How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

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Imaginative play and the autistic male

Oh my gosh, my daughter is driving me insane. Now nearing three-and-a-half, she has reached the stage where imaginative play is pretty much the only thing she wants to do, and my life has consequently devolved into an endless game of mummies and babies, doctors and nurses, car journeys, shopping trips, picnics and tea parties, and I honestly don’t know how much more I can take.

I don’t mind playing with her. I like building towers out of wooden blocks and playing with her toy trains. I like sword-fighting with her and doing flash cards and making up songs. It’s the pretending games I can’t stand.

When I spend all day and much of the night looking after a real baby, I have little interest in looking after a plastic one. When the only thing I do that isn’t looking after a baby is driving to the shops to go food shopping, it’s a real struggle to get motivated about driving an imaginary car to an imaginary supermarket to buy imaginary items with imaginary money. And I have no idea how many cups of air I’ve drunk, or wooden finger cakes I’ve scoffed, but if they were real I’d bankrupt the NHS with my soaring blood sugar and endless bladder problems.

Ironically, the easiest one to bear is being a patient in hospital.

‘Daddy, please can you play doctors with me?’

‘Do I have to do anything other than lie on the sofa?’

‘No. You got a dinosaur in your tummy and I got to cut it out and make you better.’

‘Fine, knock yourself out. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…’

At the other end of the scale, the hardest is when she decides the four square feet between the back of the armchair and the wall is her house, and I’m her neighbour, who lives in the main part of the lounge, because she always invites me over for dance parties where I’m expected to shake my booty.

‘How about you come over to my house, where there’s much  more room?’

‘Coz it’s my party in my house.’

‘But why don’t we pretend this much bigger space is your house?’

‘Because this is my house and you need to be dancing!’

So I squeeze myself in and simply shift my weight from foot to foot, because that’s all I can do. You want to know where I get my ‘dad dancing’ from? It’s here. This. Especially when it’s to Justin freaking Fletcher. (Although to be fair, his version of ‘What does the Fox say?’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, even if my daughter sings it as, ‘Why does the fuck’s sake!’)

And she gets so into her games that anybody not buying into her reality gets short shrift.

‘The drawbridge is closed, you can’t come through here!’

‘But my coffee’s on the windowsill.’

‘You can’t come in.’

‘Well, I am because I’m going to get my coffee.’

‘No, you can’t come in, no, NO!’ Cue screaming, shouting, crying, trying to block me, holding onto my ankle as I drag her behind me across the lounge (‘You’re in the moat! You’re in the moat!’) to get my gosh-darned drink. It’s excruciating and it never seems to end.

Now, I imagine many parents have this problem, but for once I’m going to play the autism card and say, ‘I just can’t do it, and it’s because of my autism.’

I have NEVER got imaginative play, even when I was young enough to enjoy it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I understood my own play – it was other people’s imaginative play I couldn’t get.

I’d treat my own toys as though they had thoughts and feelings. I once dragged my mother all the way back to playschool because I left my imaginary pet rabbit there. But give the same suspension of disbelief to other people’s toys and games? I didn’t have the ability.

That’s why at nursery, I’d wander straight through the middle of the farmyard the other kids had set up and not understand why they were now angry and upset – they were just pieces of plastic. That’s why I had no problem breaking my brother’s toys – they had no feelings, although he clearly did, and I’d invariably feel bad (and confused) a moment afterwards when I saw his tears. I was simply unable to appreciate that others could have the same emotional attachment to their toys and games as I did to mine – a fundamental inability to understand how other people think and feel.

And that’s why I’m struggling so much right now. I just don’t get that my daughter is investing her emotions into an imaginative reality.

However, while I might not get it, I can understand it at an intellectual level and adjust my behaviour accordingly. I know that imaginative play is important in child development, and I know that for the benefit of her emotional wellbeing, not to mention our relationship, I have to pretend that the things that are important to her are also important to me. So that’s what I do, as painful as it is.

The best way of surviving it? Biblical levels of sarcasm that she’s too young to understand.

‘What’s that? You want me to keep my voice down so I don’t wake your baby? Gosh, I wish she was just a cheap piece of hardened petrochemically-derived organic polymers, but since she’s clearly a real baby, then okay, honey, I’ll be quiet.’

‘What? Your baby has a poorly knee? Oh poor her, what an absolute tragedy. I’d better drop everything and see to it right away because it’s definitely so much more important than anything I was doing.’

‘I can’t come through here because it’s on fire? Well, let me check what’s on my utility belt, shall I? Wow, what do you know? I just so happen to have a fireproof suit I can put on. Holy asbestosis, Batman! Now get out of my way.’

Of course, if she learns to detect disingenuousness before she grows out of this imaginative phase, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do!

Explaining ‘fat’ to an innocent

Just had my own Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy moment with my three-year-old. Luckily, I caught the whole thing on video, so what follows is a transcript of a real conversation with a toddler.

Izzie: I want something to eat.

Me: No.

Izzie: I want something to eaaaaaaattttt!

Me: No. There’s no way you can still be hungry. Why do you want to eat?

Izzie: Because… [no answer]

Me: You’ve just spent all afternoon eating.

Izzie: Um, I want to eat…I want to get fat like you.

Me: [silence]

Izzie: I want to get fat like you, daddy.

Me: That’s really hurtful. Is daddy fat?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Is daddy bald too?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Is daddy a great big loser at life?

Izzie: Yes.

Me: Thanks so much.

Izzie: I have something to eat?

Me: No. Look, come here, sit down. I want to have a talk with you. Do you really think I’m fat?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Is mummy fat?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Who else is fat?

Izzie: Rosie [her baby sister]

Me: What about you?

Izzie: I am fat.

Me: Gramps?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Granny?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: But they’re thin and you’re definitely not fat.

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: So what do you think ‘fat’ means?

Izzie: Brick.

Me: Brick!?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: Fat means brick?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: What does ‘brick’ mean?

Izzie: Brick means beads.

Me: Brick means beads? What does ‘beads’ mean?

Izzie: Chair.

Me: [pause] Are you just saying things you can see?

Izzie: Table.

Me: What does ‘fat’ mean?

Izzie: Err… [no answer]

Me: Do you know what ‘fat’ means?

My wife: What do you think it means, Izzie?

Izzie: Wall.

Me: Do you really think that’s what it means or are you still just saying things you can see?

Izzie: Wall.

Me: I love lamp.

Izzie: Wharf.

Me: Wharf?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: You said daddy was fat.

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: But you don’t know what it means, do you?

Izzie: I do!

Me: So what does it mean?

Izzie: Fort.

Me: Fort?

Izzie: Yeah.

Me: So what does ‘fort’ mean?

Izzie: Fort means eeurgh! Yuk!

Me: [chuckling] You are such a freakazoid.

Izzie: I have a bath now?

Me: Sure, go and have a bath. But sweetheart, don’t call people fat, okay? It’s not nice. Okay?

Izzie: Okay.

Me: Okay.

Later, I tried to explain to her what ‘fat’ meant, and you know what? It’s an awful lot harder than you realise. I told her that when you eat too much you can become very big, but she thought that was a great idea.

‘No,’ I said, ‘You don’t want to be big.’

‘But I a big girl!’

‘Yes, you’re a big girl, but tall and grown-up big, not fat-big. Fat-big is when you’re big sideways. Look, see daddy’s big belly. When it’s big like this, it’s fat, okay? And when your arms are big, and they hang down, that’s…well, that could be because you’re old, and…you know what? Yeah. Sod it. Fat means brick. Fat means wall. If you’re built like a house, that’s what fat means.’

She was right all along…

[And in case you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the Brick Tamland scene where he loves lamp.]

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!

Holidays (with children)

A holiday to North Devon in a heatwave. What could be better? I imagined it as an opportunity to reconnect with my wife to the backdrop of glorious sunsets and a soundtrack of tinkling wine glasses. Something like this, in fact:

DSCF4410
Heaven.

Alas, that’s not us. That’s some random childless couple we found while driving around at 21.45 trying to get the kids to fall asleep (without much success, I hasten to add).

The reality of holidaying with children couldn’t be further from the above image. I know that sounds kind of obvious, but my God, I had no idea the true horror of spending seven days in a static caravan with a nine-month old, a three-year old, and a wife. Dante’s Inferno is nothing next to this.

It’s not just the whining and the crying, the constant distraction, having to watch this one nearly drowning in the pool while wiping the other one’s nose, remembering to apply the suncream, saying no to the third ice-cream of the day and enduring the tantrum, taking this one to the toilet after that one has just pissed all over your lap – it’s the fact that the sun doesn’t set until half-nine, the van is like a furnace inside, and they don’t go to bed until midnight even if you start trying at six. Far from reconnecting with my wife, there was no time to do ANYTHING without the kids. And I mean anything.

I haven’t had a pee or poop for a week without an attentive audience.

It’s not as though we didn’t cram the days with activities to wear them out. I’ll take one day as an example, the day of the above photo. It started at the Valley of the Rocks in the morning, where we did a 3-mile round trip along the cliff path, with me pushing the double buggy while carrying a heavy backpack loaded with water, milk, biscuits, nappies, wipes, suncream, hats, spare clothing, maps, plasters, painkillers, dolls, rattles, camera…

IMG_1768
My daddy, the hero.

…while my wife carried herself. We then went to Lynton and rode the railway down to Lynmouth, explored and ate ice-cream, and I took some beautiful pictures of the harbour.

DSCF4149
Pretty.

After riding back up again, we drove to Heddon Valley, where there’s a track to Heddon’s Mouth that’s ‘suitable for all-terrain pushchairs’.

IMG_1896
My arse.

After struggling a mile down a rough, rocky track with a double-buggy and heavy backpack, we made it to a pebble beach where my eldest threw stones into the sea while I fed the little one…

IMG_1904
All right, wait for it!

…and then I struggled the mile back UP the rough, rocky track with the double pushchair and the heavy backpack, now loaded with stones my wife thought looked pretty, while she continued to carry herself. And did I mention the temperature was 30-degrees-plus? I must have lost a gallon of sweat.

After a bite to eat, we headed back to the campsite and went for a swim, and then tried to put the children to bed.

Well, you already know how that one ended. At midnight. With me exhausted, dehydrated, and just about ready to undo the brakes and watch the caravan roll down the hill into the sea, kids, wife and all.

In fact, instead of improving my relationship with my wife, this holiday gave it a bloody battering. I don’t recall ever having bickered quite so much. Where’s this, where’s that, why did you do that, why can’t you ever…? Oh for goodness sake, for crying out loud, what the hell, oh come on, and on and on. As an illustration of how innocent I was, I packed a book to read and a DVD for my wife and I to watch one evening. Ha! Read a book? Watch a DVD? Are you freaking kidding me?

But at least it wasn’t just us. One night, I put the kids in the puschair and walked down the hill, and from inside every caravan I passed I heard a similar tale of woe – crying, screaming, bickering, shouting. I wonder if anybody enjoys going on holiday with young children.

I think it would have been easier if I’d realised, going in, that it would be full-on as a daddy and zero-on as a husband or even an individual. Perhaps when they’re a little older, things will be different, but at this age, holidays are all about the kids.

But don’t ever make the mistake of thinking this will make them happy, or grateful, or even pleasant to be around. It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent seven hours with them in the swimming pool, or taken them to the amusements to blow a fortune on 2p machines, or carried them strapped to your back or chest up and down mountains, or gone to an interesting castle only to spend the whole time in a playpark, or read to them a million stories – the next time they’re hungry, or hot, or tired, or just irritable, it will be your fault and they will make you pay.

So why go on holiday? Why indeed. I mean, you’re still doing all the crap you do at home, only it’s far harder because the routine has gone out of the window and the kids are overstimulated so they’re harder to handle. But then, perhaps this sign I saw in Clovelly can explain it better than me:

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The best things in life are the people we love, the places we’ve been, and the memories we’ve made along the way.

And while changing a nappy is always changing a nappy, when you’re doing it in a place that looks like this…

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…it can’t be all bad, can it?

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