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.

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!

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.

Who Should Set a Teen’s Bedtime?

Q: Is it unreasonable to tell a 16-year-old boy he should have lights out by 10 p.m.? He works hard on school, despite not liking it, but often stays up until 1 or 2 a.m. doing homework or reading. He has plenty of time in late afternoon, evenings and weekends to do it, but has created this odd schedule for himself.

Now he is also doing part-time work, about 7-10 hours per week, and his (very kind) boss has commented about him being crabby. He wants to go on a weekend retreat with our church that always wears out the kids by Sunday evening, so we told him to adhere to this bedtime before we decide if he may go. He is NOT happy with this, ripped up his retreat registration form and is generally hostile about the whole idea.

A: The short answer to your question? It’s not unreasonable, but it might not be enforceable.

Of course he’s hostile—he doesn’t want to be told when to go to bed as if he’s a toddler and not a teenager. The fact of the matter is, even if he complied with lights out at 10 p.m. each evening, that doesn’t mean he would actually get more sleep. You can lead a kid to bed, but you can’t make him sleep, no matter the age.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set guidelines for him to follow that could help him go to bed earlier. For example, he must turn in his electronics by 9 p.m. each evening (central place for charging personal devices, laptops/PCs/tablets shut down, etc.). The TV goes off at a set time as well. The kitchen closes at 9:30 p.m. each evening (no midnight snacks, etc.). Those general restrictions should assist with homework not being done late, since so much of it is done online in high school.

As for his boss saying he’s “crabby,” well, that’s up to his boss to address if son’s attitude is getting in the way of his serving customers. So I’d leave the crabby comment in the workplace arena and allow his boss to take action if necessary. That’s a natural consequence that your son can solve if he wants to—and better coming from an adult with authority over your son than your trying to solve the problem for him with an earlier bedtime.

For the church retreat, even if your son goes to bed at 10 p.m., there’s no guarantee he’ll return from the retreat well rested. He will be tired and out of sorts after the retreat no matter what. Sometimes, teens need to find their own sleep limits before they’ll value sleep. I know my two teenage daughters know when they need to go bed because they’ve had to deal with the consequences of not getting enough sleep. Often, they will put themselves to bed earlier than usual because they’ve realized they need a little more rest ahead of a big test or after a sleepover, for example.

Overall, having in place home policies, like for electronic devices, is better than micromanaging a bedtime for a teenager. Model good sleeping habits yourself, discuss why sleep is important and let natural consequences happen when he doesn’t get enough sleep. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post on “Why you need to pay attention to your older kids’ sleeping habits” that has more info on this topic.

A Boy’s Early Curiosity Alarms Parents

Q: When my son was 5, he tried to search for “girl’s pee pee” and other related terms on his tablet, which luckily was on the child setting. We talked to him the best we could even though he denied it happened. We put extra tight restrictions on his already very limited tablet use. When he was 7, we discovered that he tried searching for much more explicit content (sex, sex with kids) on my husband’s computer, knowing he’s not allowed to use the Internet without an adult around. He was swiftly and severely punished for breaking that rule.

I was an utter mess about what he may have seen, and why and even how my little boy was so interested in this topic. I probably did too much talking, and he said nothing but “I know” in response. We are always reminding him that he can come to me or his dad with questions. But, he doesn’t ask us questions or come to us ever. And he is smart and sneaky about getting what he wants.

We bought an age-appropriate book about boys growing up/body changes, and my husband read it to him and our 10-year-old son (who has never been found to be involved in anything related to this.) Now, at age 8, I saw that my son wrote the word “sex” all over our shower door, while showering. He mostly plays with one other 8-year-old boy in our neighborhood, and sometimes is around other 10- to 11-year-olds, with his brother. Our boys have very limited screen time and no Internet access on their tablets, and only use it in a shared room with permission. He has no history of abuse. I’m sure the kids “talk” on the school bus, and it’s a curious topic for boys, but being that it started so young and he already has some graphic thoughts in his head, I’m worried about where it came from and how to stay ahead of things from here on out. Should I be worried?

A: I don’t mean to alarm you, but yes, you should be worried. You say “he has no history of abuse,” but I’m not sure that’s true. It’s rare that a 5-year-old would search out something like that on his own initiative. My initial, gut reaction is that someone older than him—a boy on the bus, a teenager or an adult—said something or showed him something that triggered that search.

If you’re absolutely, positively sure that he’s had no unsupervised time with an adult man (even a family member other than your husband), then my guess is that he’s viewed pornography. Either he stumbled upon it on his own or someone showed him something at school or the neighborhood. Even at his tender age, the fact remains that pornography is frighteningly easy to come into contact with—even without meaning to. Kids as young as your son who have seen pornography often don’t realize exactly what they saw, and that sparks curiosity, confusion and shame (hence, his not wanting to talk to you about the incident or incidents).

As you’ve seen, your son will deny viewing whatever it is he saw. He’s 8 years old—he barely knows what it is he’s seen, but he’s curious or intrigued. He’s been leaving you clues—sex written on the shower door, searching for “sex” on the computer he’s not supposed to touch—so act on those clues now. And by act, I don’t mean further punishment for your son.

What to do going forward? Eliminate all electronic device usage—no tablets, no computer time, no video games—for both boys. Just stop cold turkey. Lock up your own devices to help him avoid temptation.

Wait a few weeks before broaching the subject again. During that time, rebuild your connection with your son. So often our kids don’t want to share things with us because we’ve let the connection with them dissolve or fray. Spend time with him without bugging him about this topic, etc.

You will need to talk with him again, but do more listening than talking. Maybe your husband could take the lead and talk about his own foibles into sex (crushes on girls, other boys who talked about sex, etc.). Nothing graphic, but sharing more how hard it is to say no or “un-see” something. He shouldn’t push your son to share, but a series of conversations will likely get your son to open up about what he saw or someone showed him, etc.

Finally, if, after reading this answer and reflecting on the past few years, you have doubts about whether your son has been abused or could have been in a situation where abuse could have occurred, then please, please, please act immediately. There are professionals out there—medical, psychological/counselors, law enforcement—who will help, who are trained to assist and protect kids in these situations.

3 Ways to Hook Your Kids on Devotions

By JP Robinson

Last week, I told my kids that I’d have to cancel our devotions that evening because a family activity had run later than expected. Their response was typical: a resounding chorus of “oh no’s! and something on the lines of “Pleasssse, can we have devotions tonight?”

I call this response typical, and it is…for us. Perhaps it’s not typical in most homes but I’m blessed to have kids who literally beg me for devotions. This post identifies three ways to help you get my kind of problem—kids who are disappointed when devotions are cancelled!

  1. Show your kids that God is the Best. Thing. Ever.
    Devotions don’t begin when you gather your family together. They are an ongoing expression of commitment to God. Getting your kids “hooked” on Jesus, is something that every parent needs to do 24/7. If we limit our dedication to Jesus to 15 minutes a night, then we send a message to our kids/tweens/teens that God is not the center of our lives.

Remember: your kids won’t buy into devotions if you’re not showing them that you’re “devoted” to God. I love the word devotion. It entails commitment, love and sacrifice. When we show our children that God doesn’t revolve around our lives, but our lives revolve around God, we’re setting the stage to hook their interest in time spent in the Bible.

Think: How can we expect our kids to be excited about God if we parents are too busy to go to midweek service or too tired to read our Bibles every day?

  1. Get creative. No, you don’t need to spend money or do acrobatics in the living room. What I mean is, don’t limit the format of your devotions to simply talking about Scripture.

Remember: Kids of all ages learn best when they’re doing or seeing things. Classic example: I was trying to teach my kids how just a little sin can contaminate their spiritual health. A few drops of purple food coloring in a cup of water produced a lesson that even my youngest remembered weeks later.

Think: You’re competing with school, friends and social media for your child’s time and attention. To be effective, devotions need to be engaging and—to a certain extent—fun.

Try dramatizing a Biblical lesson (no costume needed) or enhancing a biblical discussion with a short movie clip. If all else fails, a quick Google search on “Devotion ideas for busy families” produces almost 4 million results.

  1. Let the kids run the show. This is perhaps the most effective strategy of the three. Too often, parents feel that devotions mean that they talk while the kids sit and absorb the information. As a high school teacher, I can tell you that engaged kids are the ones who really learn.

Remember: If you feel guidelines are necessary, that’s fine! Just keep it loose so they’re free to express their creativity. Not only does this take some pressure off of you, but it also engages your children from the onset.

Think: No matter how old your children, assign them each a devotion night. Let them take ownership and run the show their way.

I hope that these tips place your family on the road to power-packed devotions. Keep up the good work and God bless your efforts to nurture another Christ-loving generation.

About JP Robinson
JP Robinson began writing as a teen for the Times Beacon Records newspaper in New York. He holds a degree in English and is a teacher of French history. JP is known for creating vivid, high-adrenaline plots laced with unexpected twists. Born to praying parents who were told by medical doctors that having children was impossible, JP Robinson’s writes to ignite faith in a living God.

Early Riser Plagued by Fears

Q: Our 6-year-old son is an early riser. He is to stay in his room until 6 a.m., then allowed to come downstairs to play quietly. Lately he has been waking up mom and dad because he’s scared. We try not to talk to him about this because it’s probably more about him being lonely or wanting attention. We tell him to go find something quiet to do, but he comes back. Going to his room after dinner and to bed early on days when he bothers us this way has worked in the past, but is there a better fix for these tired parents, so we can get off this roller-coaster?

A: Ah, the joys and challenges of an early riser! There’s nothing more frustrating than kids who get up early when you want to sleep. Having boys myself who rose well before I wanted to get up, I understand your tiredness, but since there were two of them in my house, at least they had each other to play with, so I didn’t get the “scared” aspect.

I recommend a two-pronged approach to solving this dilemma. First, I would move his bedtime up earlier because 6-year-olds need more sleep than you think, and that might help alleviate some of his fears—when you’re tired, everything is scarier.

Second, when he leaves his room to play downstairs in the mornings, have a CD player he can pop in a CD, like his favorite music or audio book. That will “keep him company” while he plays by himself. Sometimes, just having a little background noise can help chase away feelings of uneasiness.

Finally, be sure you have touch point connections throughout the day with him. It might be that he’s not getting enough of those interactions, which don’t have to be long, but more speak to him directly. Some kids like snuggle time while reading a short book. Other kids like having mom or dad listen as they tell about the newest dinosaur they like. Still other kids enjoy sharing jokes or sitting in the sun singing a silly song. If you fill up that bucket during the day/evening, your son will be more likely to feel content—and less likely to let his fears run away with him.