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On Torture and Toddlers

Okay, that title sounds bad, like in a psycho-violent sort of way. I am not referring here to acts of violence on children (which I absolutely do not support), nor am I referring to the suffering that they sometimes give us when they wake up at 4:30 to start the day (which I also do not support).

I am referencing an emotional and mental torture, the kind that one blogger puts as gaslighting. In her blog post, she makes a very strong argument for parents to stop and consider what some of our social obligations and expectations are doing to our kids. Please read her article and if you want, come back here to consider my musings.


Okay, finished reading?

I came across this article almost a week ago, and I've been chewing on it ever since. Although I don't necessarily agree with her analogy or use of the term gaslighting, her article did resonate with me, mostly because it fits with my approach to child-rearing, and because I've felt some of that weird tension that comes with trying to honour Little L as an individual with age-specific limitations and needs while balancing out social commitments.

To be clear, the world does not revolve around my kid. We have responsibilities to others too, and to put everything off for the sake of Little L is not only a poor example but also unrealistic in the long term. That said, I do think that there can be ways to manage and balance the two without throwing my kiddo under the bus.

It has long been held in the teaching world that you should set children up to succeed, not to fail. If expectations are unrealistic for a child's age or developmental level, then mastery will not be possible and frustration will occur, degrading one's self-esteem and leading to the child giving up. Sadly, the attitude of "I can't" may then be misapplied generally to other circumstances, fueling a hopelessness and defeat that pre-empts the child's willingness to even try on future occasions. Even the most resilient child will give up if he/she is continually being set up to fail.

If, however, you set children up to succeed and provide expectations that are achievable (even if they are high ones that require much effort), then mastery will feed into the child's sense of self-determination and motivation. The "I can" attitude will take them far in life, much as the "I can't" attitude can stunt ambition and achievements.

We only have one Little L, so maybe one's mileage may vary due to having multiple littles to deal with. However, in our albeit limited experience, we have found that it is absolutely vital to set down boundaries, limits and expectations with people in our families and social circles, after first considering things from our toddler's perspective. By doing so, we have managed to avoid many major public meltdowns and awkward social situations.

1. Never commit to dining experiences that exceed one hour (unless you have kid-friendly running space, in which case that extends to 1.5 hours).

We have had to turn down attending birthday dinners, anniversary banquets, weddings and other such commitments that would require Little L to stay seated in the same spot all night long. When we have done fancy dine-outs, we have intentionally chosen hotel restaurants or those with lobbies or areas that Little L and I (or Hubbs) could escape to for some de-wiggling fun. This means no 10-course Chinese dinners for us! At both my dad's and our granny's post-funeral dinners, we also chose places where Little L could leave the table and be entertained watching fish or doing something other than sit and watch adults talk and eat for hours on end. At 2.5, most kids only want to have French fries, and don't have the self-control (or energy) to sit still for extended periods of time, be it at the dining table or a fancy restaurant. To expect them to behave as we do is unfair and torturous.

2. Don't commit to travel if  destinations require long distances.

Be it a road trip or a drive out to the suburbs to see friends, we have had to decline when it has required Little L to sit for prolonged periods of time without much of a break. We tried the road trip to Oregon and to be completely honest, it was a fail as far as Little L was concerned, because even with our planned "breaks," we were driving for far too many hours without stopping to give her room to stretch and run around. It's probably okay to do a longer drive when it coincides with nap time, but generally, most tots are only napping once a day, so you're going to end up with a portion of the drive when they will be awake and not wanting to be strapped into a car seat anymore. This is a recipe for tantrums, and understandably so!

3. Bring reinforcements (food, toys, electronic devices, books).

Flights are harder to manage, since some destinations are simply far away and require long hours in a plane. Heck, even a playdate or a visit to grandma's can sometimes be a challenging and long  experience for a kidlet. In these cases, it's important to channel our inner Boy Scout and be prepared for anything. For us, that means that we carry much onto our flights (like our recent one to Maui) and on full-day outings or visits. I usually pack both savoury and sweet snacks for Little L to munch on. Sometimes I pack stuffies or figurines and/or several of her favourite books, along with her iPad that is charged and pre-loaded with videos that don't require WiFi. I might even bring crayons and paper. This covers most of the HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired)-induced behaviours that lead to meltdowns.

4. Discuss plans and commitments ahead of time. Let your kids have a voice!

I usually front-load what we are doing if there is something that I want Little L to attend that may be out of her comfort zone. I sometimes let her choose to go or not, if it's of little consequence either way, and if it is something that she must attend (like family funerals), I try to find ways to redeem the experience. For us, that meant that Hubbs did not get to sit during my dad's memorial, and it also meant that I did not get to sit in his granny's service. The benefit, however, is that Little L was able to get quality time with a parent, move around and make kid noises, and eat snacks without disturbing others. We also set her up to succeed by providing her with a setting that was appropriate for her age, distractions to pass the time and address HALT behaviour, and a pre-determined set of expectations to let her know what to expect and how we wanted her to behave.

5. Shop online

One advantage of the 21st century is that we no longer have to drive to a store to buy Christmas gifts or groceries or new shoes for our kiddos. I'm blessed that we can do a lot of these things online, and I do use the internet liberally (especially for buying Little L's clothes) to avoid long and crowded trips to the mall with an over-tired or over-stimulated youngster. As a result, Little L doesn't hate going to a shopping centre, and neither do we. When we do go, we aren't stressed about having to cross off a list of items we need to buy, but instead we can focus on exploring the sights and sounds and tastes and smells with her. It's a win-win, and now we count the mall as one of our indoor "play places" when it's ugly outside and someone has a case of the wiggles.

6. Let your littles own their bodies.

We ask, but we don't force, Little L to hug or kiss anyone. Usually, if she likes someone and feels comfortable, our request is heeded without incident. However, if she is feeling tired or cranky or simply doesn't care to show physical affection towards someone, we honour that choice and usually try to see if she might be willing to meet half-way with a "high-five" instead. When even that is declined, we let her be. It's hard to be friendly with strangers or people you don't know well, and even harder when you're a little person and they tower over you and scare you with their loud voices and overly-eager invitations for affection. I don't expect her to fake it if she doesn't care for someone; her emotions and her body belong to her and I want her to feel safe knowing that she gets to decide on matters relating to her being.

7. Welcome all emotions.

This one is hard. For a while, I would get kind of embarrassed when Little L would act shy or rejecting or temperamental in front of extended family or strangers. I would do much to avoid the meltdown or the emotional outbursts, not wanting to appear out of control or like a bad mommy. Now, I've found that it is better to just let her show how she feels, be a comfort to her, and then discuss and deal with her feelings later when she feels calm and safe. It's hard to console a hysterical person, and a billion times more difficult when that person is 2.5. I have had to let go of my concern about how others might perceive me as a mother, because there's simply no way that I can please them while at the same time model authenticity and respect for my daughter's feelings, and for me, the latter trumps the former.

In these small ways, we are attempting to help Little L learn how to behave while still recognizing and honoring the fact that at her age, she simply cannot be expected to do as we do. Our hope is that we can set her up to meet and exceed our expectations, rather than fail miserably because our demands are too lofty. May she continue to build on her self-esteem and sense of self-determination, rather than have it eroded by our unreasonable adult expectations!

How do you feel about this whole "gaslighting our children" business? Do you agree with the author, or do you think that she is making mountains out of mole hills? What are some ways that you set your kiddies up to succeed? I'd love to hear your musings too!


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