A bit of an odd title, perhaps, but it seems to be the answer to so many parenting issues when it comes to toddlers and young children.
This post was sparked by something I saw on Facebook the other day, which made me quite sad, thinking about the lengths some people go to toddler-proof their houses. The particular post was about trees and how they are protected from toddler curiosity, with some offering up photos of Christmas trees, which were only decorated on the top half, others suggesting hanging trees and yet others sharing pictures of trees in play pens. And – perhaps irrationally so – I felt sad – not just for the children, who are missing out on another tiny part of growing up around something as magical as a lovely, decorated tree in their houses, but also for the parents, who put themselves out so much in the name of somehow keeping the household peace.
You see, we bought our tree last weekend and the girl and I took great pleasure in decorating trees on two levels of our house, while my husband ensured that every inch of our house is covered in fairy lights, tinsel and all those tiny decorations you just accumulate over the years. At no point was there a particular worry that the boy, who is now 1 1/2, would ruin any of it. Admittedly, the dry run took part in our childminder’s house (which is similarly covered in Christmas goodies in every free space), who takes a similar attitude to the whole thing.
So after the tree had gone up and been decorated during the boy’s nap time, his whole demeanour was incredibly sweet. He started pointing, then walking around the tree over and over, occasionally crouching down to take a closer look. We didn’t go near him. He is naturally curious like any toddler, so he needed to explore, but he didn’t touch.
After an initial short phase when the boy was a baby and needed to understand the word ‘no’, he has soon learned an important lesson: that not everything in the house is his and not everything needs touching. So when he went off to open up cupboards and take things out, the response was a ‘no’ and we took him away. When he went to touch the radiators, the response was ‘no, that is hot’ and then he was taken away. Consistently, every time. When he picked things up that did not belong to him and were a hazard (or a little vulnerable, like our remotes), we would encourage him to hand it over to us. Every time. And in that consistency and the absolute trust that he would not only learn to understand, but to also obey, lies the entire secret.
There is no shouting and no harsh punishment. There is no totalitarianism.
Friends of ours take a similar attitude with their lovely little girl. It is hard to convey in writing what the atmosphere is like when they ask her to do something. It is gentle, yet clearly full of the absolute knowledge that she will do as she is asked. It leads to a healthy, trusting relationship between the parents and the children, whereby you know that you can occasionally turn your back on them and they will not start to misbehave.
Steering natural curiosity and the kind of cheeky attitude that toddlers have is crucial. Shouting won’t achieve anything, but the opposite – a rise, a reaction, is exactly what children will try to provoke. It’s a natural part of testing their boundaries, but a heated reaction becomes more and more fun to provoke as they get older, so remaining calm is key. Children can sense tension. They know when they are being watched like a hawk. They know when they are not trusted and they will fulfill your expectations.
So expect them to do the right thing and act swiftly, but calmly, when they don’t.
I mentioned the other day that my son can now be in the kitchen while I am cooking food. He can be trusted not to touch the oven. In fact, while it is on, he will stand in front of it, saying ‘hot’ and then try to blow on it. Of course, he needed to learn what hot is first – but NOT on the oven. Dangers need to be managed sensibly.
So, is it all perfect? Of course not. Every once in a while he will touch something he is not supposed to. He will be reminded of our rules, he will hear the word ‘no’ and on a very rare occasion be taken away from the object of his desire, should the latter not work. He remains naturally curious and he needs to test whether the boundaries still apply. But, on the whole, we simply trust him to do the right thing – and he fulfills our expectations.
So set them high and watch the magic happen.