Don't Expect Toddlers To Behave Consistently — They Literally Can't

by Annie Reneau
Originally Published: 
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One day, when my oldest daughter was not quite 2, she wouldn’t sit still to let me change her diaper. Squirrelly and writhing, she made a game out of staying half naked. She wasn’t fussing about it or anything — in fact, she was giggling maniacally.

The problem was that we were running late. Nothing I did seemed to faze her. I tried distracting her with a toy. Nope. I tried my best stern Mommy-means-business voice. Nothing. Finally, I did something I never thought I’d do: I swatted her on the bum.

It was just once, and it was barely even hard enough to register. She didn’t even cry or anything, but I felt terrible. I am a non-spanker, through and through. I was just fed up and sleep deprived and totally out of creative energy and didn’t know how else to get her to cooperate.

Once I gathered my wits, it dawned on me that I was punishing my daughter simply for being a goofy, growing, learning, experimenting almost-2-year-old.

As soon as I accepted the fact that we were going to be late anyway, I pulled out my parenting toolbox and made getting her diaper and pants on into a silly game. Miraculously — or not — she played right along and out the door we went, fully pantsed.

It’s easy to forget that our little ones really are little, especially those first children who seem so big as they enter each new phase. In fact, according to a national parent survey by Zero to Three, most parents have behavioral standards for their toddlers that are unrealistic. We tend to expect our 2- and 3-year-olds to have more self-control than they are developmentally capable of. Self-control really doesn’t start to develop until 3 or 4, and it takes even longer for kids to exercise it consistently.

It often seems like they know how to control themselves, though, right? Especially those first children. Having three kids myself, I can attest to the fact that your first child at 2 years old seems positively ancient compared to your last child at 2.

But toddlers and preschoolers really are so little. They are barely just starting to learn about this world and their place in it. They grow so fast and they seem so capable compared to what they were last month — and compared to their little baby selves, they seem huge — but they are tiny learning people who simply aren’t mentally or emotionally capable of behaving the way we want them to behave all the time.

And studies show that when we think kids are capable of behaving, we respond differently when they do misbehave. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and New York University found in a study on moms and discipline that if mothers thought “that children understood the rules they had violated, had the capability to act more appropriately, and were responsible for their negative behavior,” they tended to use more “power-assertive” parenting methods, such as spanking, withdrawal of privileges, and threats of punishment or physical harm.

Mothers who believe their kids don’t fully comprehend the rules or have the developmental capacity to control their behavior tend to use a gentler teaching approach. Speaking from experience, the gentle teaching approach is more effective in the long run and more pleasant for everyone involved. They will eventually learn to control themselves and to manage their behavior, but it takes time, patience, and repeating yourself ad nauseum for them to get there.

We just have to keep in mind the reality that kids under the age of 3 or 4 simply aren’t able to control themselves much of the time. When we recognize that fact, we can view our children’s behavior in an understanding way and use more positive strategies to help them learn.

Punishing a child for age-appropriate behavior seems pretty unfair, not to mention it doesn’t help our tots internalize the hows and whys of managing themselves. (Zero To Three has a helpful page for self-control during the toddler years, by the way.)

I know parenting little ones is hard. I’ve been through three toddlers and preschoolers of my own and nannied several more. They can be wild. They can be tough. They can be exhausting. But they can also be fun and delightful and hilarious. And when we start seeing them less as little terrors and more as little learners, we can enjoy those early years with less frustration — for us and for them.

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