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This Parenting Class is Not Working

This Parenting Class is Not Working

“This parenting class is not working,” exclaimed the frustrated father of three standing in front of me.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “last week my three-year-old tried to flush a jump rope down the toilet and I had to spend four hours taking the whole thing apart and putting it back together. It was a mess. I thought this class would keep those sorts of things from happening.”

A lot of parents think a parenting class will help them avoid children doing what children naturally do at various ages and stages in life. Trying to flush a jump rope down the toilet is something very natural for a toddler to attempt. I’ve known toddlers to cover themselves in petroleum jelly when their parents thought they were napping. I’ve experienced a toddler who intentionally peed down a heating vent, “because I want to.” I’ve observed young children step deliberately into large puddles with their good shoes simply to experience the thrill of water on their feet and ankles, never mind the mud spots on the party dress. 

Simply put, to be a toddler is to be curious. Living with them is life on the edge. One minute you’re trying not to laugh hysterically and the other you’re terrified they may hurt themselves. They can be fearless about things that should cause them concern—like heights and hot things, and terrified of things they should embrace—like unfamiliar foods and new clothing. It’s why a child under the age of four or five requires a lot of adult supervision. It’s also why their parents are often exhausted.

Toddler Tantrums

Many parents think their child is unusual because he won’t stay in his bed at night, or she has a meltdown in the middle of the store. They wonder if their youngster, once compliant just a few months earlier, has been invaded by an evil spirit of some sort. Tell them it’s time to go home from a friend’s house, ask them to pick of their toys, refuse them a cookie 15 minutes before dinner and you’re likely to have a full on red-faced, screaming-at-the-top-of-their-lungs tantrum in progress with many a two-year-old. It’s the kind of thing that can bring an exhausted parent to the edge of sanity, wondering what they were thinking when they decided to have children.

The fact is that tantrums are common to young children, especially to toddlers. Developmentally, they are learning to make choices and assert their will, but they also lack the vocabulary and ability to adequately express themselves.

Let’s say it’s 5:30 p.m. on Friday. You’ve just picked your child up from daycare and want to stop by the grocery store to pick up a pizza and a few other items for supper. You know this will likely be a challenge for your little one, but you think it will only take a short time and they can manage. Unfortunately, there’s a fair chance this will not be the case. Your child is tired and bored. He doesn’t have the capacity to say, “Gee daddy, it’s been a long day. I don’t much feel like going to the store. It’s boring and my coat is itchy. Can’t we just go home and have peanut butter and jelly?” 

Rather, you’re much more likely to get fidgeting, whining, and crying. Then, just when you think you’re about to get through the check-out line to the exit, he sees a treat he wants to have—something he insists he must have now—and he starts howling at the top of his lungs for you to get it for him. It’s his way of expressing his dissatisfaction with the entire situation, but it feels humiliating to you.

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Taming Toddler Tantrums

So, what’s a busy, stressed-out parent to do? You might consider avoiding shopping with a hungry, tired toddler at all. Take a young child to the grocery store at mealtime and you set yourself (and your child) up for unwanted drama. When possible, avoid circumstances and situations where you know your young child will have difficulty managing her behavior. At the very least, make sure your child is well-rested and recently fed before embarking on a shopping excursion.

But suppose your child is well-rested and just doesn’t like going to the store and lets you and everyone around you know if very loud and uncertain terms. Now what?

1) Avoid rewarding the tantrum. When a small child is unable to manage his mood, it’s best not to reinforce unwanted behavior by giving in to whatever he is screaming about. If you do, you’ll be teaching him that all he needs to do is scream loudly to obtain the desired result. 

2) Have an exit strategy. Toddler tyranny in the store is often not an unexpected experience. Most parents anticipate that there could be problems. Considering this, some parents mentally prepare themselves to calmly ignore a screaming child. This can be effective, but hard to do in a public place. Others remove themselves and the child from the situation, for example, they go to the car, to a remote corner of the store, or even home. This, of course, works best when you have another parent to assist you. The most important thing is to do it calmly.  

3) Do reward positive behavior. Before entering the store, you might say, “We’re going to go into the store to buy some groceries. If you sit quietly in the cart until we are done, then you can have . . . (something the child wants) in the car on the way home.” Of course, you should only offer a reward you can give quickly because a young child’s attention span is short.

Much more can be said about various strategies to help a child learn to control her emotions, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that learning to parent well is about learning to manage yourself in the face of childish behavior. When you learn to manage yourself, your tone of voice, choice of words and your facial expression, there’s a much greater chance your child will learn to manage herself. 

There will be many challenging opportunities to practice self-management during your child’s lifetime. Ideally, parents learn more quickly than their child how to manage a frustrating situation with a calm demeanor, because when parents are in control of their emotions children are much more likely to learn how to manage theirs.

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