Sassiness and the Toddler

Q: My 16-month-old shook her finger and said, “No, no” in a sassy way after my husband told her “no” when touching something she shouldn’t. How do I correct the sass back at this age appropriately?

A: My first response to your questions was, “Good luck with that,” but then I realized the written words couldn’t convey the twinkle in my eye and my sympathetic expression. I wouldn’t want you to think I was making light of your question, because I know how disturbing it can be to have a child so blatantly—and without remorse!—challenge our authority.

Because make no mistake about it—that’s exactly what your charming sasspot is doing. But in a toddler way that limits your response. If she were a teenager, my answer would be different. For a toddler, you have limitations due to her tender years and her immaturity.

She’s just over a year old, still growing, still exploring her universe. Her brain is developing at a rapid rate—her body can hardly keep up with all the new things her brain wants to do! This is one major reason why toddlers throw such massive temper tantrums. Their bodies aren’t coordinated enough to accomplish what their racing minds want to do. Everything’s new and exciting because everything is literally new and that’s exciting to them. There are worlds out there that need exploring, but a toddler brain doesn’t have the maturity to realize the hidden—and not-so-hidden—dangers lurking about in this wide new world.

All of which means she will look you in the eye and respond to your “nos,” with a wicked, little smile…then do exactly what you just told her not to do. Is she being willful? Yes. Is she being deliberately sassy? Not in exactly the same way as a child of four, ten or fourteen is being sassy. A toddler doesn’t consciously know her tone is sassy—she’s blissfully unaware of such nuances.

Therefore, a wise parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s tone of voice, just like that parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s eyerolls, shoulder shrugs or other nonverbal communication of disrespect or sass.

But a wise parent also doesn’t allow a toddler to do the thing the toddler was told not to do. In other words, the wise parent corrects a toddler’s actions, not a toddler’s outward display of inner rebellion.

What can you do when a toddler says no and does the forbidden thing? You take away the item (if there is an item) or you remove the child from the situation. At this age, it’s restrain and removal—those are the toddler’s parents’ go-to for effective discipline.

Family Tree Treasures

By Susan G Mathis

I’d just put my baby and toddler down for their naps when the phone rang. It was Mom, calling to chat. A few minutes into the conversation, she said, “Today is the anniversary of your dad’s death.”

Since he died three months before I was born, I asked her to tell me more. That day, she shared how he became a Christian just ten hours before he died. For me, this became a treasure in my family tree. One day, I’ll meet my father in heaven, and that will be a glorious day!

From this experience and more, I wrote my debut novel, The Fabric of Hope: An Irish Family Legacy, loosely based on my family’s story. It’s about an 1850s Irish immigrant and a 21st-century single mom who are connected by faith, family and a quilt.

In most of our family trees, there are beautiful branches of faith, limbs that appear gnarled and confusing, and new growth that struggles for life. But all of the lives in our family tree are precious to the Lord, the creator of life.

Grandma Graham was my dearest companion growing up. Her strong faith in the Lord, her steadfast trust in Him, her constant devotion to serving God and family taught me a lot during the 13 years she was in my life. She laid a firm foundation for helping me know who God is and why we are here on this earth.

My brother Paul struggled to live for the first two years of his life. Seizures attacked him daily, and he was in the hospital more than he was home. It was hard to understand why my baby brother had to struggle so, but today he’s a productive man who loves God and cares for our mother.

In every family tree there are shining lights, confusing lives and heartache. Too often we are so busy that it is hard to dig out the treasures buried deep in the stories of each life. Whether those stories are ones of miscarriage, infant illness, childhood tragedies, or long productive lives, there is a sacredness that every human life carries with them. It may be from a glimpse of a baby on an ultrasound or a struggling life who knew challenges that no one should have to deal with. It may even be self-imposed addictions that ravage a person but he somehow overcomes.

God sees and knows, and our stories are important to Him. We have the opportunity to redeem our story and those in our family tree. We can look at the beauty of each life and see God’s redemption, even in the most broken lives. Digging out these treasures and passing on your family story can heal deep hurts, redeem ugly memories, and change our lives.

About Susan G. Mathis
Susan G Mathis is a versatile writer and author of The Fabric of Hope: An Irish Family Legacy. Susan has two Tyndale nonfiction books, Countdown for Couples: Preparing for the Adventure of Marriage and The ReMarriage Adventure: Preparing for a Life of Love and Happiness. She is also the author of two published picture books, Lexie’s Adventure in Kenya: Love is Patient and Princess Madison’s Rainbow Adventure. For more on Susan, visit her website.

Slowing Down the Extracurricular Activity Freight Train

Q: I’m trying to put a slow down on the extracurricular activities by asking my kids to choose one or two. How much input should they be allowed in deciding which ones? For example, I think they need to be on the swim team this summer, but they are complaining about having to get up too early. I believe this is important because we spend several weeks at the ocean every summer and being strong swimmers to me is a safety thing. This seems like laziness rather than lack of interest.

On the other hand, my 12-year-old daughter wants to try out for a play that rehearses for several months and the actual show runs for three consecutive weekends, all of which I will be required to drive her to. I’m feeling guilty and selfish because I don’t want to do it. I know you’re not one to force kids to do extracurricular activities if they are not interested. Where do I draw the line?

A: This is a great question, one that we all struggle with as parents, especially because of how many activities with which our kids could be involved. You have a couple of questions here, so let me address the one about feeling guilty and selfish for not wanting to drive your tween to play practice first.

My favorite story from the book, Bringing Up BeBe, about an American raising kids in France is this one. The author asks one of her French friends about how the friend’s daughters’ tennis lessons are going. The Frenchwoman replies that they’ve quit the lessons. The author asks why, and the Frenchwoman says matter-of-factly: “Because it wasn’t working out for me.”

I love that quote because it sums up exactly what you’re saying—the tennis lessons, while possibly very worthwhile for those French girls, were not good for the mother. This Frenchwoman didn’t feel guilty or selfish for stopping something her girls enjoyed doing. She understood that sometimes, it’s better for a child to stop doing something for the sake of the mother (or family or father or siblings).

So if you’re going to be worn out with driving your tween to rehearsal and the performances will impact your family in any kind of negative way, then it’s perfectly fine for you to say no to this activity. Alternatively, you could say yes if the tween finds her own rides to rehearsals, with the understanding that you’ll attend one performance only.

Now, as to whether to make your kids be on the swim team. Yes, swimming is a vital life skill for kids to learn. Can they learn it apart from being on the swim team? Probably, as I imagine your pool offers lessons (or group lessons, which would be less expensive). If lessons aren’t feasible, you can sign them up and just inform them that they will be swimming this summer. We’ve not given our kids a say in whether or not they take piano lessons, even though they grumble at times about practicing.

Going forward, you can say they can do one activity per season or semester (September to December or January to May, for example). Or you can simply give a list of the activities for choosing, depending on the family’s and your schedule. Don’t be afraid to say no to any activities for a set length of time if you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed. That’s okay too.

The bottom line is that activities should fit in with the overall family’s life, not just cater to one child. Saying no because it doesn’t suit your schedule is perfectly reasonable. If more moms would take care to how activities, sports and other events impacted their well-being, I think the world would be a little bit calmer—I know most households would be!

A Peaceful Home

Note: On the fourth Tuesdays, I’m starting a new blog series on the Fruit of the Spirit, taking us through the nine character traits and applying that to raising kids.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

We all want peace in our homes, but in the chaos that is our lives, we often neglect to do the very things that can bring peace into our homes. Why is peace such an illusive character trait? I believe it’s because at its heart, peace is about setting aside our own wants, desires and sensibilities. If we truly want to peace, it has to start in our own hearts. If we’re not practicing peace, then we can’t expect peace to dwell in our families and homes.

How do we become lovers of peace? By becoming active peacemakers. Here are seven ways to transform ourselves into peacemakers—and to see that peace spill over into our homes. When we’re calm and peaceful, it’s much easier for our spouses and children to be so too.

Value peace over being right. I confess, this one gets under my skin! It can be hard for me to let go of being right for the sake of peace. I’m not talking about compromising my values or going contrary to God’s word—I’m referring to all the minutiae of our daily lives, the stuff that really doesn’t matter in the big picture. When we can decide to let the other person “win,” then we can have a more peaceful heart and demeanor.

Be willing to “lose” more than you win. This goes hand-in-hand with valuing peace more than being right. When we’re not “in it to win it”—when every conversation doesn’t have to be about us coming out on top—we will bring more peace into our lives, and into the lives of everyone around us. With the world so focused on winning at all costs, it can be very freeing and, yes, peaceful, to let go of that burning need not to “lose.”

Apologize first. When saying “I’m sorry” is needed, be the first one to offer that sincere apology. Don’t wait for the other person to start the reconciliation process. You take the first step. Sure, it can be hard, especially when it’s a difficult situation and your feelings are hurt. But taking proactive steps like being willing to be the first to offer an apology is essential to being a peacemaker.

Overlook the little stuff. You know what I mean—those little annoyances, like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or not unloaded the dish drainer. Those little things that get under your skin faster than a tick in the spring. Look instead at those little drip, drip, drips as opportunities for you to bless the other person. Not by magnanimously “overlooking,” but by putting the cap on the toothpaste and unloading the dish drainer with an eye to be a blessing to someone else…even if that person never notices your act.

Answer anger with softness. As Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (ESV). When we reply to anger with peace, it dilutes the anger. It’s hard to be wrathful when the person with whom you’re angry is not answering in kind. Make it a practice to respond to anger with gentleness.

Disengage from conflict. Like fires, conflicts escalate when fueled by wind or fresh wood. When we can stop engaging in the conflict until all parties cool down, we can bring about a more peaceful resolution. This is especially true in the parent-child relationship, where it’s the wiser, older parent who has more power, and thus to disengage from a budding conflict often douses the conflict.

Practice reconciliation. While this is a larger topic than can be covered in a blog post, here are some general guidelines for reconciliation: acknowledge the hurt, stress compromise, use questions to understand the other’s point of view, and come up with a solution agreed to by both parties.

Being committed to peace can be hard, especially in today’s collective me-first attitude. But it’s well-worth the effort to do our part to give our homes a more peaceful setting. For more information, I highly recommend The Peacemaker by Ken Sande and The Young Peacemaker for kids.

Eating in Peace

Q: We adopted two girls (ages 8 and 10 at the time) almost 5 years ago from an African country. They were incredibly picky eaters and refused to try new foods. I have been customizing our meals to accommodate them but lately have gotten fed up with their rude, entitled attitude towards my meals. They are also negatively influencing two younger children, who we recently adopted from the same country, but who are willing to eat everything.

I have uninvited them from dinner, which means they have to make their own meals and eat them on their own. Our relationship is already strained and not eating dinner together is distancing us even further. I don’t think that I can train them to eat new foods at this point in their lives as teenagers. Any suggestions?

A: Oh, dear. This has become a mealtime battle, hasn’t it? And it’s impacting your relationship with your precious girls. Adopted or not, this kind of daily friction can so easily erode the parent-child bond, but all is not lost! There is hope for a stronger bond between you and your daughters and to have mealtimes stop being full of anxiety—all without your cooking special meals!

But it will take work on your part, but I think you’re up for the challenge because on the other side is family meals and a closer bond with your older girls. You’re the adult, so you’re going to have to take the bigger steps toward reconciliation. This doesn’t mean you cater to them, but it does mean that you will smooth the way back into the family fold. Here’s how.

First, welcome them back to the table. The first couple of meals, make things you know they like. Not to cater to them, but to help sooth ruffled feelings.

Second, let each child (even the younger ones) pick one vegetable that they will never have to eat. That’s right—even if it’s served, they can say, “No, thank you” with your blessing. Post the list on the fridge (this is essential to avoid any confusion). My mom did this when I was a kid, and I’ve passed it along to my four kids. For example, my youngest choose potatoes as his veggie to avoid, so whenever we have potatoes, he doesn’t have to eat them. He can eat them (and he does eat French fries!), but he’s not required to eat them. To make this work, the child has to pick one specific vegetable: Not “squash,” but “spaghetti squash.” But the child has to eat everything else that’s served. If the child refuses, the “no, thank you” veggie is back on his or her plate. Then each year, either on a designated day (we do New Year’s Day) or child’s birthday, you allow the child to change or keep the “no, thank you” veggie. Simple, yes?

Third, remind them of the protocol for meals—manners for meals training. Items to be taught (over the course of several meals or weeks) include how to set a table, how to react when something’s served they don’t like (no “yucks,” for example), appropriate topics of conversation, etc. Work on this as a family. We often discuss our days or have a “question of the day” roundtable discussion. Eating together is more than about the food!

Fourth, follow the “one bite” rule. Each child or teen gets one, small teaspoon (literally, a very tiny bite) of everything on the table. Once their plate is clear, they may have seconds of anything on the table. In other words, no going to the snack drawer after eating the first bites!

Fifth, start involving the girls in meal prep. Buy a kids’ cookbook (Rachel Ray has a great one!), and then let each one pick a meal to make each week. Then that girl helps you cook that meal. Food always tastes better when you helped prepare it.

Sixth, consider starting a vegetable garden this summer. Again, let the girls each pick one veggie to plant, tend and pick. The closer your girls get to their food, the more likely they are to eat it! Or sign up for a community supported agriculture share with a local farm and get fresh produce delivered or picked up weekly during the growing season.

I hope this list spurs you to think of other ways you can connect your girls to food and, without their knowing it, expand their palate!

A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

By Brenda Cox

My friends just lost their 23-year-old son. He died peacefully in his sleep, but his loss is no less grievous to them and to those who knew him than if the circumstances had been traumatic. We all know it is not the natural order of things for parents to outlive their children. We may believe the death of a young child is somehow more painful a loss than that of an older child, but grief is every bit as intense for his parents because he was their child.

Of course, parents are grateful for the years they had with a young adult child who dies, but his loss is no less an acute once he is gone whether he was 20, 30, 40 and so on. The questions are still the same: Why him? How could God have allowed this to happen? How could we have prevented it? What do we do now? How will we ever get over this?

Friends are often helpless to know what to do. We bring food and clean and send cards, but nothing can alleviate the terrible sense of loss the parents have to navigate their ways through. The heartbreak of a parent’s worst nightmare becomes their “new normal.”

My friend came to church about two and a half weeks after her son died, and when I saw her, I went over to give her a hug and welcome her back. She put her head on my shoulder and cried for what seemed like an eternity – a full body, convulsive cry, and I couldn’t say a word I was so overcome grieving with her. I realized that in that moment, that was all she needed – a shoulder to cry on and my arms around her. Another friend joined us, and she apologized for making a scene. I didn’t think before I spoke, but I said, “You can stand up and wail as loudly as you want, and we’ll be right here with you.”

It seems to me that that is what grieving parents need, to be held, to have their grief in whatever form it takes to be acknowledged and accepted without any judgment or qualifications and for as long as it takes. Everyone grieves differently, but everyone needs patience and understanding through a process that may never truly end. How could you ever “get over” the death of your child? You may come to terms with the fact of the event, and you might not cry as much in front of others as time passes, but part of your heart will always long for him.

As her husband came to sit with her, all I could say in leaving her side was, “You know we love you, and we are here for you.”

I can show that my continuing to send cards, especially at holidays and on significant dates; I can keep the hugs going; I can take her for walks; I can continue to take them meals; and I can invite them to dinner at my house. I can continue to love them knowing they still love their son and will always miss him terribly. And then I hug my thirty-five year old son as tightly as I did when he was ten.

About Brenda Cox
Brenda H. Cox is a life-long English educator at the high school and university levels. She earned a BA at The University of South Carolina, an MAT from The Citadel, and a PhD at The University of Georgia where she served as the Assistant Director of the Freshman English Program. She was affiliated with the National Writing Project site at Clemson University where she led a Writing in the Humanities Institute and is a member of the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She has taught numerous writing workshops and delivered papers at state and national conferences and directed The Young Writers Conference at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where she was an Assistant Professor of English Education. She has published articles in English leadership and in 18th century rhetoric. In addition, she has served as a writing consultant in numerous school systems in the Southeast and in the American and International Schools in Kuwait. She also served as a Reader of Advanced Placement exams for The College Board, and her students have won numerous local, state, and national awards in writing. Brenda lives in Greensboro, N.C., and is married to Jim Cox.  They have one son and daughter in-law and two perfect grandsons.

The Question of Spanking

Q: When is spanking appropriate with a 3 year old?

A: When my second child (a daughter) was around 3, we began punishing her for disobedience. As with her older sister, spanking was in our discipline toolbox. However, unlike our eldest child, this daughter was made of sterner stuff—more stubborn and willful. This was the child who, when told not to do something, would march over, do the forbidden thing, then march herself down the hall to the “spanking place” to await her punishment. With such a child, spanking wasn’t going to have the desired effect of determent and conscience-building, so we quickly tossed spanking out of her consequence toolbox and inserted other, more memorable and effective punishments.

Why did I tell you that story? To illustrate why I can’t answer your question with a one-size-fits-all reply. When is spanking appropriate for a 3 year old? The answer depends on the preschooler in question.

So, if you don’t mind, I’ll answer the question I wish you had asked—what is the purpose of [insert punishment method here]? When you can answer that question, you’ll have the answer to your specific question.

The purpose of punishment is twofold: To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior (not about himself, but about what he did) and to develop a child’s internal motivation in order to stop a child from misbehaving in the future. Augustine had a great thought on this: “A conscience cannot be healed if not wounded.” In other words, as a determent for future misbehaviors and as a way to develop a child’s conscience and sense of right and wrong. For more on this, watch my video on “Consequences and Kids.”

Finally, a caution: Be careful that you don’t use spanking or other consequences to bring about an external change only in a child. Just because a child doesn’t outwardly seem to care about getting spanked or sent to her room doesn’t mean the punishment isn’t working. All too often, parents sometimes get carried away and want a child to show with her demeanor that she gets why what she did was wrong, and that doesn’t always happen immediately. Sometimes, the punishment takes a while to work on a child’s heart. Sometimes, a parent needs to figure out a different way to reach the child’s heart. That is one of the biggest dangers of spanking—if a child acts as if spanking doesn’t matter, a parent can be tempted to spank harder or longer to bring about that outward change or remorse. And that’s not healthy for the parent or the child.