When it comes to toddler discipline, you’ve got to learn to pick your battles. What if you can’t figure out what’s negotiable and what’s not? Check out this cheat sheet.
As toddlers grow up, they’re much more likely to test their parents’ rules in ever more inventive ways. By the time they’re almost three, in fact, they are practically master negotiators. They question. They plead. They beg and cajole and make promises they have no intention of keeping. And when all else fails, they still go to the mat with the big guns — a temper tantrum or a fit of miserable (and unstoppable) weeping no matter how many toddler discipline techniques you employ. When faced with such persistence and newfound creativity from your little negotiator, backing down sometimes begins to look pretty tempting — make that a lot tempting — especially when you’ve already locked horns seven times before breakfast.
Fortunately for you, in the world of toddler discipline, it’s actually important to let your toddler have his way sometimes. Allowing him to make some of his own choices helps him develop independence and a sense of self. The question then becomes which battles are worth fighting and which are up for grabs? To help you figure it out, take a look at this guide to the most common toddler battle zones. You’ll learn when it’s absolutely necessary to lay down the law, and when it’s okay — even better — to let things slide.
The battle zone: Safety and health
You’d never compromise on the car seat or the rule that your toddler needs to hold your hand in the parking lot. Similarly, running in the street is NEVER permitted, and no amount of screaming will change that. And if there’s medicine that needs to be taken? You’ll go to drastic measures, if necessary, to get that medicine to go down because strep throat doesn’t care about tantrums — it only knows from amoxicillin.
In other words, if the toddler discipline issue in question is a matter of health or safety, it’s a no-brainer. The bicycle helmet goes on or the bike doesn’t get ridden. Treat all these battles the way you treat the car seat, and you’ll be fine.More In This SeriesSet Loving Limits for Your ChildBe Wise About Toddler WarningsConsider the Consequences for ToddlersThe Reasons Behind Bad Behavior in ChildrenCatch Your Child Being Good
Is it worth the battle? Yes. Health and safety issues are non-negotiable, so they are definitely worth the battle. Stand your ground and never give in.
The battle zone: Fashion
At this age, toddlers are often VERY opinionated about what they want to wear. So before you dig in your heels about an outfit your toddler has chosen, figure out what’s bugging you about it. For instance, if you don’t like the outfit because your child has chosen to wear shorts in 40°F weather or because he insists on going barefoot to the playground, then you would probably consider this a non-negotiable health or safety issue. In that case you’re going to want to get your child appropriately dressed, but you may be able to do it in a roundabout way. While a perfectly acceptable toddler discipline technique would be to declare, “If you don’t wear shoes, NO PLAYGROUND,” you may have more success letting your toddler figure out for himself that his clothing is not quite right for the weather. Let him don shorts on a brisk winter day if that’s what he’s insisting on (as you smuggle proper attire into your bag) and then have him come to the conclusion on his own (when he steps out of the car and realizes that he’s freezing) that it wasn’t such a good idea. Then, voila, you can save him with the pants you’ve packed away. This lesson may be more likely to stick with him than your words of wisdom (that went in one ear and out the other).
If, on the other hand, you’re simply weirded out that your kid insists on wearing his pirate costume to day care (be sure to leave the plastic sabre at home), you’d be wise to save your breath and energy for bigger issues. After all, there’s no harm done except to your own notion of what looks right. And it’s certainly not worth starting each day with a tantrum for that — eventually, he’ll get tired of his costume as well.
Is it worth the battle? No. As long as your child’s health isn’t compromised, clothing isn’t worth fighting over every day.
The battle zone: Eating and Excreting
You can lead a toddler to broccoli, but you can’t make him eat — or even taste it, to many parents’ intense frustration. Toddler food battles can be epic. To make matters worse, kids this age can, apparently, live on air for days at a time. And when they do eat, they’re often stuck in a rut (mac ’n’ cheese EVERY MEAL, or else).
Unfortunately, the more you push, the more resistant your toddler will get. If you’re terrified of rickets and scurvy, give your child a vitamin. So, don’t treat this as a toddler discipline issue that needs to be addressed every meal. Instead, grit your teeth and pretend you couldn’t care less while casually continuing to serve healthy options alongside your tot’s standard meal. If he’s given enough opportunities, sooner or later, he’ll taste something else. This is, rest assured, just a stage.
As with food, a casual, disinterested approach to toilet learning works best. Your kid will eventually ditch diapers, but most likely, he’ll do it on his own terms. If you sense resistance, back off quickly. Nothing jinxes potty training faster than an overzealous, pushy parent (remember, your toddler can’t control much about his world, but he can control his own body).
Is it worth the battle? No. What goes in and comes out of your toddler is his own business. It’s not worth fighting about, nor is it helpful.
The battle zone: Manners
Teaching your child that politeness is non-negotiable is a great way to jump-start the idea that consideration for other people is crucial. For instance, if you expect your child to greet adults nicely when introduced, it plants the valuable seed that it’s important to be kind to people. The best way to ensure compliance on this toddler discipline issue? Spell out for your child in advance exactly what is expected of him. You can say, “When we get to Aunt Ruth’s house, you’ll say hi and shake hands with everyone. Then you can go play with your cousins.” Make it clear what your toddler is supposed to do, and chances are he’ll accept it. Note: While insisting on a proper hello is reasonable, it’s not so reasonable to force your child to hug and kiss every distant relative in the room. That goes a bit beyond “politeness” and may feel like an invasion of your little guy’s space. So don’t force the physical affection; instead just be firm about being polite.
Is it worth the battle? Sometimes. You want to let your child know that good manners are a necessary part of life. And in order to do that, you should insist on being polite most of the time. But if, on occasion, forcing your child to say good-bye and thank you to his great aunt Rose is going to drive him over the edge and into meltdown mode, then it probably isn’t worth it.
How to pick your battles yourself
What about the toddler discipline issues that don’t fall into any of these particular battle zones? How are you supposed to fend for yourself and decide whether to stay strong or give in? It’s simple. Step back and ask yourself one question: Will this particular incident make a difference to my child when he’s 30 years old? If it will, then take the battle on with full force. If it probably won’t affect your child down the road, then let it pass. For instance, if your toddler won’t wear his bike helmet, look beyond today, and check out the long view. Will that choice impact his future? Yes, especially if he suffers a serious head injury. On the other hand, if after a long day with relatives, your tot won’t say “please” when asking his grandma for a cup of water (and pushing the issue will surely result in a tantrum right before bed), take a step back and think ahead a few decades. Will that particular incident make a huge difference to your toddler in the long term? Probably not. Just be sure to remind him to say “please” next time he makes a request!