whenever her parents are upset or stressed about anything, especially if her parents haven’t openly shared these feelings.

7. Seems the best way to get your attention these days.
If the comfort and validation of our attention has been in short supply, or if there have been compelling mini-stories and dramas created around our child’s limit-pushing behaviour, she might end up repeating them to seek this negative attention.

8. Have you told me that you love me lately?

When children feel ignored, or even just a bit out of favour with us, it rattles them, and fear shows up in their limit-pushing behaviour. Reassuring hugs, kisses, and “I love you” will certainly help to mend these bridges, but the messages of love that matter most are heard through our patience, empathy, acceptance, respectful leadership, and the genuine interest we take in knowing our child.

To love toddlers is to know them.