Clara has really amped up her game since she turned two. She learned how to open doors and climb out of her crib in one day. The next day I put her down 34 times for her nap. The following day, 60 times. 60 times! We put all the bar stools in the garage because she climbs them and we don’t want her to get hurt. And there’s also the constant stripping down naked. Sigh.
My lesson in self control
For a month now God has been teaching me about self control and I’ve just now had the revelation as to why. (I’ll give you one guess.) The words “self control” popped off the page at me as I read the Bible. I was doing a study in James, it came up in James. I was also doing a study in Peter, it came up in Peter. It seemed it was everywhere.
One day I told Ashby on the phone I thought God was teaching me about self control. After we hung up the phone I turned on the radio and, I kid you not, the first words spoken were “self control.” Alistair Begg was doing a short series on self control. He also used examples from James and Peter. I couldn’t make this stuff up, friend.
Then I started freaking out a little. In what area did God think I was wildly out of control? I told my friend Sasha about it and she thought God was teaching me in advance because I would need it soon. He was giving it to me when I had the time and energy to learn because once I would be in the moment I wouldn’t have those. So on point, that girl.
A week or so later I was over at Ashby’s house and Clara was being quite naughty. She hit Ashby’s son and pushed him. She climbed up on their counter. She dug out the trash. She pulled at a devotional in my hands as I tried to show Ashby something I had read (which by the way I randomly flipped to a page on self control). Ashby was sweet and encouraged me, saying I was doing a good job. But I was clearly tired.
We talked about discipline and how you have to get it under control earlier rather than later. We discussed about how we can’t let our kids get away with everything just because we’re tired. And how the crazy thing is they love you more for giving them boundaries!
Then I got in the car to pick up Adriano at preschool and Alistair Begg was giving a sermon on discipline and practically laid out what we had discussed, point by point. (Do you even believe me now? It’s true!) I was so grateful for this confirmation!
At the school Clara was being awful and wild. She was yelling, pulling on me, taking her shoes off, throwing them, trying to take down decorations, arching her back so I couldn’t hold her. I ended up sitting on the floor and constraining her, listening to the teacher talk about the kids’ day in front of the other moms. Seriously. Humble pie is served.
In the end, Clara ripped a poster off the wall and brought it to me. It was the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I’m pretty thick-headed but even I got that one, Lord! My child had to literally hand me a poster spelling it out for me, but I got it.
Toddler bedtime battle
God was growing me in self control so I would be ready for Clara at age two. I’m going to need self control, self discipline, vigilance if I want to handle her toddlerhood with more grace than I did with the boys. That was the day I had to put her in bed 60 times. The Lord knew I would need some motivation! Holy cannoli.
When she learned to climb out of her bed I put her back in bed 34 times. I went all Super Nanny style and put her back to bed each time without saying anything or looking her in the eye until she went to sleep. (Don’t worry, she climbs out in one maneuver, as slick as a ninja, and a new big girl bed is already on the way.)
The next day I put her back 60 times. Praise God for his encouragement. I refused to give in.
The following day she got out 8 times. The day after that she went down the first time and hasn’t climbed out since! That was a couple weeks ago. Perseverance pays off. But, as with all things toddler, this is subject to change.
If God hadn’t prepared me I wouldn’t have had the endurance to keep putting her back in bed for an hour and a half. It would have inevitably gone on for months if I would have given up the 10th time. Maybe I would have even give up on naps if it got too difficult, which she clearly still needs at 25 months.
Yes, our third two year old is giving us a run for our money, but we’ve read the books, listened to sermons, watched Super Nanny, even had a long counseling session on discipline since our first baby.
I now realize age two is going to depend a lot on my own attitude. Will I be continually aggravated and yelling? Or can I be calm and persistent? The latter is more effective for both of us and better for the family as a whole. Sticking to your guns when you say no is 100 times more effective than screaming and throwing an adult fit. I know. I’ve done both.
It’s important to start early. Mischief might be cute when they’re 2 or 3 or even 4, but it will not be cute when he is 10. By then it will be immeasurably more difficult to correct after the cognitive system is developed (by about age 6 or 7).
So here are my best tips for toddler moms. I need a good reminder too. No particular order here.
Some specific discipline strategies for toddlers
1. Pray for wisdom and pray for your child. Involve God in this process. Maybe he’ll teach you that you need some self control. Ha! But seriously, this is the most powerful tactic of all. I pray for strength and wisdom from the Lord and to be the mother he intended me to be. For my kids I pray for faith, a hunger for the word, to come to Christ early, protection, for good friends, the right teachers, a godly future spouse, a career that suits them …
2. Stay calm. You are the boss, so be in control. People of all ages respect that.
3. Follow through. Do what you say you will do. Do not offer 20 warnings or you will have to give 20 warnings the next time. This also significantly cuts back on yelling when they are older and leads kids to doing what they’re asked the first time. Can you imagine?
4. Timeouts. We do a lot of timeouts. There is a specific dining room chair we use because it is out of the action. This eliminates confusion and arguing about where timeout will be. At first you will have to put her in the chair so she’ll know where to go. Once she learns that, keep putting her in time out until she learns to stay. I’ve heard the rule of thumb one minute per year of age, but two minutes is too long for Clara. I shoot for 30 seconds to a minute right now! When she sits down I remind her why she’s in time out. When she gets down I encourage her to say sorry and give her a hug if she’s upset.
5. Toys can go in timeout too. If a certain toy is causing a problem — the child is hitting with it or kids are fighting over it — tell them it’s going in timeout. Our toy time out is on top of the fridge where no one can reach it! Luca says I need to dust up there because I get his things dirty, but that’s a topic for another day.
6. Remove temptation. Yes, it would be nice if you could just teach junior to leave all the knickknacks alone, but I find in my own home it’s best just to remove the object of temptation and have one less battle during the day. At our house we currently have all the bar stools in the garage because Clara just can’t help herself climbing up. We’re also worried she’ll fall. So for now, it’s ok that they’re in the garage.
7. Firm touch on back of neck. If you are being continually ignored or ran from, you can give a small squeeze to the back of the neck and guide them where to go. It’s not to be too hard or hurt them, just to regain control. I got this from James Dobson’s “Dare to Discipline” (affiliate link).
8. Pick your battles. You can’t win them all and even if you could, who has the energy? Pick the important ones and let the little things go.
9. Don’t tell them they’re bad. I usually say “that’s naughty.”
10. Offer lots and lots of love and cuddles. We are called to love our children unconditionally. I give lots of love to my kids in the form of quality time, cuddles, kisses, holding them and telling them I love them. Even if my older kids are in trouble I will never refuse a hug or deny them affection. They always know Mom and Dad love them even if they’ve been naughty.
11. Give ample praise for things they do right. When a child is going through a phase of testing Mom and Dad, I get frustrated saying no all the time and don’t do this or that. I want to make sure I’m giving them my praise and excitement for the sweet, helpful or listening they are doing.
12. Acknowledge their frustration. Toddlers know more than they can express or do with their little bodies. It’s frustrating! Say something like, “Oh, I’m sorry that you can’t get your backpack open. Let’s try it together. See?” We all want to be understood, they just don’t have all the words yet.
13. Distraction. Don’t forget about the power of distraction during a tantrum. When a child is throwing a fit, ask a simple question. What’s this on your shirt? A puppy? Do you like puppies? There’s a red bird over there. Do you see it? You’ll be surprised how far this will get you!
14. Don’t offer a long explanations. You are the parent and no is enough. My child might want to eat a whole bottle of vitamins because they taste good but that doesn’t mean they are good for her. I can’t explain that to a two year old. I do it because it’s what’s best for her. Use short sentences. They don’t need the Miranda rights read to them.
15. Back your spouse up. Be a team. My son unknowingly gave my husband and I a great compliment awhile ago when he told his brother, “You don’t have to ask Mom because she’s just going to say the same thing that Dad said.” Marcello and I did a high five after that one. We haven’t always done this but at one point we decided we wouldn’t contradict the other in front of the children and it was a game changer. If you don’t agree with your spouse, talk about it when the kids are not around. Did you know that your way isn’t the only right way? It took me awhile to catch onto that one.
16. Give them plenty of sleep time. Everyone gets fussy when they haven’t had enough sleep. If your child is being especially defiant examine his sleep schedule. Is he getting enough? I don’t go strong on the discipline when I know my child is sleep deprived. A two or three year old needs 10-12 hours of sleep a night, plus 1-3 hours during the day. I have better behaved toddlers when they take a nap in their own bed instead of the car too.
17. Make sure they have a full tummy and nutritious diet. Has she had enough to eat today? Is she hangry? It’s also a matter of what they’ve eaten. Junk and sweets have a behavioral relationship. More than 3 tablespoons of sugar can alter the balance of good and bad bacteria, shutting down the immune system. (That’s about 1 fun-sized Skittles packet). Artificial coloring and preservatives have been shown to affect hyperactivity. I know this is common sense to feed your children healthy food, but I’m surprised to see how many parents offer junk food to their little ones who don’t ask for it or even know what it is.
18. Get all the wiggles out. It seems little boys especially need to exercise and move around. My best strategy when they’re being wild is to wear them out!
19. Engage their minds. One of my children often gets in trouble because he either wants attention from me or because he’s looking for something to do. Get out some play-doh. Color. Pull out a toy they haven’t seen for awhile. In other words, keep them busy!
20. Offer a choice. Strong-willed children often become frustrated when they don’t feel in control. Give them a choice between two items to give them a say in their lives.
21. Spend time together. This sounds obvious, but I can stay at home with my kids the whole day and not really engage them. Get down on their level, be a part of their world and play dinosaurs or baby dolls. It helps to spend some quality one-on-one time with your child before you need them to play solo. This will hopefully curb some of that need for attention when you have to get some work done.
22. Teach manners early. Encourage them to say please, thank you, sorry. They might not understand manners at a young age, but believe me, these words will roll off their tongue a lot easier when they are older.
23. Get a leg up on whining. I’ve got a four year old with a strong whining game. I’m trying to curb that somewhat with Clara in advance. When she whines I say what she’s trying to say for her in a plain, pleasant voice and end with please, hoping she’ll eventually recognize the contrast. Even something simple like “Water, please.” I’ve noticed with young kids you can’t just tell them not to whine. They don’t even know what whining is.
24. You and your child are not best friends. I keep hearing moms say that their daughter is their best friend. That sounds great for a daughter who is grown, but not a little girl! I can’t wait to have beautiful friendships with my littles one day, but today I am their parent and will guide them to the right path even if that means I’m the bad guy sometimes.
25. Delight in your child. If you have a strong-willed two year old you might want to come through the computer and punch me in the nose for saying that, but hear me out. Ashby sent me this Chuck Swindoll sermon and he asks listeners if they their childhood home was a happy place. Was yours? (Sadly, most people answer no.) He encourages parents to find deep joy in their children, make them feel welcomed and delighted in. It’s something Ashby reminded me that I need to ask God to show me how to do. Just as we need the Lord to give us his wisdom and strength to parent, we also need his help to delight in our children as he delights in us.
Another friend recently shared that she was struggling disciplining her two year old and I was able to share with her my experience with my oldest and I want to extend it to you. Keep doing it. It might not look like it is making a difference, but it is. Pray for strength. Remain consistent. Give consequences. Stay calm. You are in control, not the child. I didn’t think I was getting anywhere with my strong-willed son and all of a sudden at about age five and a half I started to see some results. That’s a long time to wait to see results! Here’s one example.
We were at the local children’s museum and it must have been a full moon because all the kids inside were wild. One mom said, “Jeremy do you want to leave? If you do that again, we’re going to leave.” He did it again and they didn’t leave. As little as he was, he knew they wouldn’t leave. I (finally) had a contrasting example. Don’t read this as a comparison because I was that mom years earlier and have been made a fool many a time. That same trip Luca ran off without me after a warning. I told him to go sit in time out by himself and he did it — the first time I asked and said he was sorry without prompting.
I wanted to cry. All the consistency, following through, time outs, tireless reminding had stuck in there somewhere. Oh, it’s far from perfect, but today it’s more manageable. Honestly, without the Lord’s mercy, books, sermons and refusal to give in I’m not sure where we’d be. In a far worse spot for sure. I’ve cried so many tears.
God has changed my heart from viewing this time together with my kids with a certain level of self pity to viewing this time as an opportunity. I have a short window of time to teach them the way of the Lord. As Dr. John Trainer said, “Children are not a distraction from work. They are the most important work.” I have to repeat this to myself frequently.
And finally, if you’re wondering, I do spank. I would hate to spark a spanking debate because this is not a hill I want to die on. It’s not my go-to course of action and I don’t believe every child should be spanked. We follow Focus on the Family’s method.
If I sound like I’ve got it all together, I don’t. I loose my cool. My kids throw tantrums in public. I’m humbled frequently. But these things are happening less and less and this is not by accident and it won’t happen on it’s own. It comes with God’s help, love, discipline and time.
If you’ve gotten anything from this or have your own advice to add, pretty please share. I love talking with you!