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.

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.

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.

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.

Incorporating Joy Into Your Parenting

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)

A few years ago, Jennifer Senior’s book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, attempted “to look at the experience of parenthood systematically, piece by piece, stage by stage, in order to articulate—and in some cases quantify—what today’s parents find so challenging about their lives.” Her premise is built on the fact that many parents today have little joy or happiness in parenting because we’re so worried and concerned about our kids.

One of my goals as a parent coach is to help parents recover their joy in raising kids. I’m not talking about some Pollyanna-esque mental state of constant, relentless joy, but the quiet, inner joy that radiates from your heart at the sight of your children. That delight we have in our children’s happiness—not in our making them happy, but in their expressing their happiness. This isn’t about how we can make others happy, as that’s a losing proposition from the get-go. This is about rediscovering your own joy in the midst of the sometimes frustration, sometimes hard, sometimes trying, sometimes difficult path along the parenting journey.

How can we have joy in the messiness of raising kids? Here’s how I experience joy, even when I feel like crying or screaming, in my parenting.

Enjoy the moment. When I’m really paying attention to my kids, and not giving them the once-over as I dash by to complete the next item on my to-do list, I can experience joy in their own joy. Seeing a son’s face light up as he talks to his brother about something that happened in a book he’s reading makes my heart light. Hearing my two teenage daughters laughing over a K-pop video brings a smile to my lips. Watching my husband tell an awful pun at dinner that makes everyone groan, then laugh, warms my inner core.

Remember each day is brand-new. One of my favorite quotes from Anne of Green Gables is “Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it.” Let’s make a pact to not over our anger or hurt into the next day. Let’s start each day with the idea that we can do better, our children can do better, and that we can find joy in the day’s tasks, activities and challenges.

Let go more than hang on. When we parent with open hands, not holding onto our—or our child’s—regrets, mistakes or missteps, our hearts will be lighter, our responses more positive, and our outlook rosier. That’s not to say we forget about the past, but it does mean we try not to bring up things that have been resolved, and we don’t measure the future by the past or present.

Ditch perfection and settle for okay. Don’t chase after having the perfect house, raising the perfect kid or being the perfect mother. Be okay with average. Embrace being “good enough.” When we do our best but don’t sweat perfection, we breathe easier and relax more—excellent ways to allow joy to bubble to the surface of our lives.

Smile or laugh every day. Kids are funny, and raising them can be even funnier. When you have those moments where you want to laugh or cry, choose laughter. Not at your kids, but with your kids. A smile will soften any hurt. A shared laugh will knit you closer together. So smile more, laugh more and your heart will feel more joyful.

These are just some of the ways that I find to bring joy into my parenting and my life. Whenever stress, challenges, discouragement or frustration beats down my joy, it’s usually because I’ve let these five simple things slide. If you haven’t been doing any of these things and want to have more joy in your life, then pick just one to start with—you’ll be amazed at what difference a small change can make.

Until next time,

Sarah