I recently had an extended visit with my two sisters and their collective three toddlers, ranging from ages five to two-years old. For a handful of days, I watched my sisters chase their kids, change diapers, rush those who weren’t in diapers to the bathroom, manage temper tantrums, mediate disputes over toys, settle brawls and send one or all of the kids to time out, both individually and as a group. Because we were at the beach, they were constantly scanning the landscape, making sure that everyone was in sight and accounted for at all times. And although we all had beach chairs in a line and each of us had a book underway, they only read in sporadic bursts, hopping up at any given moment to get someone a snack, retrieve a toddler who was a little too brave from the clutches of a wave, or retrieve toys that had been taken by another of the aforementioned toddlers.
My daughters, on the other hand, are now 17, almost 15 and 11-years old. This means that I got to sit calmly in my chair, read my book, and only periodically glance up to make sure they were remembering to apply sunblock and were not talking to the group of teenage boys camped out not too far away. I had it easy by comparison.
After one particularly rough day, the kids had finally gone to bed and it was just me, my sisters and my mom sitting on the porch. My sisters were both exhausted and by this time, were simultaneously crying into their glasses of wine. This, of course, prompted both my mother and I to impart our vast wisdom. Yes, it’s obnoxious, but it’s like a badge of honor for having survived the toddler years. It’s one of the only perks.
I can only imagine how my sisters must feel hearing advice from me, who sat right where they were only a few short years ago. After all, I have three only partially grown dependents who still make me question my life choices. But I do have a little perspective. This stuff is still fresh. I remember all too well the toddler years, and having only recently turned the corner, I have sympathy. Not enough to help them change diapers, but enough to remember how hard it really is.
And while I still question my children’s ability to make it to adulthood (or mine to get them there), there are a few things that my mom and I shared that won’t make it easier for my sisters, but might just help them survive.
- Pick your battles. If you make everything a fight, then everything is going to be a fight. Granted, when it’s literally a fight, like when my four-year old niece threatened to punch the two-year old for “not sleeping,” then it’s worth intervening. But when you give them the apple you just spent five minutes peeling and slicing and they act like you’ve just handed them a live grenade, it might be worth it to just give them the grapes they really want (despite the fact that they asked for the apple). You’ll have plenty of time to teach them gratitude 15 minutes later when they scream about the two-year old having an apple while all they have are grapes.
- Forgive yourself. You’re going to screw up. Probably every day. And probably multiple times. I’m still doing mental penance for the things I said to my kids when they were little, for the times I lost my temper and for the lack of patience I displayed. But that’s what therapists are for. Face it, we all have baggage. None of our parents got it just right. But they did their best, just as we are doing ours. And the best thing about toddlers is that they have short memories. Forgive yourself for the bad days and do your best to make the next one better. Your kids will be okay – in spite of you.
- Forgive them. Toddlers are insane. They are temperamental, overly emotional, completely lacking in empathy, argumentative, irrational, and inappropriate. They also can’t tie their own shoes. Remember that they are two, or three, or four…and so on. They’re figuring out this life thing just as you’re figuring out this parenting thing. Remember that you’re in it together and cut them some slack for their mistakes. You’ll both get there eventually.
- Remember that “this moment” does not determine the rest of their lives. The moments of toddler insanity that I remember the most (please reference “mental penance” above) are the ones where I felt like if they did not fully grasp the concept I was trying to teach during the course of a single interaction, they were destined for a life of crime – or at least a brief stint in juvie. I can’t promise you much, but I can promise you that you don’t have to solve all of their character flaws by the time they are five. Even if you do, they will only come up with new ones. So do what you’ve got to do in the moment. Know that they will not appreciate your eloquent and meaningful lecture on why we don’t throw things – and that they will most likely throw something as soon as you walk away. But keep disciplining, keep being consistent, and keep addressing negative behaviors. It will sink in more than you realize.
- To that point, just keep on doing what you’re doing. Don’t drive yourself crazy, but work hard. Put in the time, even when you don’t want to. I just mentioned consistency above. Make rules and stick by them. Don’t overreact, don’t feel like it all has to be perfect, and, for the love of all that is holy, don’t think that they same methods will work every time or with different children. But keep at it. Be intentional in your parenting now, and they will learn the lay of the land. Teach them who’s boss and that actions have consequences now and you’ll be so grateful that you did when they are teenagers – which is a less physical beast, but an even more emotional one.
- Let other people help. One of my biggest regrets as a mother of toddlers was that I felt like I had to do it all myself. I intervened constantly. I felt guilty if anyone else felt the need to discipline my kids. But you know what? Half the time my kids didn’t listen to me anyway. No one wants to hear other people yelling at their kids, of course. Likewise, no one likes a parent who never disciplines their own kids. So always be aware, but let other people say something now and then. Chances are your kids will be more embarrassed by their behavior and receptive to the instruction. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to be the parent at the end of the day, but it does help to know you’ve got back up.
- Don’t make comparisons. I can’t stress this one enough. Toddlers are like snowflakes. No two are the same. This goes for your own kids, as well as other people’s kids. Yes, you will always have that friend whose toddler goes to bed without a struggle or sits calmly in the cart at Target while your kids are raging up and down the aisles like a mad bull. But this is not a sign of your failure. It just means you have the toddler that you have. Applaud their individuality and know that the other parent who seems to have it so easy will have their own struggles. Guaranteed.
- Keep trying new things. If you nail the parenting thing right out of the gate, then a) you owe it to the world to share your secrets and b) you are lying. None of us gets it right all the time. And even when we do, keep in mind that finding an effective parenting strategy is like creating robots that eventually become smarter than humans and take over the world. No matter how clever you are, your child will soon become too smart for the structure that seemed so effective and you will have to reprogram them. Plus, you will also have to start all over again when you have your next kid, who despite having the same genetic make-up as the first, will behave as though he/she were raised by a wolf pack. So make charts. Create schedules. Devise creative disciplines. Stick with the ones that work. Toss the ones that don’t. But don’t stop trying new things.
- Visualize your toddler using their power for good and not evil. There are days when your toddler will be so very, very bad that it’s hard not to picture him or her leading their own crime syndicate one day. But even their weaknesses can be turned into strengths. They’re constantly punching their little brother? Maybe they need to take all of that pent up energy out in sports. If they argue with you constantly? Maybe they just need more mental challenges – give them harder games or puzzles. Constant tantrums? Chances are they are struggling to express emotions but don’t have the words. Find ways for them to express them feelings through art or other creative pursuits. This will not solve your problems. But it will give you a new perspective on who they are. And while it’s hard to not feel defeated when a toddler talks you into a corner with the same legal acumen of a Supreme Court Justice, try picturing them as a Supreme Court justice instead of the head of the aforementioned crime syndicate. It helps…most of the time.
- Learn from them. Remember when I mentioned the thing about comparisons earlier? How some kids were compliant while others weren’t and so on? You were given the child you were given for a reason. Maybe it was just random genetic assignment or maybe you should have thought more about your husband’s stubborn streak before you married him. But either way, you have a golden opportunity with toddlers. Never before have you had a chance to be challenged by someone that is so much like you – yet so different. Never before have you had to deal with someone so out of control in an environment that you couldn’t walk away from. And never before have you loved someone so senselessly, infinitely and completely. Even your stubborn husband. So take this opportunity to grow as a person yourself. Look at their behaviors and question what is being mirrored from your own actions and reactions. Approach each day as a new challenge and a fresh start. Teach them, but never, ever forget to learn.
I will admit, as much as I adore my niece and nephews, I did not envy my sisters. Sure, there are moments when I am nostalgic for a time when my kids were smaller. I miss grubby toddler hugs. I miss the sweet things they say. I miss the cute outfits and the funny anecdotes. But there’s a lot I don’t miss. Suffice it to say, I have a new set of challenges with teenagers. However, it was those infuriating, exhausting, and utterly lovable toddlers that they once were who have prepared me for the challenges of today. And for that, I wouldn’t trade a moment.