I knew my world was different 2.5 seconds after she left my womb. A little lady with a big personality had arrived in my orderly, convenient life and suddenly things didn't seem so orderly, and life wasn't so convenient anymore.
A little over a year later and I am still learning the ropes on this ride called "parenting". My little "angel" is 16 months old and her older brother is almost three. Our days follow the familiar pendulum swing of delight and disaster, as they do for so many other families with strong-spirited children.
In the words of Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, in her book Raising Your Spirited Child,
"It's difficult to describe what it is like to be the parent of a spirited child. The answer keeps changing; depending on the day, even the moment. How does one describe the experience of sliding from joy to exasperation in seconds, ten times a day? How does one explain the "sense" at eight in the morning that this will be a good day or a dreadful one?"
I have tried so many ways to find order and balance and sanity in toddlerhood, ways to come out at the end of each day unscathed. Some things have worked well and others have not. The last few weeks have produced a few gems of knowledge that have been so successful in managing our days, I could not help but record them here... as a reminder to myself and as a help to the other mommas out there raising unpredictable children.
Here they are:
1) Lingering Longer: Remembering The Power of Touch
I know psychologists, teachers, and health care professionals have long emphasized the importance of physical touch to a developing child. I understood that. What I didn't realize until recently is that some kids have a very high threshold for physical contact and that this need can be met! I bemoaned to friends and family for the first few months of my daughters life, "she just needs way more physical contact then I can give her in one day! Her love tank is never full!"
Then I realized I just wasn't filling her tank in the right way. Yes, she needed alot of physical touch, but it was not beyond what I could provide for her. This was a thrilling revelation for me since I had resigned myself to thinking she would be unsatisfied for years to come. How do I do it differently now?
I have begun to build "snuggle time" into our days and allow my daughter to decide when she is recharged and ready to leave my embrace. This means that when she wakes up, instead of carting her to the changing table and setting her down to change her diaper, something that would typically begin the first tantrum of the day, I head right to the rocking chair where we chat, sing, and rock until she wiggles free from my arms and onto the floor. It also means when I am washing dishes or making dinner and she is wailing and clinging to my legs, instead of dragging her around the kitchen like a sailor with a peg-leg, I stop and take five minutes and sit to snuggle with her.
This doesn't just mean making my lap available, it means holding her tightly. She needs the reassurance and security that comes from a snug fit in my arms. Nine times out of ten she will soon decide to get up and go find something else to do, leaving me to finish making dinner. She is full and affirmed, and I am calm and not exasperated.
We now take time to "snuggle" almost every hour of the day... when putting shoes and socks on, when getting into her chair for lunch, when getting ready to leave the house for errands. I also take an extra minute or two to massage her legs after most diaper changes, using slow, deliberate movements, calming her always racing heart and steadying her gaze. She loves it and responds with smiles and giggles rather then the all-to-familiar writhing around that used to define diaper changes.
It seems tedious and time-consuming to build "snuggle time" into your day, but it has proven to save us both time and emotions in the long run. Our days go more smoothly and are filled with more love and contentment when we take time to touch.
Side note: My daughters need for physical contact lead me to discover that she is a very sensory-oriented child. What I thought was just habitual messy eating was actually her taking hold of an opportunity to feel and manipulate different textures and compositions. All of the toys in our home were very hard: books, puzzles, wooden fruit, trucks, etc. what the girl really needed was some playdough! She loves the sensory experience of playing with something soft and moldable, and I love that she is satisfied for 30-minute stretches while I get laundry folded!
2. Smooth Transitions: Preparing Them For Change
My son is a classic introvert, not shy, but comfortable alone. He needs space and time to process change, whether it is simply getting dressed for the day or preparing to go to the store or to a friend’s house. In recent months I have often found myself rushing around, in a hurry to get to wherever we needed to go. I spent days frustrated and disgruntled with my seemingly uncooperative son. He dawdled when he needed to hustle, and got angry when I announced exciting plans for the day. I was befuddled until I realized the error of our days. He needed ample time to prepare himself for what was next. Even exciting plans or routine tasks were overwhelming to him when he was not prepared.
I started building alone time into his days and informing him the day before and then again hours before if we were going to be doing something that was outside of our normal routine. I also fought the urge to hurry him and traded the frantic ten minutes that used to lead up to our departure for a more peaceful twenty minutes, using gentle reminders and directions instead. Sure, we sometimes showed up 5 minutes late to our destination, but we were all happy to be there when we arrived!
3. Telling vs. Tugging: Using Words to Shape Behavior
For as physical as our daughter is at times, she is just as independent and hands-off when she wants to be. The mere weight of my index finger in her belt loop holding her steady when she insists on standing in her highchair can set her off screeching in anger. If she wants to do something herself, she is hell-bent on completing her task, mama look out.
I felt paralyzed to know how to handle these fits of rage that would often come at the least convenient times, i.e. standing in the cart while grocery shopping, climbing on the railing while out to eat, riding on top of her stroller while walking downtown. I would try picking her up, pushing her back into her seat, letting her walk, and disciplining her, none of which satisfied her desire to control her own actions.
I realized that my responses to her were reactive, not proactive. Here's what I mean: Her fury only increased when I countered the very thing she wanted to accomplish, and she resented my guiding hands. In those moments, me touching her was like kerosene on a candle. What I finally found to work is reasoning with her and asking her to do what I requested, novel idea right?
Sometimes we get so caught up in the stress of the moment, we don't think to explain ourselves to a pint-size person who probably wouldn't understand how inappropriately they were acting anyway, right? Wrong. So many times I was just as hell-bent as she was in stopping the behavior, that I didn't take the time to explain consequences to her and give firm commands without lifting a finger. The difference this has made is remarkable. I will say "please sit back down in your highchair" four thousand times if it means that we can avoid engaging in a physical and emotional war that leaves us both exhausted.
Just a disclaimer: I am not suggesting removing all discipline and consequences when your child acts out or acts unbecomingly, I have just found that if I remove my emotional reaction from the equation and verbalize my thoughts, I help us both to move away from an inflammatory interaction, instead of heightening the intensity.
4. Giving Time: Expecting Obedience "When You Are Ready"
This is a little controversial, I'll just be honest. I grew up with the understanding that obedience to your parents should be immediate, complete, and without questions. I still ascribe to this reasoning primarily. That being said, I am sharing what works in our household, and I am just going to be honest.
When I ask my son to do something and he is non-compliant I react in one of two ways. If the non-compliance is defiance, rebellion, or challenging to my authority I move forward with disciplinary measures. If the non-compliance is because he is genuinely distracted or completing a task that is important in his mind, and not harmful in mine, I allow him to finish and tell him that my request is still standing and needs to be completed "when you are ready".
I do this not because I want to teach delayed obedience or disobedience, but because there are such varying degrees of offenses a child can commit that I really want to major on the majors and minor on the minors. I want him to learn the life skills of managing his time well, thinking through upcoming tasks, and how to reason with others. If I do not engage in this dialogue with him or give time and grace for his mind to process, I am not allowing room for these skills to develop.
It is actually amazing to see how quickly he responds to my requests when I give him the space he needs to choose the right thing. (This is directly correlated to the smooth transitions I wrote about above)
5. Prayer: With Them and For Them
This is really the key to it all, a vital source of wisdom and discernment in our lives.
When all is going well in your home: pray, when all is failing: pray.
Two things happen when I pray with my children for our day. The first and most important is that we invite God into our day, we invoke His presence, we ask Him to go before us. We ask for His joy, His help, His self-control, and His love to define us as we interact with one another. He really does intervene and fill our home when we ask Him. He gives patience and grace to me and gives kindness and joy to the kids.
The second thing that happens when we pray together, is that they hear what I am praying for and believe it to be possible. They hear me pray for good things, for the fruit of the spirit, and they want those things to be true. Our prayers are quiet expectations whispered to their souls, setting the tone and the bar for how we interact. They see the fervency and faith with which I pray and it bolsters their confidence in who God is and how much He cares about us. These are things I desperately want them to discover, and what better way than by praying together!
Of course the other important key is to pray for them. Not just out loud when they are listening, but in all the millions of moments in between. When rocking them, changing them, brushing their teeth, making breakfast, and filling the tub... I pray and He works.
These are just a few ideas of what has worked in our family... things that wave made the climate of our home warmer, more grace-filled, more peaceful. Whether they will work for others in exactly the same way, I cannot be certain, but my prayer is that the outcome will be the same... families that aren't just surviving toddlerhood, but instead, thriving in the midst of it!
I have seen a change in both my heart and my children’s temperaments as I deal more graciously with them, not ignoring the need for discipline, but balancing it with an understanding of who they are as individuals and the capacity that they have to learn and grow in different ways.
Godspeed to you all as you raise your children, friends… may God grant you the grace and wisdom needed to navigate this most challenging task!