Visions

10 Things Parents Should Never Say to Their Toddlers

These covertly regressive ideas are invading our parenting of young children.

Progressive ideas are an endangered species, on the run in politics, all but extinct in schools. Watch out for these covertly regressive ideas invading our parenting of very young children. When we are doing one of the most challenging jobs around, we all need something to lean on. But while these phrases might seem like quick, smart, even benign interventions to stop unwanted behaviors, a closer look shows how they miss their goal, and worse, undermine your relationship with your 1-, 2- or 3-year-old child. Progressive ideas aim to create a tolerant, respectful, nurturing social environment in which we can all develop and learn to relate to each other without punitive restraints, but these phrases echo and impose a set of values and conditions we reject for the wider world.

1. “Time Out!”

Borrowed from sports, this phrase is very useful—in sports!  During a match the coach uses time-out to stop the play in order have a pow-wow with the team to reconfigure the strategy. If “time out” meant this when parents said it, I’d be all for it. Sadly when parents or teachers use this phrase they really mean, “You fouled! You are benched! Get over there by yourself!”

I understand—in your frustration with your little mischief-maker, you feel you must do something to let her know she is taking the wrong path. This may seem like the gentler version of needed discipline, but sadly, it’s a not-very-well-disguised dunce cap and toddlers are not fooled. You probably don’t realize it’s humiliating for them, and scary because they really don’t understand it. Little kids don’t know the rules yet, so benching them to “think it over” can't work.

It helps to remember that toddlers are meeting the world for the first time. They need us to teach them the ropes and the rules—and they will need the same lesson more than once. So if your little one does not behave as you want her too, it is much more productive to stay with her and explain what you want to happen and why. If you can’t get to this yet because it’s blown into a tantrum, it’s often helpful to hang in there and try, “Let’s sit over here and talk about it.” Then, using all your self-calming meditative skills, you stay with your child—through thick and thin, tantrum or not. And when the iron is cold, that is, when you have both calmed down, you can briefly explain: “You got very angry. Do you need a drink of water? I can’t let you hit—hitting hurts! We can find a better way to work this out. I will help you—let’s go back and try again.”

2. “Use your words.”

Guess what? Even if they are verbal geniuses (and think about it, how many of those are around?), toddlers, even at age 3, don’t always have…well, words. Especially the ones they learned yesterday. In addition, they are just not available to the brain when a child, or grownup for that matter, is upset. They need grownups to give them words for what they are feeling.

You might have noticed yourself that naming feelings is not as easy as naming colors or reciting the alphabet. This is a big empathy moment, and it helps to recognize your own difficulty. I know you may feel ready to tear your hair out because you don’t always understand what the problem is and how to name it, and quite frankly, you are desperate for your child to tell you. It’s very hard when a small child is whining or crying because that’s the best self-expression he has available just now.

So here’s an approach that could be helpful: You start by matching his upset tone, and you say something like, “Oh, Bobby, I can hear you are upset.  Dear, oh, dear! Are you feeling x or y…? Is this what you are feeling? We can work it out. Let’s think about what you need.“ The matched tone of your voice and that good phrase again—“let’s think about it”— are good to use in most situations. With experience, your child will trust that you are going to help, and not try to box with him in the wrong weight range. Your child might have needed contact, which you’ve given in your attempt to solve the problem so just asking the questions is all that’s needed. Oh, and by the way, you’ve just provided words to grow on and given a big demonstration of what to do instead of whining—talk about it.

3. “Don’t run.”

I ask you, parent of a toddler, is there is a more futile phrase in the English language? Do they ever listen when you yell after them on the street? Maddening to the max. But here’s a secret: They don’t listen because our brains react better to “do’s” than “don’ts.” So in an emergency with your child, it’s far better to say, “Stop!” or “Walk!” That’s brain science. And social savvy tells us a “yes” is much friendlier than a “no."

In addition, in this situation words of any kind can only help if your running child can hear you. If he’s already off and way ahead, you are momentarily out of options, except to chase. Then, it’s important to watch out for what happens next, because your adrenaline will be up. When you reach him in this state you are more likely to yell and be rough, so here’s where the “yes” is again better than “no.” When you reach him, it helps both of you if you exhale long and slow, bend down, take his hand and explain with concern in your voice, “You have to stay near me. I am worried you will get hurt if you run too fast on the sidewalk.” If there was really no danger, but only the possibility of it, say something else, such as, “I need you to stay close by when we are on the sidewalk.” If you find that you get into an emergency mode frequently, take a good look at yourself so you can help yourself stay calm and avoid creating too much anxiety for your toddler.

There are other disagreeable don’ts that are a little more complicated to communicate as a “do.” Very often parents need to firmly and quickly stop some potentially hurtful action. Of course, you will find yourself saying, “Stop, don’t hit,” or “No, don’t bite.” It is difficult in the moment to think about what your toddler might need that leads to these frightening actions, but it helps to remember that they usually don’t carry the same aggressive meaning they might for an older child.

You might find it helpful to play out all kinds of troubles in scenarios with dolls and stuffed animals. It puts the problem outside your toddler so she can see both sides. The bear family can help if you engage your little one in the story of how and why Little Bear is so excited that he runs off, hits, or bites. “Little Bear wants to run, run, run, but oops! There are people in the way—he bumps into them and falls on his bottom.” Usually lots of laughter ensues. But then, worried Mama or Papa Bear come fast to help everyone. “You bumped into some people—uh, oh, Mrs. Giraffe got a bruise and Little Bear scraped his knee—it’s too crowded to run around!” Pats all around. Next show how Little Bear learns that when he goes out, he walks and marches along, and when he gets to the playground, he runs.

With actions such as biting or hitting, there are some “do’s” that can help once you’ve worked with the bears to establish the desired actions. You can certainly say, “Here is a teether to bite (when you are so excited you can’t contain yourself), but we can’t bite people.” and, “Here, go ahead and hit the pillow” (when you are trying out your new feelings of power and assertion). Oh, and by the way, if she wants to throw something, you can find an appropriate toy for her to throw into a basket—just not at your head.

4. “It’s not safe.”

This one’s not as high on the futile chart as “don’t run” but it is too abstract for the easy comprehension of a toddler of 1, 2 or 3 years. If the point is to prevent an accident, or protect in the face of a threat then a better version is a “do”: “Hold it! Stop right now!” See, when you say, “It’s not safe,” all he can feel is the emergency in your voice without being told what to do. If it’s not an emergency, you can get more involved in teaching. 

Here are sample phrases to say in the moment when you are in the act of common dangerous situations: “Okay, let’s both hold onto the stair rails to make sure we don’t fall”; “Here’s the safe way to hold the scissors so we don’t get hurt”; “Children need to hold a grownup’s hand when they cross the street.” With these slightly longer explanations you help a child to put the world together in her mind as a place of both safety and danger. In children’s developing imaginary worlds that lie beneath the surface these ideas link with those of light and dark, sweet and angry, good and wicked, and hopefully soon all that dwells between in the gray areas.

Risk and danger present real challenges for parents. We don’t want to overdo an emphasis on safety, but we need to find a balance if we want kids to be okay with bruises, to dare to run in the park, and to feel safe to imagine and know the difference between real and not real as they learn about their bodies and their surroundings. You don’t want them to be afraid to try something new, let their imaginations go, or say what’s on their minds.

5. “Excuse me.”

I have heard parents of toddlers use this phrase when they don’t get a “please,” or “thank you,” or when their child is uncooperative. It’s said with a snide tone, and sometimes a question mark, when they mean, “How dare you behave this way!” This may be my pet peeve in two of the ways we misuse it. I don’t like this when adults use it with each other, but at least other adults get the message of demand and/or disgust behind the words. For the toddler, this is just bewildering and a poorly disguised swat.

Certainly, it is better that we all restrain our aggressive feelings, unavoidable at times, with sarcasm, but while this milder version might feel good in the moment, we then have to reckon with the problem that we are being extremely confusing for a little person who is just learning words. This is important because all a hapless toddler can make out is that her parent is angry and frightening—she’s likely very good at catching that. All in all, it’s much clearer to be honest when Suzy grabs something. “Hey, I don’t like that at all—let’s think of a better way here!” Save “Excuse me” for when you really mean it.

That brings us to the other annoying use of “excuse me”—less bewildering but just plain impolite. We need to remember that our toddlers are watching us and learning. What you do and how you do it with all people at all moments communicates your feelings and values. Far too often in our exasperating moments, “Excuse me” is used to mean, “Get out of my way, I’m coming through,” with no please attached.  How many times has someone assaulted you while saying, “Excuse me, excuse me"?  Wouldn’t it be better to say sweetly and wait for reply, “Could you please move over just a bit so I can get by – oh, yes it’s a double stroller – sorry, yeah, the bags too —so sorry to disturb you. Thank you very much.” And along the way, while you are being a good model for your toddler, you are probably also feeling less agitated.

6. “Good eating!”

This one’s right up there with “good saying thank you,” “good cleaning up,” “good pooping,” “good walking,” etc. I know, I know, you read a book on “positive parenting.” You might have noticed I’m all for that, but trust me, there can be too much of a good thing. For sure, parents very smartly want to reinforce good behavior. Part of the job is to help your little one know she is doing well. It’s surely better than “time out” but not if it begins to sound like hiccups. Meaningless. Worse, you probably never realized how endless compliments produce expectations of praise for everything and a bleak feeling when none is forthcoming—and that day must come.

Overdone, this parenting tactic actually takes the focus off the most significant part of a child’s actions—her own pleasure and pride in accomplishment. Here’s why. A young child is all about operating from desires that stir inside of her body, stimulated by what she sees and reaches for in the environment. That seeking includes the social environment. Kids love to imitate older children and adults. And when they can do something they see others doing, they feel very pleased and proud of themselves When grownups jump in all the time with their judgments and observations of what’s good and bad, they take something away from the child's relationship to herself. Over-observed and judged, she loses track of her inner guide.

If you are overcome with pleasure at your child’s actions, and you really need to do more than beam with a twinkle in your eye, how about trying, “I see how proud you feel!” or “I see you worked really hard on that!” But let’s not overdo that either.

7. “We’re not playing now!”

But why not? Oh, I know, you are exhausted and trying to let your toddler know this is serious, and time for games is over. But (seriously), getting a little one, or a big one for that matter, to do something that needs to happen, such as brush teeth, change that diaper, get in the bath, eat a little more dinner, go to bed—just goes better with playfulness. You are dumping on your best option and pulling out the over-power card instead. You think that will help but it usually prolongs the agony.

Being playful is one of the ways our love for our children is expressed—and it keeps us connected to their ways of being, even when you have to say, “OOOKaaay—now we have to…." Of course, there are times when you really do need to be serious, but even then, it’s good to make use of an enactment with dolls and stuffed animals to express the serious, sad or mad feelings. The same is true when there are problems that arise, such as a 2-year-old experimenting with hitting, or one who won’t brush his teeth. Of course, we can’t always find our playful groove—it’s the day after your toddler was up four times with a tummyache, or you’ve been running all day between your toddler and your other kids, or your job. 

If you just can’t be playful, you can say so. That way, you discover each other because you help kids begin to understand how your feelings and actions connect. If you’ve been giving your child words, and describing his feelings all along, he will know what you are talking about. “I am tired tonight, and I need you to get to bed. We really can’t read our story until you get the PJs on.” Not a threat, just a dose of reality—the truth of consequences.

8. “You’ll have consequences!”

Yup. All actions have consequences (see above). It’s easy to slip into mindless threatening when you are juggling 100 balls in the air. But watch out, this is a huge wolf in sheep’s clothing – one that tries to disguise our own, often understandable, but troublesome angry and helpless feelings. The problem is that a punishing attitude, just like too much praise, misses the important part of a child’s not so nice actions—his own experience. When you punish, you bring in the force of outside control—as if he will or won’t do something just because you will clobber him with something unpleasant such as taking away a favorite toy for the afternoon. This misses out on teaching him about developing mutual respect. Faced with a misbehaving toddler because they really don’t know the rules, it is better to be helpless than try this. You would be amazed at how wildly it can backfire—I hope you never have to meet the child who says, “I don’t care!”

Even if this were not just a punishment in disguise, it would still be a big problem since it is bewildering for a toddler because for them life is now. Under 5 years old, the sense that there are logical sequences in time can be hazy. Tomorrow or even later today are very far away, so you are spitting into the wind. If there are real consequences, tell them. Such as, “If you hit me, I feel hurt and mad—I don’t like that and I don’t want to play.” Or, “If you don’t take a bath, your sticky hands and dirty feet will be itchy! Yukky, yukky, yuk!” You can emphasize with a few quick tickles (see # 7). 

You can rely on helping her understand the real consequences of her not so nice actions, but this can take more time than speaking a punishment. For example, did Suzy hurt your feelings when she said you were a bad mommy, or when she grabbed the cookie without saying “please” or “thank you”? Maybe she hurt your head when she threw the block. Tell her, say, “Ow!” Explaining and teaching are crucial, because remember, a toddler isn’t hardwired with the understanding that hard objects can hurt. This goes back to #3, and the helpful bear family. Punishment only teaches that you are angry, and breaks the connection between you through which you can be effective.

9. “You can if…,” or “You can’t … unless ...”

We can all find ourselves losing it in rough moments—and I know there are plenty of them, but it’s really worth trying to avoid letting this one become a repetitive pattern. I understand how trying it can be to get a squirming 2-year-old to get his shoes on, or a feisty 18-month-old to quit running around. Sadly, your misery will usually just increase with this further agitation. It’s all in the tone: If you are describing the real consequences of actions, such as “We can’t go to our playdate unless you get into your shoes now,” this makes sense as above—it’s the real truth of consequences. But, said in a very different tone, with a threat, “That’s it—we are not going if you don’t get your shoes on this minute!” you’ve added blackmail. Our anger distorts this logic to the point that it becomes a threatening blackmail: “If you don’t take your bath right now, I won’t read to you tonight”; “You can’t go to the park unless you clean up those cars”; “You can’t have the cookies unless you say you're sorry to me.”

The first problem with this is the same as for #8—it relies on threats of something in the future, which are hazy at best for toddlers. Far worse though, this blackmail is damaging to the trusting relationship you want to build with your child and protect in order to build a mutually supportive relationship. Here in your frustration and haste, you are pulling out a power maneuver: do this, not because it make sense and because we love, trust, respect each other, but because I can make you afraid. You don’t need to be scary. You can instead just be clear and lay out what you expect. If you just can’t muster up a playful attitude, you can be straight. If your child is balking, you can just wait and let him know that nothing else can happen until the bath is finished, the diaper changed, or the shoes are on. But trust me, life is happier for everyone with play.

10. “You just want attention.”

But wait! Who doesn’t? And what’s wrong with attention? In our discomfort we grab hold of ideas that seem to explain and solve a problem. However, this common idea does not equal common sense. In the real world, in the blitz of stress and performance pressure, getting attention is highly prized. This is the world kids are being prepared for in many schools: Stand out is the meta-message. So how precisely do we get them to turn it on only when it comes time to shine in class or go for a job interview? 

Let’s unpack: When we turn to this phrase as an explanation for annoying behavior, I think we really mean, “I don’t want to pay attention to you right now,” or “You are doing something I find annoying.” And that’s really okay. It’s clear and when it’s clear you can then help the little guy find something to do on his own, or something different. 

Sometimes, I know, you’re on the expert slope and all you’ve got is the snow plow. For example, it pops out of you at that wonderful moment when your toddler in her new big bed discovers she can jump out and come find you—asleep in your bed. Awful moment—I’ve been there—12, 1 and 3 in the morning. Does she “just want attention”—well, yes, but take out the “just” and think about what your child is experiencing: Newfound freedom is a little scary and a lot exhilarating. Yes, you need to shape it, but do you want to crush it? No, of course you don’t. So you calmly take her by the hand and lead her back to bed.  And the next day, you call in the bears.

In other situations, when a child is whining or making noise at dinner, banging a foot against the table, it makes sense to directly but gently curtail that unpleasant behavior. But it isn’t attention-seeking that’s the problem; only the manner of getting it. After all, everyone is attention-seeking—that’s how we meet each other, ideally in a respectful, mutually supportive way. So you might really want your child to have the attention she needs, just not get it in a disruptive way. Better to bring something positive to the table, while helping your child stop the foot banging: “We don’t bang feet at the table. Let’s talk about our day! What did we do today?” Even a 1-year-old will love to hear recounted what we had for breakfast, how she went for a walk in the park, what she did at the park…and so on through the day.  She is learning language and the art of conversation. Older toddlers can contribute from their own memories.

One-, two- and three-year-olds are a lot of work, but put in the right kind of work, and they grow up to be trusting and trustworthy young people and adults. You just can’t skimp on the right kind of attention. Lots of little and big problems come up. There’s probably a reason, and yeah, attention-seeking is a part of it, but what’s the attention they need? Trust grows out of trust. Respectful relationships at home foster growth and learning, not fear and submission. Parents who envision a world in which power is not wielded without regard to its impact will do well to beware of words and phrases that stealthily undermine their goals.

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