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.

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.

Is Your Teen Stressed or Normal?

Q: My 17-year-old daughter claims to be anxious and depressed due to lack of best friends. She was homeschooled until junior year when she enrolled in the local community college full time. She’s getting straight A’s, held down a job, and participates in high school and community theatre. She is still somewhat of an “outsider” with high school kids but tries to initiate social events. Her anxiety and depressed moods usually occur when she’s overly busy or has been ditched by her peers. She’s not an attention-mongering teen by any means, and is an extremely kind and compassionate child.

Isn’t this normal teen angst? How can I tell if it’s serious enough to have her seen by a counselor?

A: Teens are suffering from depression in record numbers, and it’s wise not to ignore cries for help—even when you’re not sure the teen really needs it. A couple of things come to mind that might help you navigate the older teen years with your daughter.

First, don’t belittle her feelings. I can’t tell from your question whether you’ve told her that you don’t think her anxiousness or depression is “real,” so I hope that you’ve kept that to yourself. It’s important for us to listen to our teen’s struggles, and to provide a safe place for them to vent. It’s a fine line between encouraging and listening, so be careful not to provoke prolonged emotional outpourings, but being available and willing to listen without criticizing or offering advice is crucial, especially during the teen years.

Second, teens face real stress in their lives. Pressure from peers, teachers, themselves, and social media can make them feel anxious, stressed and depressed. It’s important for the adults in her life to be supportive, not dismissive, of her and help to mitigate the stress in her life. I recently wrote an article on teen stress you might find helpful.

Also, point out to your daughter during non-stressful periods how she acts and what she says when she’s stressed. Helping her to see the bigger picture will help her navigate the stressful ones better.

So yes, some of what your daughter’s facing is probably typical teen angst. Your best course of action is to listen more than speak, suggest but don’t force, and provide a safe haven for her to vent and make changes. If she does want to talk with a counselor or therapist, then help her find one who specializes in teens. If your daughter is depressed, you want to get her professional help sooner rather than later. Remember, therapists and other medical professionals can assist teens (and adults) in learning how to navigate the stresses life throws at us.

May Parenting Thought of the Month: Stress-Free Transitions

Need some practical ways to help your child switch gears between home and school, home and leaving, library and home, etc.?

First, it’s important to first understand how kids view change. In a word—they hate it. Children thrive on routine and knowing what to expect. It’s not that they can’t change—it’s just that they’d rather not, thank you very much. As adults, we’ve gotten used to change—we know we have to expect it, that we have to roll with the unexpected. We carry on little dialogues in our head that help us through change but a child hasn’t developed that internal dialogue yet, so that makes change even more difficult at times.

Second, establishing regular routines help a child feel safe, secure and loved. So if you haven’t taken the time to work on a daily routine with your kids, make that a priority. I think you’ll find transitions easier if kids know what to expect on a regular basis.

But we can’t always stick to the same routine every day because of a little thing called life. By giving kids the tools they need to manage the anxiety that comes with change, to stop apocalyptic thinking and keep their eyes on the positive, they will be happier and less stressed.

Here are 10 ways you can assist your children in adjusting to change—whether it’s a small one, like stopping by the store on the way home from preschool, or a major one, like moving to a new home.

Know how your child handles change. Some kids are more flexible when it comes to change, while others act like if we’ve done it this way once, it’s set in stone. One of my daughters prefers things to stay the same, and even at 13, I strive to not spring trips or visits on her at the last minute. We live in a fluid world, and sometimes we need to go with the flow, so to speak. A trip to the store takes twice as long as anticipated and now your child has to miss his favorite TV show. Or someone gets sick so planned trip to see grandmother has be postponed. By expressing that you, too, are sad about the change in plans can help your child handle it.

Be calm yourself. When we are frazzled, our kids pick up on that and sometimes can be as stressed as we are. Figure out how you can approach life with more calmness and less chaos, and you’ll find that transitions go a little bit smoother.

Think about what hampers your child from handling transitions easily. Is it around nap time? Meal time? Is it after school or before a soccer game? Discovering what might contribute to fussiness about changes will help you counter those and not be surprised when the balking starts.

Let him express his feelings—up to a point. A child should have more leeway when the change is a big one than when it’s a small one. By allowing him to say he’s sad or cry when disappointed can be a good thing, as long as we don’t then fuss too much over his feelings. A child, even a young one, needs to learn how to control his emotions. I’m not saying that he won’t have them or has to keep them bottled up, but rather it’s part of our job as parents to help him master his emotions—or they will control him.

Don’t over-schedule yourself or your child. Too much of the time, we try to pack too much into too short a time. We sign up our children for too many activities and sports, leaving precious little down time and time for play and being at home. Sometimes we create our own stressful transitions by packing too much into our days or weeks. Make sure you have regular intervals of time for your children to be at home without anything on the agenda but play and fun.

Give a 5- or 10-minute warning. This allows the child to begin to mentally prepare. I know when I’m caught off guard and need to leave right this instance, it throws me off, so I usually tell my kids, “In 10 minutes, we’re leaving for the library.”

Get yourself ready first. This seems too simple to have much impact, but if you’re not rushing around gathering things together, then you’ll be much calmer when readying a recalcitrant child. Have a staging area near the door that you can put all the things you need to take to the car, and have a place for your child’s things, too.

Outline the steps. For younger kids, give only one or two verbal steps at a time—more than that and the child won’t be able to remember. Use the Short and Sweet principle. For example, don’t say, “We’re going to the library for story time and to check out books. You want to get that dinosaur one, right? So you need to get on your shoes, go to the bathroom and get on your coat.” Way too long for a preschooler and most kids, frankly. Instead say, “Get on your shoes right now.” After that has been accomplished, tell him the next step. As your kids get older, you’ll only have to inform them where you’re going for them to know what they need. But be available for questions that might come up.

Set a timer. For young children, the concept of time has yet to become concrete. They have no idea how long things take or how long they’ve been “getting dressed.” A simple kitchen timer can be of enormous assistance in getting kids ready. I used one frequently for my kindergartners, who loved to race the clock. The timer keeps the child’s focus on the task at hand in a quest to beat time itself. So remember that the timer is your friend!

Build in extra time. Figure out how long it will take to get to where you need to be when you need to get there—and then add an extra 5 or 10 minutes. That way, when your son can’t find his shoe or your daughter decides today is the day to make mud pies, you’ll still have time to deal with the crisis and still be on time. There’s nothing more stressful than running late, so adding an extra cushion of time can help make you calmer and thus your children.

These steps should help you get out the door and home again. You can easily apply them to larger transitions, such as school to summer or summer to school as well.

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.

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.

Teaching Kindness

Q: How can I teach my 10-year-old daughter to have a kind heart? Her 7-year-old sister is always doing sweet things for her without prompting, and she sees it modeled between her dad and I doing selfless things for each other. We are just out of ideas to get her to think of others without being told.

A: I love that you’re asking this question because it’s important for us to teach our kids how to be kind and generous, tenderhearted toward one another, whether siblings or friends or classmates. As you’ve noticed yourself, some kids are born with a more generous, outgoing personality that spills over into little acts of kindness. This is how your 7 year old is (Younger), and that’s a wonderful thing.

However, I’m wondering if your 10 year old (Older) senses that you approve of her younger sister’s actions more than you do of her. In your question, you’re comparing the two—Younger is “always doing sweet things” while Older is not. I suspect that you’re probably either commenting about that in Older’s hearing or using nonverbal cues (smiles/fawning over Younger’s “sweet things,” while subtly judging Older for not doing spontaneous acts of kindness).

So first, please check your own heart and actions to ensure you’re not judging your girls the same. It also sounds like you and your husband are naturally good at these types of expressions, which can color how you look at Older and her seeming lack of kindnesses.

Second, remember that your children are different and have different personalities that express themselves in different ways. I encourage you to write down five things you see Older excel at and struggle with, then do the same for Younger. It’s important to realize Older has her own strengths and weaknesses just like Younger does. You might find that Older has other ways she shows kindnesses or a helpful spirit that you haven’t really noticed because it’s not as visible as Younger’s “sweet things.”

Now for teaching kindness, focus on both tangible and intangible expressions. For tangible, it can be helping kids to notice opportunities to be kind, such as picking up toys without being asked, volunteering to help with a chore or task, or helping to pick up something someone spilled or dropped. For intangible, it can be talking to the new kid during lunch, making sure to include everyone in the game at recess and being aware when someone’s upset and trying to comfort them.

Books help too, like Horton Hears a Who, The Invisible Boy, many of the Berenstain Bears books, The Giving Tree, and Anne of Green Gables. Reading and discussing characters who are kind and ones who aren’t can assist children in learning what kindness looks like and how to be kind themselves.

One thing we’ve done from time to time is ask each family member questions at dinner that touch on little kindnesses throughout the day, like

  • What did you do today that made you smile?
  • What did you do today that was kind to someone else?

Overall, it’s more about focusing on building character in both of your girls than in teaching only Older to be kind.