Friday, November 30th, 2007
How to Curb Extreme Behavior in Toddlers
You know parenting is stressful when your kid threatens to kill you. Even when your toddler doesn’t understand what was said, it’s a shocker. CityMama wrote the following this week on her blog:
"Wallie was being a complete turd, and at one point, when something wasn’t going her way and I wasn’t relenting, she said and I quote: ‘I’m going to kill you then I will have no mamma. Hmph.’
Yes, she’s three. No, she doesn’t quite understand what it means. She just knows what she hears her older sister say* and knows it’s something that triggers strong emotions."
*CityMama indicated she recently discussed the difference between the words "die" and "kill" with the older child and the younger child presumably overheard.
I know a 7-year-old boy who has said similarly hateful things to his mom, and for the past 2 years has said the following when very angry: "I wish I were dead!"
If it were my 3-year-old who spoke those words, I’d be frantic for answers.
If she learned the words from a playmate, we’d talk to the parents and say goodbye to that friend if we felt he or she was a continuing bad influence. For a toddler, that is totally doable.
TV, videos and movies aren’t an influence yet because we haven’t exposed her. I’m one of those parents who believes video learning and entertainment do more harm than good in the early years (a debate for another day).
If she learned the idea from preschool, I know our teacher would intervene. To quote our teacher:
"I explain loud enough for everyone to hear that saying things to others for the purpose of making them feel bad is not allowed at school, even if it is only pretend. I reiterate that we are a peaceful school and that means no fighting and no ‘bad guys,’ even though in real life there may be bad guys somewhere, we make sure they are not at our school. If a student continued to make offensive statements, he would not be able to come to school as a consequence.
But I do feel that it is natural for children to explore good-bad in imaginative play, as well as scenarios fraught with conflict. They are trying to work out the battle between their impulsiveness, delayed gratification, vindictiveness, and doing the ‘right’ thing."
The worst thing our daughter has said in a heated moment was when she was given a time-out by her mother.
Angry voice: "I don’t want you to be my mom!"
Calm voice: "Okay, if I’m not your mom, then I can’t help you with anything. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. When you’re done with your tantrum you can go find your father because you don’t have a mother anymore."
Our daughter took a few minutes to consider the consequences of her actions and then returned to her mom, hugged her and said, "I love my mom."
Death is an open subject in our home. What do you do when your toddler asks where her other grandma is? Well,
snap decision, rather than change the subject, I explained death. From at least the 2-year mark, we’ve discussed it. My mother-in-law and one of my brothers are dead, and when we talk about them, Little Miss wants to know who they are.
It has left us freer to mention our deceased relatives in our spouse-to-spouse conversations and is an opportunity to share with our daughter stories about the relatives she’ll never meet except through photos.
Little Miss won’t have an emotional understanding of death without first-hand experience, but at 3-years she knows that when someone is dead they don’t come back and that everyone dies one day, including mom and dad. They won’t walk in the front door, you won’t see them at the playground, and so forth. She knows people get buried, but hasn’t asked yet where her relatives are buried.
Our preschool teacher told me the following about how she handles the subject:
"We have talked at school a bit regarding death, like that my mother and father are dead (they always wonder who makes my lunch for me…) and that bugs such as ants die. At this age the concept is relatively benign, akin to moving away or going on a long trip. A few people in the class have referred vaguely to ‘heaven’ and we do sing the Found a Peanut song where we eat a rotten peanut and end up dying and going to heaven, but I just refer to it as a ‘silly song’ and an admonition not to eat food off the ground."
Pirates presented a problem for us. The first time Little Miss pretended to be a pirate, she told us she killed an imaginary man and took his possessions. I previously had explained pirates as "people who sail in ships searching for gold," but my wife later explained them in far too much detail. So, she handled this one.
"Who was the man?"
"Just some old guy."
"Oh, he was old? So he’s somebody’s papa?"
"No, he’s really old."
"Oh, so he’s somebody’s grandpa, like Opa?" [my father-in-law]
Little Miss became quiet for a moment, then said: "Well, I didn’t really kill him. I was just pretending."
"Well, it’s not okay to pretend to kill people. We kill ants that come in our home and animals for food, but we don’t kill other people."
And we haven’t played pirate since â€” beyond wearing a pirate cap and talking funny. We still listen to pirate music, which my wife explained by saying, "Pirates are bad people, but they make good music." It’s logic for a 3-year-old, I guess. There are no easy answers.
Maybe a tantrum could still elicit a parental death wish, but I think it less likely when she has some idea of what she’s saying.
A foundation of respect is what we work on in our home. We incorporate the words "please," "thank you" and "I’m sorry" into everyday speech. "Excuse me" is required when wanting to interrupt a conversation, and then waiting for a response. We also teach that when you ask someone for something, the person can say "no," and that’s okay.
My wife and I follow these rules too and allow our daughter to correct us if she catches us not following them.
If she asks for more milk at the dinner table, I don’t move without a please. If I forget to put my shoes away, I’ll put them away when she points them out.
If she hurts my feelings in an overt manner, I remain hurt in the short-term until an apology is received.
My wife was opposed to me pouting sometimes when our Little Miss would slight me. She feared Miss would "learn" to pout and thought I should model best behavior. I felt it’s more important to teach that words have impact, that she is capable of making people sad, and when people are sad it never helps her situation.
If we require Little Miss to share and play nice on the playground, why would I let her be demanding and commanding to me at home?
In practice, we each fall somewhere in between on adherence to our opposing developmental standards, but tantrums never result in my daughter getting what she wants. Period. The rule with rules is to never waver and to always support your spouse’s discipline decisions in front of the child.
Instead of these please-and-thank you pleasantries being perceived as hoops to jump, she seems to genuinely accept them as the normal way people treat each other.
Now when a Costco employee draws a smiley face on her receipt, it’s my daughter who asks for it. She begins with, "May I please have…" and departs with a "Thank you."
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have a perfect child, nor could we, but I feel we’re on the right track.
Discipline requires patience and consistency. Just now I was called into the kitchen to enforce "consequences" while my wife is busy cooking. Little Miss was refusing to remove her toy plates from the kitchen floor, alternating between saying "No" and pretending Mom didn’t exist.
I explained that the plates could cause Mom to slip, fall and hurt the (unborn) baby. I then said she had 5 seconds to put her plates in her room or she would not get them back for three days (one day for each birthday). I asked her several times, then began counting down from 5, and by 3 she started cleaning up. I thanked her and returned to typing. Little Miss then joined her mother in preparing our real meal on real plates.
I don’t know how that sounds to you, but I feel we’re middle-of-the-road on discipline. We only embargo a toy maybe every other month.
I’m starting to think that our daughter doesn’t wish us death in her more hysterical tantrum-filled moments because deep down she’s aware there would be consequences. Maybe because it would upset us. Maybe because she would have a time-out. Maybe because she knows killing mom or dad means we wouldn’t be around anymore. Maybe because we teach her to treat people with respect.
Look for the sequel to this article when Little Miss is six-years-old and our 3-year-old boy is going nuts. In some ways I’m glad our second child isn’t a girl so that fewer mature-girl topics won’t filter down to the boy before he needs to hear them.
Alrighty, so by now you realize this article’s title was complete baloney. I didn’t explain how to curb extreme behavior. I speculated why my daughter hasn’t crossed that line yet.
Have you faced this sort of issue? I rambled through a lot of territoryâ€”death, bad influences, poor behavior, discipline. What do you do in your home?