Parenting a toddler can be one of the most confusing and trying jobs, what with the power struggles and the toddler tantrums. But it’s also an incredibly important stage of child development, and the perfect time to set the parameters for your relationship with your little one. Here are two keys to parenting toddlers that will help you build a strong foundation.
She was in timeout. Again.
For probably the tenth time that day, there she was screaming herself into a purple hue of humid rage. Spitting on the floor between her bare feet, she took her fingers and began to swirl them through it. Finger-painting on the hardwood with her saliva, she made her disapproval known.
“YOU DON’T TELL ME NO!!” She bellowed.
Eep. I had told her no. I can’t recall what I’d said no to, but it must have been something terribly unfair.
OVERWHELMED AND WINGING IT
People speak of the ‘terrible twos’ in hushed horror. And then someone inevitably pipes up with, “Three is actually even worse.”
I mean, they’re not wrong. With my older two, who are now nearly eleven and eight years old, I found the year from 2 ½ to 3 ½ to be especially challenging. Toddlers have strong opinions on EV-ER-Y-THING—from what they wear to what they eat. Anything can become a battle.
Toddlerhood is where the physically taxing side of the baby phase overlaps with the mental and emotional marathon that is parenting older kids. It all meets in a dramatic collision of high pitched negotiating, empty threats, and sheer winging it.
Three kids in, I fancy myself a veteran toddler mom. I’ve got this thing down. I made all the mistakes with the older two, and number 3 is a piece of cake.
Actually, I haven’t brushed her teeth in two weeks.
Actually, I parked her in front of the TV this morning so I could hide from her whilst I scarfed down a chocolate bunny I’d squirreled away from Easter.
Actually, I’m still winging it too. Yet between God and Google, I’m figuring it out—one frantic moment at a time.
I suppose what raising nearly three toddlers has shown me is the toddler stage can’t be and shouldn’t be written off. We like to think of this season as something we need to ‘survive’ or ‘get through’ while in reality it is here, in these days of goldfish crackers and pull-ups where we lay a crucial foundation.
It’s really important, and it actually matters.
It is also incredibly overwhelming.
Our arms are constantly full. One trip wonders, we stagger from the trunk of the car to the door or our house with as many grocery bags as possible looped over our arms, while somehow still managing to grab the shoes and socks from the floorboards beneath the carseat. Keys in our teeth, we carry all the things.
At the same time, our minds are packed. We live in an age where not only are we navigating the opinions of our toddlers, but we are also jumping through the mental obstacle course made up of those of everyone else online. At the tips of our fingers we hold ten times the information our own parents had access to when they were winging it.
I am no different. In the middle of my overwhelm, I think I can finally narrow my toddler parenting focus to two main things: consistency and connection.
I’m a gym rat by pure accident. I do not naturally enjoy challenging myself or ‘feeling the burn.’ I was lured to the gym shortly after becoming a mother with the promise of free, included childcare and personal TVs with cable on the treadmills.
As the years progressed, I ended up braving the fitness classes and forming friendships. It became a part of my motherhood rhythm, and one day I woke up to the surprising realization that I had some majorly swole biceps and was capable of running a full mile without stopping.
I’ve had to adjust my routine over the years, but the goal remains the same: be as consistent as possible. The results simply happen.
It’s the same when you’re parenting a toddler. Toddlers feel most secure when they know what to expect. It’s not necessarily adhering to a rigid routine. Routine does not automatically equal consistency. In fact, a certain amount of go-with-the-flow can save everyone’s sanity.
Consistency in your expectations and responses is the goal.
Perhaps it’s simply parroting “yes please” when your toddler forgets the magic word. Maybe it’s singing the same lullaby at bedtime in the hopes of Pavlov-ing them to sleep out of sheer association; or a timeout every time they run into the street, or saying no crackers in Mommy’s bed. Whatever the things may be, do them as consistently as possible.
Some days you scrap it all and eat the chocolate bunny in the closet, but it’s the little things that add up. The many small corrections and redirections modify behavior over time, showing our toddlers where those boundaries lie, even as we are figuring them out for ourselves. One spitty tantrum at a time, we build those muscles and train for the long race before us.
Josh McDowell said, “rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” I’ve found this to be applicable in many areas of life, not the least of which is parenting.
Working in Early Childhood before having my firstborn, I was taught there is a reason behind every misbehavior. A child may be reacting out of hunger, tiredness, boredom—oftentimes their source of rebellion is me.
I’ve come to realize my youngest is most belligerent and destructive when I am distracted by my phone. I scroll, tweet, and post. She screams at my legs, throws things, and rips up books. My daughter is no sucker. She knows when Mommy is pushing her aside to do something with that glowing rectangle in her hand. And she rebels.
I’m learning to catch myself. I stoop down to this squalling mandrake at my kneecaps. I look her in the eye and apologize. Apologizing when necessary is one way to cultivate connection with your child. Intentional, sustained, eye contact is another quick way to reconnect.
When your child is only 1 or 2 years old, the reality is you haven’t known them very long. It is our job as parents to teach them, but also study them. Observe them and interact with them.
Connection and relationship do not happen by default; relationships take intention and work, and your connection to your child is no exception. By making connection (and not survival) one of our main focuses, we invest in the relationship we will have with them for the rest of our life.
This is the foundation upon which we build. These are the solid and secure roots from which the rules, routines, and expectations should grow.
In the meantime I can find solace in the fact that I guess Jesus spit on the ground too. I can gather my purple toddler into my arms and look into those angry eyes beneath her furrowed brow. I will continue to pull her into my full arms and full mind—but fuller still heart. I will consistently fight for that connection and send the rest up to heaven to be bathed in grace.
And then I will tell her no again.
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