The terrible 2’s; for most parents just saying the words causes a visceral reaction. Your once sweet little baby has learned that actions make things happen and he can leave a mark on the world around him. So he does. He marks on the walls, the dog, your couch. When he gets angry he throws things, he screams in public if he doesn’t get his way, and he refuses all manner of things which you have deemed non-negotiable (like eating). And that’s just the second year. What the phrase “terrible 2’s” doesn’t express is that the child’s basic attitude is going to be the same for the next 3 years or more. How do we, as parents, weather this 3 year long storm without losing our minds?
The first piece of advice I will give you is to remain calm. You need to begin developing the ability to remove yourself emotionally from the situation. I understand that little Billy has pulled your hair, kicked the cat, stuck gum in the dog’s ear, threw his diaper at the wall and just spilled spaghetti on your white carpet when you very clearly told him to keep it at the table. I get it, kids can be terrors. And at the end of a long bout with a 2 year old every sound they make grates like nails on a chalkboard. Here’s the deal: the mess will have to be cleaned up whether you’re mad or not, and the child won’t understand if you suddenly blow up screaming and hitting.
Your best weapon is not getting angry. This will remain true until your kid puts you in a home. If you’re constantly angry and yelling they won’t know the difference between you being mad about a spilled drink and you being mad about them drawing stick figures on your car with the key. Choose your moment to blow up.
Rather than breaking this post down by age I’m going to lump 2-5 year olds together because their behaviors and reactions to punishments are very similar during those years. They will all throw tantrums, throw toys, color on walls, spill drinks and food and generally make everything in your house sticky.
These tiny people are only just beginning to understand that they can affect the world around them. They will explore in every way they can and push every limit of your parenting. So when Billy gets out of line how do you make sure he knows not to do it next time? Tell him so. Every. Single. Time. Consistency is key here. You have to set boundaries and stick to them. If he hits, you tell him no hitting, and you do it every time he hits someone. No child will ever listen the first time. The only way to make a boundary stick with a child this young is to drill it into their head.
Consistency shows them where their boundaries are. If you’re inconsistent in reprimanding them for misbehaving they’ll think that a particular behavior is still acceptable sometimes. Make sure that you dole out the same punishment for a given transgression every time. But what type of punishment?
Children’s attention spans are notoriously short. Use it to your advantage. If they are misbehaving guide them to a more acceptable behavior. For instance if they are drawing on the wall, get out a coloring book and tell them to only draw in the book. Or give them a new activity altogether. They may resist at first, but keep directing them away from the unwanted behavior and their attention span will eventually bring them to explore other avenues for play time.
Every time your child experiences any type of emotional upheaval it is one of the worst things they’ve ever experienced emotionally in their life. Keep that in mind when they misbehave. If they throw a fit about riding in a car seat of the shopping cart let them know you understand, but that they have to do it. You don’t have to explain the reasons for why other than to keep them safe.
Eventually it happens to us all. A once proud man ends up on his knees bringing all his prowess as a negotiator to bear against a child that doesn’t come as high as his waist. It’s okay. You can negotiate, within reason. Things like giving them a cookie if they eat their vegetables, or buying them a $1 toy at the market if they behave. Do not give in after the negotiation though. If you take them to the market and they are a holy terror do not buy them that toy. Do not do it. Your are at that point reinforcing negative behavior.
I’m not a huge fan of time out. It tends to tell the child they are bad rather than their behavior is unacceptable. At least in my mind. However, they do have their place. If you tell your child to pick up his toys and he won’t, you negotiate some type of reward and still he won’t clean and you feel your blood starting to boil its probably time for a time out. One or two minutes at this age is enough time. You just want to give them time to be away from the behavior before reintroducing them to that environment. It works a lot like distraction, in that it shifts their focus away from what they were doing wrong.
This is one of my personal favorite ways to avert the dreaded tantrum. It reinforces that the behavior is not acceptable while still showing them that you love them. Most parents can overpower their children well into their teenage years. If you can’t, it might be time to use that gym membership you pay for each month. So if your child is throwing a tantrum, and will not stop, hold them close to your chest, tight enough to keep them from wriggling free or hitting, but not so tight as to hurt. Then start talking to them in a calming voice. Eventually they will tire of fighting you and will accept your embrace. Afterwards set them down and explain that whatever behavior started it all in unacceptable.
Okay, finally. Time to get out Ol’ Slappy and teach this kid some respect! Not exactly. I was raised like 87% of Americans. I got whipped when I misbehaved, but my parents did it a little bit differently. I can honestly say I don’t ever remember getting spanked when my parents were angry. The parent that I had misbehaved with would say, quite matter-of-factly that when the other parent got home I would be receiving a spanking. They would take me away from my siblings and dispense punishment. I wouldn’t get embarrassed in front of people and I didn’t associate spanking with anger. If you’re going to do it I’m going to say this is probably the most sensible way to spank. It removes the conflict of telling your children not to hit and then hitting them because it is displayed directly as punishment rather than a knee-jerk reaction. It shows that this is a result of the actions taken, not of the anger those actions caused.
I don’t applaud spanking. I don’t recommend it, but I will say that it has it’s place. It is the very last place in a long line of punishments, but it’s there. I’ve heard a lot of people argue that they don’t remember the reasons they were spanked only that they were. To them that speaks against whipping children, because all you remember is the pain and fear. I would ask those people though: do you remember that you had done something wrong? The fact is that once you know there is a final punishment for wrong-doing you learn to watch your boundaries much more closely.
Most children of this age know when they are doing something they should not. The memory that, if they push that boundary too far, they will get spanked may help keep them in check. But, I will reiterate that you only use spanking AFTER the fact, not in anger, and you NEVER need to pick up an object to use when spanking. If your hand can’t do the trick you don’t need to be doling out the punishment. I know many of you will disagree with me here and that’s fine. If you don’t want to spank your children don’t. But find another way to make damned sure they know actions have consequences. This will lead them to being better adults and understanding that under the rule of law there are consequences of varying degrees for various transgressions.
Here’s a little trick to incorporate into your disciplinary arsenal. Congratulate and reinforce positive behaviors even more than you discourage negative behaviors. Children want attention, especially from their parents. Ever heard a child say “Mom. Mom. Hey, mom. Mom! Mommy? Mom! Mom! Mom! Mom, look! Mom!” only to say something like “Hi” when they finally get her attention? Give them attention, praise them whenever they do something good. They sit down to color and actually use their coloring book? “Wow, buddy, those pictures look great! Can you draw me something else in your book?” There are millions of situations I could list off, but you know what behaviors you want to reinforce in your child, so do it through praise, not by trying to eliminate ALL of the bad ones.
Read Part 2 – Punishment: Babies Don’t Understand. Do They?
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