Q: Our first child, a boy, just turned 2. Per your advice, he is toilet trained and eating whatever I serve. Before he was born, we determined that we were not going to raise a picky eater.
Our problem isn’t our son; it’s my sister-in-law, who has three kids, the youngest of which is 4. She insists that my husband and I say “no” to our son way too much. Is that even possible?
Our son is very active and determined to get his own way. Your advice would be greatly valued.
A: First, I congratulate you on getting off to such a good start. These days, it is the rare child who is toilet trained on time (before 24 months) and equally rare for a 2-year-old to be eating whatever is put in front of him. Those are hardly accidents of genetics or “luck of the draw.” They testify to parents who understand the need to set good disciplinary precedents early in a child’s life.
Now, to the matter of your sister-in-law. I’m not there — on the ground, so to speak — to make an on-site assessment, but she may be correct. Most toddlers, especially boys, are “very active and determined” to get their own way, so it’s easy for parents to fall into the habit of over-using “no.” The problem is, the more parents say “no” to a young child, the less effective it becomes over time.
As its effectiveness wanes, the tendency is to say it more often and around and around go all concerned. Under the circumstances, discipline can quickly devolve into warfare, setting the stage for increasingly nonproductive parent-child battles over everything from soup to nuts.
Micromanagement, no matter the specific issue, is always driven by anxiety, and anxiety is common to first-time parents. In my public presentations (brought to a virtual halt by the pandemic), I often talk about the pitfalls of micromanaging discipline, the invariable result being ever-worsening behavior and evermore frustrated parents.
The key to avoiding that trap with a toddler is childproofing. Go through the area of your home to which your son has daily access. Remove or put out of his reach anything you don’t want him handling. Put childproof latches on forbidden cabinets. Put up sturdy gates to rooms that are off-limits. Create a play space in which he can explore, create, and yes, even destroy (magazines he can rip to pieces, for example), to his heart’s content with minimal supervision from you.
The more freedom you give him, the more peace you will have.
Your sister-in-law may not be the most diplomatic of self-appointed parenting “experts,” but she just may have done you a huge favor that will yield an abundance of blessings in the long run.
Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com.