Our son has come to that stage in early childhood development where defiance and mischief have gone from a casual hobby to a passionate career. For that reason we, like many parents before us, have turned to the experts for advice. Over the past few months, we have read books and watched videos created by those claiming to be the most qualified to assist novices in navigating the treacherous waters of toddlerhood.
The first book I read was penned by a disciple of the R.I.E. (Resources for Infant Educarers) philosophy. Created by Hungarian immigrant Magda Gerber, the movement focuses around respect for the autonomy of even the youngest child. The movement’s goal is to foster an “authentic child” who “feels secure, autonomous, and competent.” In a nutshell, it asks the parent to view their toddler as fully aware human and to communicate accordingly. A general rule of thumb would be: If you would not interact with another adult that way you shouldn’t interact with your child that way. Time outs? There are no time outs in life! Counting out loud? That crap doesn’t fly at a shareholder’s meeting!
“Educarers” are enlightened enough to recognize that their child’s misbehaviors are the result of the parent’s inability to effectively communicate their expectations. Following this path involves looking the child in the eye and explaining to them in a calm, unwavering voice that you do not wish for them to continue or repeat an action. It may take repetition and simplified sentences, but it will be well worth the effort once you and your offspring develop a reciprocal understanding of each other’s wishes and expectations. Gerber’s disciples vehemently reject the idea that a toddler is simply an underdeveloped human being helpless in the face of their desires and emotions. They dismiss this line of reasoning as the “caveman theory.”
Naturally, the very next book I read was by a child psychologist who was a staunch disciple of the very caveman philosophy denounced by the first book I had read. Not only did he disagree with the Gerber philosophy (which he called the “young adult assumption”), his book spent an entire chapter convincing the reader that the R.I.E. approach was not only ineffective; it was likely to lead to literal child abuse. The book was light on actual statistics, and I thought the RIE = felony inference was a tad heavy-handed. I understand passionately-held philosophical differences, but we might be getting carried away when one child-rearing book accuses another of perpetuating child abuse. It isn’t as if the first book came with a sock full of pennies and a list of plausible excuses to use on nosy daycare workers.
This book, called 1,2,3 Magic, instituted a system of counting to deter what it deemed “stop behaviors.” These would include insubordination, fits, arson, etc.. and when they occurred the parent was simply to address the child in a calm voice and announce “that’s one.” If the child were to continue the behavior they would say “that’s two.” At the count of three, an age-appropriate punishment would be applied. If they are younger, it could be a timeout. If they are older, perhaps they could be forced to open a MySpace account. He stresses there will be no discussion or explanation because any attempt by the caregiver to rationalize their actions would undermine their authority. Over a period of time, the child will learn to stop the behavior before the count of three.
I then watched a DVD from the Happiest Toddler on the Block series. This philosophy relies heavily on speaking “toddlerese”, a trademarked manner of communicating with a child. It involves the caregiver attempting to match the inflection and energy of an upset toddler to convey empathy and understanding. If the toddler is throwing themselves on the floor and yelling “BUT I WANT TO PLAY WITH THE CIRCULAR SAW!!!!” you would position yourself in a similar position and, with a slightly diluted level of energy, repeat “YOU WANT TO PLAY WITH THE CIRCULAR SAW!” until they stop.
Here the idea is that by using “toddlerese” you convey that you understand your child’s wishes and emotional response. Once the child realizes this and settles down, you would then be able to explain that although you understand their wish to fiddle with power tools, it might not be the best idea. There was also a section of positive reinforcement that seemed rather reasonable but contained a chapter called “playing the boob” which could lead to some unnecessary confusion among consumers.
Interestingly enough, the one of the few things that all the philosophies and authors agreed upon was the ineffectiveness of spankings. None of them recommended it and some went so as far as to suggest that they could irreparably harm the emotional health of the child. I found this especially interesting since I was spanked by both my parents and, on occasion, public school teachers throughout my formative years. I would say that I turned out just fine, but one could utilize the content of this blog to make a strong counter-argument.
Aside from the moratorium on spankings, all three alluded to something far more important: consistency. If you tell them that you are going to take away their iPad, take away their iPad. Don’t make empty threats or cave at the first signs of a fit. Otherwise your precious little offspring may find themselves staring at the business end of a Celebrity Big Brother 38 contract. Kids need guidance and boundaries. A wise friend of our family once observed that there is nothing more frightening for an impressionable young child than to wake up one day and realize that they are in charge of their own lives simply because their parents no longer wish to be.