Six Battle-Tested Tactics for Standing Your Ground with a Toddler | Seventh Generation
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Six Battle-Tested Tactics for Standing Your Ground with a Toddler

Author: Liz Moorhead

My three-year-old son has generally decided that he'd prefer not to do whatever I'd like him to do. Each of my requests is met with opposition, with opinions, with, "But, mom!"

My gut reaction, I'll admit, is to hear these responses as disrespect. I have to reign in my frustration quickly and squelch, "What I say goes!" and "Because I say so, that's why!" before they spill out of my tightly clenched teeth. Because, the truth is, that's not the kind of parent I'd like to be. And a blind follower who does what he's told without question isn't the kind of son I'd like to raise. The sort of respect that I hope for my son to develop for me doesn't just appear because I demand it. It has to be cultivated and encouraged. I want to show my son that I have his best interests in mind when I make a decision, so that he can trust my word.

I'm trying to perfect the art of choosing my battles-- of allowing him to voice his opinions, but also of standing my ground when it's important. Here are some of the tactics I try:

-Let him say his piece. This isn't always possible-- say, for example, when I'm telling him to, "Get out of the street!" But when it is, I give him time to respond, instead of cutting him off mid, "But, but, but... " When he has a chance to voice disagreement, I have the chance to explain why what I'm saying is still the rule.

-Speaking of which, explain. Oh, yes, it is really easy for me to default to my old-fashioned expectation that he should listen to me because I'm his mother, period, end of discussion. But the only way my son can learn why, for example, we have salad with lunch instead of candy, is if I explain it to him. He still might not get it. He still might disagree. But, at least he's learning that there is thought and reason behind what I tell him.

-Sometimes, compromise. Sometimes it's okay to let him "win." If I tell him to come inside, and he argues that he'd really like to keep playing with his trucks in the mud, it can be okay to settle on a agreement that he can come in half an hour instead. Or that if he wants to continue to play outside, first he needs to come in and clean up his toys. This sort of thing is less about caving (oof, it always feels like caving!), and more about letting him know that his voice is valuable to me, and that I take his preferences into consideration. Besides all that, when he isn't hearing the word "no" all day long, it has more value and meaning when he does need to hear it.

-Give him warnings and parameters. He doesn't yet know how to tell time, but I've begun to give him "five minute" warnings when it's almost time to finish whatever has his interest. No one likes to be interrupted unexpectedly in the middle of some fun, and that warning helps him to prepare himself to finish his play, while also shutting down arguments when time is up ("I told you only five more minutes.").

-Offer choices whenever possible. He's just beginning to understand that he has an individual voice, and that it can have an impact on his world. I offer him choices whenever possible- what he'd like to wear, what he'd like for breakfast, whether we walk to the library or the park. Even if the choices are limited and still fall within the realm of mom-approved, he has the chance to share his opinions and experience a small sense of control over his little life.

-Most importantly, loosen my definition of "disrespect." Disagreement isn't quite the same as disrespect. I'm much better at handling his barrage of opinions when I remember that fact. To be fair, sometimes my boy truly is just saying, "no" to be defiant. But even in those times, it's all part of the learning process. He's learning boundaries, and in part that means (unfortunately!) pushing them.

What tactics do you use to set boundaries for your children?

About Liz Moorhead
Liz Moorhead is a high school teacher turned work-from-home mom. An illustrator and writer, she blogs for a top wedding site and shares her own personal experiences on her blog Happy Sighs in between walks to the park with her toddler son - all just outside of Philadelphia.


UnionJack picture
"a blind follower who does what he's told without question isn't the kind of son I'd like to raise" ... and then you educate your son in our public school system? Make up your mind ...
Jillianhaileyh picture
One thing that has helped us with our 4 year old son is explaining to him beforehand what the expectation are for his behavior, whatever the situation may be. For example: We are going to the grocery store and as an inquisitive young kid, he doesn't want to sit in the shopping cart anymore. So before we get out of the car in the parking lot we give him a choice to sit in the cart or walk beside it; he typically chooses the latter. Then we remind him of the rules: no running, he may not grab things from the shelf, or put anything in the cart that isn't approved first, etc. We explain that if he chooses to disobey or waste our time by complaining or throwing a tantrum, the consequence will be that we will "waste"/use his scheduled afternoon playtime to do extra chores, ie: clean the stairs with the handheld vacuum, wipe down the floor baseboards, wipe/clean all the door knobs in the house. (i have to add that this has been one of the best disciplines/punishements for him AND US!) Once he's reminded and understands the limits, we start our shopping. At first, we used to have very long shopping trips, but very clean baseboards. Now that he knows we follow through with our stated consequences, our trips are much shorter and our baseboards much dirtier ;)
Melanie Vaillant picture
Melanie Vaillant
Your letter rely helped me this morning, cause I had a "situation" again this morning with my soon to be 5 years old daughter. I am the kind of mom to take disagreement like disrespect and you rely gave me another point of view. My husband has more "tactic" with her and it makes me feel like "the bad mother" even I am the one who put myself in this uncomfortable situation. My daughter, Faith is the kind of person that really like to decide what she is going to wear and eat and goes to the point that she decides with what spoon she going to eat with and so forth. But also she changes her mind and also in the morning..specially these days, she doesn't know what to wear and she will not take my advise..ho boy..I don't really like my mornings these days..because it's the time of the day that you have to get ready for work and school or kindergarten and don't really have the time to discuss about this and that..but thank you for your kind advises..I will try to change my point if view about her disagreement. Melanie
Ei picture
The best tactic I have found for 25 years now (as well as a preschool teacher) Is always let them know they have a choice. 1st we come up with choices; if he/she can think of any then I have always helped them with ideas. Then one of the choices (and last choice offered) is that if they don't choose I will choose. ie. "Do you want to clean up your toys yourself before playing with anything else, or, may I help you pick up one every time you pick up one, or, shall you take a nap until you are ready to pick them up? If you can't choose your telling me that I must choose." Of course they know my choice will be for them to take a nap, but by letting them choose, I have found, their sense of control does not feel threatened, and they can stay calmer dealing with what ever the situation is that comes our way. That has been my "secret trick" all these years.