The Phrase That Has Changed How I Parent My Toddler

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On a recent morning, Liam and I wandered into the kitchen far too early. It was raining outside, and Liam said he needed something to eat. I was tired and a little resentful about being up. I gave him his requested cereal bar, and he asked for a glass of milk. We have several small IKEA glasses (“baby cups”–he calls them), but they were all in the dishwasher, so I started to pour his milk into a regular glass. He uses regular glasses just fine, but today he said, “No. Want baby cup.”

I explained that his baby cups were dirty and that he could use this glass just fine. But he protested; I stood firm. In the end it was a full-blown meltdown that ended with him wailing in tears and me feeling frustrated. It took a little while to comfort him and gain back our morning.

Looking back, I wish I had used one of my favorite parenting phrases.

I remember reading these magic words in Kiss Me! by Carlos Gonzalez. They have changed the way I typically handle these situations. Gonzalez writes a story about a mother finally giving in to a little girl’s demands and talks about what it looks like to give in gracefully. In this case, he says the mother could have given in gracefully and benefitted from “being a little nicer, getting out of a fix and at the same time saving face and preserving [her] dignity? (“All right, have the apricot. I didn’t know you liked them so much…”)” (emphasis mine).

In my life, I’ve translated this phrase in several ways, one of the most powerful being,

“I didn’t realize it meant so much to you.”

Sometimes I casually say, “no” to a request. Often my toddler accepts this and moves on. But sometimes he suddenly gets upset and protests. If you have a toddler, you know that this protesting is rarely predictable. Those words, “I didn’t realize it meant so much to you” have given me the freedom to gracefully give in when I see that something is a big deal to him or I want to avoid a battle.

Gonzalez wisely writes, “If you think you can give in, do so quickly and avoid arguments.”

I know that toddlers can’t get everything they want. I realize that they have strong preferences and they must realize that these preferences won’t always be accommodated. But how do you handle it when you unthinkingly tell your child “no” and then wish you hadn’t? Or when you want to give up the fight without teaching your child that tantrums are ok?

So much of the child discipline wisdom I absorbed over the years has been about never giving in, standing firm, and avoiding losing face in front of kids. One of my most shameful babysitting memories is when a little girl I was babysitting asked for an apple. She had a habit of asking for snack after snack and eating none of it. I told her she needed to eat the apple. I was so sure that it would harm my authority if I backed down, so I stood firm. She ended up having a long, tearful tantrum and crawling under her bed, crying.

When I called my mom, almost in tears, asking what I should do, she said, “Why does it matter if she eats the apple? You can’t force her to eat.” Instead of bowing out gracefully early in the situation or making no big deal out of a three-year-old’s choice, I let myself create a conflict that hurt both of us and ruined the time we were spending together. I doubt she learned anything about my authority other than the fact that I was a little intense about eating apples.

Ideally I would be able to think through every request before I say “yes” or “no.” In the real world, this just isn’t possible. And I’ve learned that there are times to give in graciously.

I notice this when I see myself around others or when I am around other parents. Sometimes in our tiredness, we allow ourselves and our children to become gridlocked about issues that just aren’t worth it. Occasionally another family member–or my husband–will quietly ask, “Wait. Why can’t we just wash the baby cup by hand?” or “Why can’t he take his bath now rather than later?” Or my mom will jump in and say, “Sure! I will cut an apple for you instead of an orange.”

There’s no way for someone else to tell us when it’s time to give in. It’s all about judging each situation. And of course, we should not and cannot give in on some things. But I do believe that there are times to gracefully give in. I believe this can teach kids about compromise and kindness and not sweating the small stuff. I use it as an opportunity to teach my son that next time, instead of screaming, he can just tell me that it means a lot to him to have the baby cup. Oddly, this seems to be helping.

There’s often not a clear right or wrong, but as a mom, I have to trust myself and notice when a demand I’ve made goes too far or when a “no” can be easily changed to a “yes”. Sometimes I let my own moods dictate my answers too much.

Two-year-olds aren’t rational, and it’s not all about proving my authority. I am my son’s parent. That gives me authority and power in and of itself. Adding a little flexibility and grace to our days won’t hurt him. And if he starts becoming too entitled, we can course-correct.

As these toddler meltdowns intensify, I try to remember to be patient and calm. Being able to give in and choose the right battles helps tremendously. It’s exhausting to parent in a fearful way, afraid that any giving in will harm your child’s view of your authority.

Sometimes I really don’t realize how much it means to my son to be able to climb into his own carseat or drink out of a baby cup. Sometimes letting him push his own stroller gives him the break (and exercise) he needs. As an adult, I hear very few unexpected “No’s” and have a great deal of control over what happens to me each day. I can (and do!) choose certain cups for myself.

Sometimes it’s just nice to say, “Oh, I didn’t realize it meant so much to you. You don’t need to scream. Here’s your baby cup.”

I wish I had done that on a recent morning.

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