Three Words That Kill

It’s often said that, as a parent, the worst three words you can ever hear are, ‘I hate you,’ spoken by the sweet darling you’ve sacrificed your health and sanity for.

I always took this with a pinch of salt. Grow a freaking backbone, I thought. Your kids don’t mean it for one second – that’s how they talk. ‘I hate you’ is small person shorthand for ‘I’m angry because you won’t let me get my own way, but I’m not yet emotionally, cognitively or socially developed enough to deal with these feelings or articulate them in a healthy or appropriate manner.’

Besides, there are far worse things a parent can hear. Five words that never fail to freak me out are, ‘Hello, I’m from Children’s Services’. I’m sure I’d be turned into a gibbering wreck by a mere two words: ‘It’s meningitis.’ By comparison, ‘I hate you’ is incredibly mild.

This complacency left me thoroughly unprepared for a grouping of five words that have killed me over the past few days, especially as it’s Christmas. My three-year-old hasn’t told me she hates me, no – I’d be able to handle that. Instead, she keeps looking at me and saying, ‘I don’t love you, daddy.’

Ouch.

If she said it once, in the heat of the moment, that’d be okay, but she brings it up at least every hour. Sometimes she varies it with, ‘I don’t love you anymore,’ or she adds, ‘You’re naughty’ or ‘You’re always mean to me.’

She often juxtaposes it with, ‘But I love my mummy.’ Indeed, she delighted in telling people over Christmas, ‘I don’t love daddy anymore, but I love my mummy.’

I’ve got to tell you: that shit hurts.

Despite the tough, resilient front I put on, I have to admit that I’m not handling it well. For three years she was a daddy’s girl, but now I’m like something she’s stepped in. When she’s screaming because daddy’s putting her to bed and not mummy, and shouting that she doesn’t love daddy, she loves mummy, and even after you’ve calmed her down and read her a story and checked her room for monsters and told her you love her and wished her goodnight she says to you, ‘Can mummy put me to bed tomorrow because I love mummy and I don’t love you,’ it’s hard not to let that bring down your whole evening.

Whenever I ask her why, she tells me it’s because I’m naughty and mean to her.

What do I do that’s so bad? I make her eat her breakfast. I make her put her shoes on when we go out. If we’re driving and I notice she’s slipped her seatbelts off her shoulders, I tell her to put them back on. I make her stay in bed after I’ve put her there, and sit on the naughty step if she hits her sister. And instead of crisps and sweets all the time, I try to make her eat fruit.

Yep, what an ogre I must be. On Christmas morning, because I made her eat her cereal, she told me I wasn’t allowed to go to my in-laws for Christmas Dinner because I’d been naughty and mean to her and she didn’t love me and wanted to spend Christmas with people she loved – mummy, her sister, her grandparents, but certainly not me.

Every time I try to do things with her now, she kicks and screams and says she wants her mummy instead. It’s kind of hard to enjoy yourself when you’ve got that hanging over your head. You wonder why the hell you bother taking her to theme parks and adventure playgrounds, why you cook her nice food and go out especially to buy special puddings, why you play with her in the bath and dry her all over with a hair-drier, and wipe her bottom and kiss away her ouchies and educate her about the world, why you try so hard to do everything right when apparently everything you do is wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’d be easier just to sit on the sofa, let her do what she wants, whenever she wants, let her eat junk and watch garbage on TV and go to bed when she chooses, and leave her to her beloved mummy. I would be far healthier and happier. I could read my books again, make models, watch movies, lounge in a hot bath, play video games, get a decent night’s sleep for a change – all the things I don’t have time for because I’m looking after two kids.

But if I did that, I wouldn’t be a parent. Let her mummy be her best friend. Much as I’d love to be able to, it’s not my job to make her feel warm and cuddly inside. It’s my job to keep her safe, clean and fed, to prepare her for the world, to make sure we have a home in which to live. She might say she doesn’t love me, but I’m the one she shouts for when she has a problem, I’m the one she needs if she’s had a nightmare, I’m the one who fixes the things that she breaks.

God, why does it matter to me so much what a three-year-old thinks of me? And why does it make me so upset when she says she doesn’t love me?

I guess that, no matter how old you get or how much you prepare yourself, rejection still feels like the absolute pits. I’d really better grow a backbone. I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

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A Problem of Discipline: My Toddler

Back in April I started a three-part series grandly entitled How to Discipline a Toddler because I was a smug git. At the time I had a very well-behaved toddler that I was easily able to understand and control, a foolproof weapon called the Naughty Step that could solve any problem, and the patience of a saint. The world could only stand to benefit from the fruits of my experience.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that after starting this series, the frequency of my posts dropped off the face of the Earth, and I am yet to write number three. The reason for this, I can now reveal, is that almost immediately after starting to write about how great I am at disciplining my toddler, things became slightly more problematic – which is a nicer way of saying that my daughter Izzie morphed into a freaking demon child.

Despite my best attempts to stress that good behaviour is not dependant on an external force but an internal sense of right and wrong, Izzie has decided that if I don’t see her misbehave then it must be okay. I know this because she has told me as much – repeatedly.

It’s my own fault for not being clear in my language – for allowing her a legal loophole she can exploit.

‘The next time I see you snatch your sister’s toy off her, you’re on the naughty step.’

‘Okay, daddy, I make sure you not see me.’

Little bastard! If I’m cooking in the kitchen while she’s misbehaving in the lounge and I tell her off, she often closes the door and shouts, ‘You not see, it’s okay,’ and goes right back to doing it.

Sometimes she even tells me when she’s about to be naughty: ‘Daddy, don’t look, I going to push Rosie over.’

She understands the concept of differential authority too. ‘Take your sister’s dummy out of your mouth, you know your mum hates it.’

She takes it out and looks around. ‘Where is mummy?’ she asks.

‘She’s in the bath.’

So she puts the dummy back in and grins at me with an I-outsmarted-you look on her three-year-old face.

Of course, this is nothing next to the tantrums that occur Every. Single. Time. We. Say. No.

It’s a constant battle for supremacy.

‘I want to get dressed downstairs.’

‘No, upstairs.’

Tantrum.

‘I want ice cream for breakfast.’

‘No, you’re having cereal.’

Tantrum.

‘Here’s your juice.’

‘I want it in that cup.’

‘Well it’s already in this cup.’

Tantrum.

And this is all before 8 o’clock! If I could drink toddler tears, I’d never have to use the tap again.

Then there’s the insolence. Every night, for example, at some point during the night she opens all her drawers and throws every item of clothing out over the floor – and since my wife is a hoarder, that’s a lot of clothes. So every night before bedtime I say to her, ‘You will not make a mess tonight or I will be very cross with you in the morning.’

She grins at me and says, ‘I’ll make a little mess.’

‘No,’ I say. ‘No mess. All your clothes are to stay in your drawers.’

‘Okay, I’ll only empty one drawer.’

‘No. No drawers.’

And then I’ll catch her doing it in the night, and I’ll snap, ‘What did I say about not making a mess?’

And she’ll laugh and shout, ‘You say I can make a big, big mess.’

Argh!

She’s also become really mean. It first happened when I was trying to get my youngest, Rosie, off to sleep. I was rocking her in my arms about 8.30, an hour after I’d put Izzie to bed, when Izzie appeared in her doorway and informed me that she had decided to have a bath and if I didn’t like it, I should simply look away.

‘Izzie,’ I replied. ‘Close the door and go back to bed.’

‘No, daddy,’ she said. ‘You listen to me. I having a bath.’

‘Actually, you’ll close that door and go back to bed by the count of three or I’ll cancel you seeing Granny tomorrow.’

‘Daddy,’ she said defiantly, ‘daddy, you not talk to me ever again and I not talk to you ever again, okay?’

‘Be that as it may, ONE, TWO…’

The door slammed, and I heard lots of sobbing and muttering interspersed with the words ‘daddy naughty’, over and over. Sucks to be me.

This has grown into a daily tirade of, ‘Daddy, I not like you anymore. Daddy, you very naughty. Daddy, I love mummy but not you. I not talk to you anymore. Daddy, if I have to choose you or mummy, I always choose mummy.’

Which, despite her being a toddler, is incredibly hurtful.

As are the lies she’s started telling about me. Whenever she says in front of people that she doesn’t like me, they invariably ask, ‘Oh, why not?’

‘He hits me on the head and pushes me down the stairs.’

‘What!?’ I cry. ‘I do no such thing!’

Which makes me look guilty as sin.

The truth is that she’s cross with me because I discipline her, and loves her mother because she doesn’t. Indeed, her mother is her best friend who plays with her and mucks around with her and is really just a big kid to her, while I’m the authority figure who exists simply to spoil their fun.

It has, without a doubt, grown far worse since my wife has started putting Izzie to bed. I spent three years putting Izzie to bed, every single night. I spent the past ten months putting both kids to bed, every single night. I hoped, I prayed, I begged for my wife to help me out, and after three years she finally relented about a month ago and put Izzie to bed.

And from that moment on, Izzie only wants mummy to put her to bed, and tantrums if daddy tries to do it. Which, after three years of my doing it, is a real kick in the crotch.

Of course, the reason she loves her mummy doing it is because her mummy doesn’t actually put her to bed. They go to the bedroom and play. Then my wife leaves and Izzie follows her and they get into mummy and daddy’s bed and play. And then mummy goes to sleep and Izzie continues to play. And then I come upstairs and shout at Izzie for not being in bed and shout at mummy for not putting Izzie to bed, and then I put Izzie to bed and she sobs herself to sleep because daddy’s so mean and mummy is her favourite. Again, sucks to be me.

I think what bugs me most about this is that, because she is now three, she’s going to start remembering things. And despite everything I’ve done for three years, her earliest memories are going to be of her mummy playing with her and lovingly putting her to bed every night while her daddy just tells her off all the time. And that’s not fair.

What it boils down to is that my wife has all the fun, playful, exciting quality time with Izzie, while I get to do all the practical things, like wiping her bottom, cutting her fingernails, kissing her ‘ouchies’ away, taking her to the doctor, ripping off her plasters, removing her splinters, and putting her on the Naughty Step. No wonder she doesn’t like me!

I’m not sure how I can change this, however. My wife encourages me to play with her more often, but my attempts to be a fun dad have only made things worse.

A typical example – we sit down to play with her Sylvanian Families and I pick up a hedgehog and put it in the toy car.

‘Brrmm, brrmm,’ I say, before she snatches it off me and shouts, ‘No, they having a picnic!’

I see she has arranged the chairs in a circle.

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another toy. ‘Here comes Mrs Rabbit,’ and I put her in a chair.

‘No!’ Izzie cries. ‘She sitting over here.’

‘Okay,’ I say, picking up another. ‘Where does Mr Panda sit?’

‘Mr Panda not invited!’ she shouts, slapping it out of my hand. ‘You not doing it right!’

‘Well then!’ I shout back. ‘If you won’t let me do anything then I won’t blinking well play with you!’

And then she goes to her mum all stroppy and whines, ‘Daddy not playing with me.’

I tell you, she’s driving me crazy. As if to sum it all up, she has a new favourite song. I always flick between the rock channels on TV and I stumbled across an old hip-hop classic which she instantly fell in love with. In a moment I’ve come to regret, when she asked me what it was, I told her.

We have an Amazon Dot…or Echo, or whatever it’s called. Izzie used to say, ‘Lexa, play Tinkle, Tinkle,’ and it’d play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star by The Rainbow Collection. Ahhh.

She’s not so pure any more.

‘Lexa, play House of Pain, Jump Around.’

And then she proceeds to jump around the lounge shouting, ‘House of Pain! House of Pain! House of Pain!’

And it truly is.

But that’s only half the reason I’m blogging so rarely. The other half turned eleven months the other day, and I’ll describe that demon child in another post – if I ever get the chance again!

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

Right from the get go, let me say that I’m not a professional, I’m not trained in child care, and despite living all day, every day with a toddler, I am by no means an expert. Nor am I a perfect dad – like every parent, there are days I find my little girl’s behaviour so exasperating I just want to throw her out the nearest window – without opening it (I don’t, just to be clear for all the social workers reading this!). I make mistakes, fail to follow my own advice, and can sometimes make a real mess of things – especially as most of my books are out of date.

That said, I do think I’m doing a pretty good job of raising a polite and conscientious – if spirited, wilful and independent – little girl, and it’s all down to discipline. For those who think that ‘discipline’ is synonymous with ‘punishment’ or ‘conformity’, it doesn’t mean suppressing her individuality or stifling her need to express herself – it simply means we have certain standards of behaviour we all need to follow in order to get along with one another, and teaching a child what these are from an early age makes life a lot easier. Nobody wants a child that bites, or hits other children, or thinks it’s fun to break all their toys. Discipline is how you prevent that.

So, in that spirit, let’s begin.

Boundaries

Whether you’re a strict parent or more laid back, every child needs boundaries, even simply as something to push against as they develop their personalities. It doesn’t matter if you have five house rules or fifty-five (although that does seems slightly excessive), as I mentioned in How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler, the basis of discipline is to be clear, calm and consistent. Your child needs to know where the boundaries are and what happens when they cross them, every time, no matter what day it is, where they are or who they’re with. And that takes thought and communication.

You need to decide what’s important and what the rules are, and you need to make sure your partner, parents and other care givers are on the same page. I’m not saying the grandparents have to follow the rules exactly – they’re meant to spoil the grandkids – but make sure everyone knows what’s expected. Otherwise, your child won’t know whether they’re coming or going, or worse they’ll play you off against each other because they know you’re inconsistent in your approach, and if you want problems in a relationship, that’s a great way of starting them.

For the most part, effective discipline is simply saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Don’t lie to a child to make things easier right now, because you’ll have to deal with the repercussions of that dishonesty later. Don’t negotiate or bargain, don’t beg or plead, and don’t get into arguments, because they’re a toddler and their stubbornness knows no bounds. And if you threaten something or promise something, you have to follow through with it. The moment you fail to be consistent, you’re sending mixed messages and starting down the slippery slope towards chaos.

If your child asks for something they know they’re not allowed to have, look them in the eye and calmly but firmly say no. And then disengage. You’ve already answered their request, so they need to know that all the subsequent shouting, whining and playing up isn’t going to get them what they want. And no matter how hard it is, stick to it.

Nobody wants to spend all day shouting at their kids and saying no, no, no all the time, but that’s something you see practically everywhere in public – supermarkets, beaches, fairgrounds, the swimming pool. Shouting parents, screaming children, locked in a battle of wills. It shouldn’t be a battle – you’re the adult and what you say goes. Sticking to consistent boundaries is how you achieve that.

Avoiding discipline

The best way of avoiding conflict is discipline, and the best discipline is avoiding having to discipline at all.

What the hell does that mean? Simple. The use of specific disciplinary techniques should be part of a wider strategy that encourages good behaviour, anticipates problems, and relies on punishment only when necessary.

I heard recently that the average toddler receives around 300 negative statements a day – don’t do that, stop, be quiet, put that down, you’re driving me insane – and only ten positive comments. I can well believe it.

Instead of constantly correcting your child and turning your lives into a misery, use the other tools in your repertoire. Toddlers are easily bored, but this also means they’re easily distracted. If your toddler is fiddling with something you don’t want her to fiddle with, pick her up and move her away from it. If she’s heading towards something you know she shouldn’t, distract her with something else. Involve her in what you’re doing. Ask her if she can help you find X, Y or Z. Tell her to shout out if she sees a red car. Make a game of everything. Channel that energy into something positive and tell her well done and very good, because that way you’re giving her attention and reinforcing good behaviour instead of focusing all your attention on the bad.

This last skill is very important. If you’re spending all your time engaging with your toddler when she’s naughty, then she has a reason to be naughty – even if she’s not getting what she wants, she’s getting you. This is especially true if you have a younger sibling in the house – the acting out is to bring your attention from the baby and onto them. So one technique is to ignore the bad behaviour if you can – don’t give it the oxygen it needs to breathe. This is really clear if your child picks up a swear word. Reacting to it only makes them say it more – ignore it and they stop using it. Knowing when to punish and when to ignore is a judgement call, but one that becomes easier with experience.

With experience you can also anticipate problems and head them off at the pass. I know my daughter is going to kick off when getting out of the bath, at bedtime and when leaving a friend’s house, so instead of dumping these things on her, I give her a five-minute warning to get her head round it, then a two-minute warning, and a one-minute warning. You’re an expert on your child so you know the flashpoints, and you have to adapt your behaviour accordingly.

Much of this is about planning. For example, most kids are at their worst when they’re hungry and when they’re tired, so make sure they’re properly fed and well rested. Don’t cram too much stimulation into one day or you’re setting yourself up for a fractious child. Also, be careful what you feed them – a sugary snack is a nice treat from time to time, so long as you’re prepared to scrape them off the ceiling afterwards as their blood sugar goes sky high, and then deal with the corresponding sugar crash when it drops again. With a little effort and a lot of creativity, you’ll find you’re winning in the behaviour wars.

 

Types of discipline

Of course, avoiding discipline only goes so far, and sometimes, whether it’s once a day or twenty, you have to go further.

According to Hoffman and Saltzstein (1967), disciplinary techniques can be divided into the following three types:

  1. Power assertion – physical punishment, removal of material possessions such as toys.
  2. Love withdrawal – paying no attention, showing no affection.
  3. Induction – letting the child know the effect their behaviour has on others.

As Feldman (1977) showed, a key difference between these types is that the first encourages good behaviour through fear of an external threat, whereas the second two encourage good behaviour through an internal sense of guilt. In the long term, children disciplined through love withdrawal and induction are far more likely to develop self control than those disciplined through power assertion, who come to depend upon the threat of external punishment to control their behaviour. Indeed, the more aggression a parent shows, the greater a child’s dependence on this external threat, whereas those disciplined in the other two ways learn to behave irrespective of any exterior influence.

In basic English, this means that shouting at your kids from time to time isn’t going to do them any harm, but if it’s your main means of controlling them, eventually the only way you’ll be able to make them behave is by shouting at them – which is going to cause everyone a great deal of aggro, especially if you’re in a restaurant. Furthermore, if you’re not looking or they think they can get away with it, they are less likely to behave because the behavioural controls haven’t been internalized – they’re only behaving because they’re afraid of being caught and punished.

On the other hand, a technique such as the naughty step (see Part 3: the Techniques), which combines both love withdrawal and induction, is a far more effective way of creating a child who will behave whether you’re watching or not. Instead of behaving because they’re afraid of punishment, the child behaves because they want to be loved and don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings – which, for my money, makes it a no-brainer which type of discipline to use.

However, studies have also suggested it is not necessarily the type or strictness of the disciplinary technique but its consistency that is the key to developing good behaviour. Furthermore, utilising a single technique tends to reduce its effectiveness over time, so the choice of what to use is up to you.

The process of punishment

When resorting to punishment, it is helpful to know how punishment works and thus what might work best for you and your family.

The process of punishment tends to go like this: the child commits an infraction, which destabilises the equilibrium; the child is punished, creating a rupture in their relationship with the parent; the child performs a restorative act that repairs the relationship; and the equilibrium is restored. An example would be that the child hits her sister; you put her on the naughty step; she says sorry; then you kiss and make up and the punishment is over.

The shorter the gap between the transgression, the punishment and the restorative act, the more strongly they are associated in the child’s mind and thus the more effective the technique. Therefore, the punishment should be performed right away – no ‘wait till your dad gets home.’

This is another reason that the naughty step technique is so effective – it requires the restorative act to complete, whereupon everyone’s happy and gets on with their day. With power assertion techniques, the punishment ends with the smack or the toy being confiscated, and it can be a long time before a restorative act is performed. This means that, rather than being a short, sharp punishment, something like smacking is a punishment that lasts far longer than the simple physical act.

I well remember being sent to my room as a child and waiting for my father to come up and administer my punishment. After being smacked, the relationship would remain tense and an uncomfortable atmosphere would linger in the house, making it a prolonged and deeply unpleasant experience all round. Effective use of the naughty step is a far more appropriate means of controlling bad behaviour without creating an unhappy household.

A special note on smacking

This leads me to my last section in this post: whether or not it is right to smack your children. While there are arguments for and against the moral issue of corporal punishment, most experts agree that it just isn’t very effective – certainly not as effective as the other techniques that are available.

Legally, smacking is very much a grey area. In England, for example, smacking is classed as common assault, but if done in the home, the parent is able to use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, provided it doesn’t cross the line into ABH, GBH or child cruelty. However, where common assault becomes ABH  – the injury must be more than ‘transient and trifling’ – is unclear, and there is no definition of what constitutes ‘reasonable’ punishment. Citizens Advice suggests that if the smack leaves any kind of mark – a bruise, for example – the parent is liable for prosecution and can have their kids taken away and placed into care. Whether you want to risk that is up to you.

As somebody who was smacked as a child, I can honestly say, ‘It never did me any harm.’ Yes, I remember being smacked so hard on the bottom when I was four, I literally couldn’t sit down for the rest of the day – but I had just bitten my brother, and I never bit him again. Smacking, in this instance at least, did its job.

On the other hand, I’ve never smacked my kids and I don’t intend to, for several reasons. Firstly, if you smack your children when you’re angry, then you are lashing out and taking out your annoyance on a toddler, which seems wrong on so many levels. Furthermore, if good discipline is all about consistency, how consistently can you smack when you’re angry? Anybody who has slammed a door can attest to being unable to accurately gauge force when angry, so really, if you smack a child when you’re angry, you have no idea how hard you’re hitting them.

I also have problems with smacking children after you’ve calmed down. While it’s true that the force you use can be more measured, if you’ve waited until you’re less riled up, the punishment comes way after the transgression. Furthermore, deliberately deciding to inflict pain upon your loved ones for their own good when you’re not angry with them doesn’t seem like a psychologically healthy long-term strategy.

And lastly, if you’re hitting children in order to teach them not to hit, what kind of a cock-eyed lesson is that?

‘Don’t (smack) hit (smack) people (smack).’

Hypocrisy, thy name is you.

Look out  for How to Discipline A Toddler, Part 3: The Techniques

How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

Lies, cunning and manipulation, toddler-style

I was having a bath late last night, the whole house closed up and asleep, when I heard little footsteps padding across the carpet in my toddler’s room. I sat up and stared at her bedroom door, watched as the handle slowly lowered, careful to avoid the squeak, until it was fully down. There was a moment’s pause, and then the door started to move, inching open, achingly slow. A rod of darkness appeared, became a column, and wider still, right up until the moment my gruff daddy voice broke the spell with ‘What’s the matter, Izzie?’

Silence. Nothing moved.

The handle was still down, so she was just on the other side of the door in the dark, frozen in silence. I waited, and neither of us breathed. I wondered what she was thinking – you could practically hear the cogs whirring around inside her head.

And then slowly, achingly slow, the door started to close again. Little by little the column became the rod again, and less. I watched as it pressed quietly up against the jamb, the handle edging upwards past the squeak until it was once more horizontal, and she was gone without a word, if ever she was there in the first place. It was as though I’d been visited by a ghost in the night.

Or maybe, she was just pissed it was me in the bath and not her mummy.

Watching a two-and-a-half year old working out how the world works, and her place within it, is a fascinating experience. Whether it’s cause and effect, strategic planning, or human social relationships, she approaches them sometimes with an awareness bordering on prodigy status, and sometimes like a donkey trying to pin a tail on itself.

She has a good understanding of the hierarchy in our house. Nowadays, her mother is pretty-much a playmate who lets her stay up late at night, draw on her face, and get away with almost anything, while I’m the authority figure who puts her to bed, straps her into the car seat and makes her finish her cereal before she can have yoghurt – hence why when she heard it was me in the bath and not her mother, she crept back into bed instead of continuing out onto the landing.

So, since she recognises me as the highest authority, she goes to her mummy for a yes, and me only when that fails. Like the other day when she went up to her mother and said, ‘Me have choc-choc biscuit?’ and when my wife said no, she came and asked me.

‘No,’ my wife repeated, whereupon my daughter turned to her and said, ‘Shush, mummy, me talking to daddy. Daddy, me have some?’

But acknowledging I’m in charge doesn’t stop her trying it on, however. Like when I was bathing her the other night, and asked my wife to watch her a moment when I settled the baby. That done, I returned to the bathroom, my wife left, and I said to my daughter, ‘Right, let’s get you out and ready for bed.’

‘But mummy said ten minutes.’

‘Did she, now? Mummy!’ I shouted. ‘Did you tell her she could stay in the bath another ten minutes?’

‘No, I said she’d be getting out as soon as you got back.’

‘Righty-ho.’

It’s not exactly difficult to see through her, especially when she says, ‘But you said…’ and I know damn well that I didn’t.

Her new strategy is just as transparent. If I’m in the kitchen and she’s in the lounge and I tell her not to do something, she comes up to me and says, ‘Me close the door, you not see,’ pushes it closed, and goes right back to what she was doing, as though out of sight is out of mind. She doesn’t yet understand that if I can’t see something, it doesn’t mean I don’t know it’s there.

But that’s not to say she’s not a good strategist – on the contrary, she shows impressive forward planning. The other day, when I was in the baby’s room trying to get her to sleep, I saw my toddler’s door swing open and a pillow fly out over the stair gate onto the landing. The sounds of struggling within, and then a foot appeared over the top of the gate, a pair of hands, a little head.

‘What are you doing?’ I barked, striding onto the landing, and she froze halfway. She’d got her suitcase out of the cupboard, dragged it over to the door, propped it against the stair gate and climbed on top of it…but not before dropping down a pillow to soften her landing.

She said nothing, just slowly drew her foot back over, climbed down off the suitcase, dragged it inwards, and closed the door behind her. If she’d been a cartoon villain, she’d have clicked her fingers and said, ‘Foiled. And I’d have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for my pesky dad.’

She never came back to claim the pillow.

But she has one sure fire weapon in her arsenal that she uses on a daily basis – the need to do a wee. It’s amazing how often she needs a wee when she is sitting on the naughty step, wants to get down from the dinner table, or has just been told to tidy up her toys. I guess she knows that letting her sit there and wet herself, getting it all over the chairs and carpet, is something we won’t risk, because we can’t tell whether it’s genuine or a ruse. It’s the only tool she has to get her own way, and it works.

So imagine her surprise next time, when she discovers we won’t let her get her own way. We can’t let her think the threat of wetting yourself is a good strategy for life – you’re not going to get that promotion if you walk into your boss’s office and say, ‘Give me the job, or I’ll make a little puddle in this chair.’ And if she does wet herself? Well – there’s always soap and water for that.

Debating a two-year-old

Why have you emptied the cupboard onto the kitchen floor? No, don’t walk away. Come back. Don’t hide in that cupboard. Are you listening to me? Izzie? Come out of there. Come out or you’re on the naughty step.

‘Okay, daddy.’

Right. Good. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip? That’s better. Now, come here, I want to talk to you.

Leave the water bottle alone. I said leave it alone.

This broken.

It’s not broken.

This broken, daddy.

Don’t change the subject. Come here. The count of three. One, two…

Good. Stop sticking out your bottom lip. Now, why did you empty all the baking tins out of the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

You have to open your mouth when you speak.

‘Mffmffjmmmt.’

No, you have to open your mouth. I know you’re capable of talking because you’ve been doing it all day. So tell me why you emptied the cupboard, and this time, open your mouth when you talk.

Muh huh bluh muh nuh juh bluh.’

That isn’t any better. Think about what you want to say and then say it. Why did you empty the cupboard when mummy told you not to?

‘Me sit in my chair.’

Fine, sit in your chair. Then tell me why there are baking tins all over the floor. No, look at me. Why are you sticking out your bottom lip again? That’s better. Now. Why did you disobey your mummy?

‘Mmf luff juh buh muh Daisy.’

Only one word of that was in English. What about Daisy?

My friend Daisy.’

I know she’s your friend. What’s that got to do with this?

‘Mmf luff juh buh tell me.’

Daisy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

When did she tell you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yesterday.’

You haven’t seen Daisy for a week. Are you lying to me?

‘No.’

Lying is naughty.

‘Me lying.’

So Daisy didn’t tell you to empty it?

‘No.’

Then why did you empty it?

‘Mummy tell me.’

Your mummy told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

The person who told you not to empty the cupboard told you to empty the cupboard?

‘Yes.’

Are you lying to me again?

‘Yes.’

So why did you empty the cupboard all over the floor? Suck in that bottom lip. Do you know why you emptied the cupboard?

‘No, me not know why.’

Well, at least you’re honest. When mummy tells you not to do something, don’t do it, okay?

‘Okay, daddy. Me go in my playroom now?’

No, let’s pick these all up off the floor and put them back in the cupboard, please.

‘Daddy do it.’

No, you made the mess so you can tidy it up.

‘Me want daddy do it.’

And me want holiday, but we don’t always get what we want.

‘Me not want holiday.’

Then you’re in luck. Now, please put all of these baking tins back in the cupboard.

‘Mummy do it.’

No, mummy’s not going to do it. Where’s this bottom lip thing come from?

‘Me need a toilet.’

Do you really need the toilet or are you trying to get out of clearing up?

‘Me need a wee-wee. Me not wear a nappy, me not wee-wee in my pants.’

Fine. Come on, let’s go sit on the potty.

‘You not look at my wee-wee.’

I won’t look at your wee-wee. Come on, take your trousers down, and your pants, there you go.

‘You not listen, daddy.’

I won’t listen. There. Are you doing anything?

‘No. Me not need a toilet.’

Goddamnit. Okay, stand up then. That’s it. Pull your pants up, and your trousers. There, all done.

‘Me play in my playroom now?’

No, you’re going to tidy up first.

‘Why?’

Because I said so. No, don’t sigh at me.

‘Me not want to tidy things, daddy.’

Why not?

‘Me naughty.’

Well, don’t be naughty.

Why?’

Because it’s not nice.

‘Me not want to tidy.’

Look, how about this – if you put the baking tins away, I’ll come in your playroom with you.

‘Okay.’

Thank God. Okay, that’s one. No, leave the water bottle alone.

‘This broken.’

It’s not broken, it’s meant to be like that. Now, put the baking tins away before I scream.

‘Daddy sad?’

No, daddy isn’t sad.

‘Daddy cry?’

No, daddy isn’t going to cry.

‘Daddy cry. Do it. Do it now.’

Wait, you want daddy to cry?

‘Yes. On my birthday and mummy’s birthday.’

Why would you want me to cry on your birthday?

‘You always do.’

What? You’ve completely lost me now.

‘Me play in my playroom with daddy?’

Put them away, and then I’ll play with you. I said don’t sigh at me.

‘Why?’

Because…oh for crying out loud, I’ll put one away and you put one away, how’s that? Okay?

‘Okay, daddy.’

Okay, good. Here, that’s one. Now it’s your turn. It’s your turn. Pick that one up. That one right there. Where I’m pointing. Where I’m pointing, look.

‘Me not see it.’

Okay, now you’re just mucking me about.

‘Me not see anything.’

Right, that’s it. Straight to bed with no supper. Come on, up to bed.

‘No, me not go to bed. Me not tired. Me busy.’

With what?

‘Me got to put things in the cupboard.’

I know. I know you do. I told you to do it. Ten minutes ago. Ten minutes. You’re driving me insane, child, insane. Do you understand?

‘Daddy want a cuddle?’

Aaaaaaaawaaahhhhhhhhhhhh!

Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?