Toddler Discipline

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Strategies from a crowded consignment sale.


From the featured blog, Country-Fried Mama

When I was getting ready to leave the Northeast for a new home in the deep, deep, DEEP South, a colleague who had lived most of her life in Georgia told me to prepare for five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and tornado.  She missed an important one, though.  My favorite season here, by far, is consignment sale season.  It comes twice each year, and it can be fabulous, as long as you know how to weather the toddler-sparked storms that can accompany it.

I was standing in a slow-moving line at a consignment sale this morning.  Women were queued up on three sides of the church gym, laden down with smocked dresses and gingham jumpers, balancing seersucker diaper bags and “like new!” Mary Janes while they reached for DVD’s, books and toys piled along the path to the registers.

I had my 18-month-old daughter, Belly, with me.  She was my partner in finding a season’s worth of clothes in one trip.  Last year, Belly and I hit the same sale while my older daughter was in pre-school.  We had a pretty easy time of it then; I slipped her into a baby carrier, and she slept against my chest while I piled a dozen outfits into her stroller.  I knew this year would be more challenging.

Before we left the house, I prepared myself for avoiding the top five toddler temper tantrum triggers:

1. Hunger: Like me, my children get irrational if they don’t eat a little something every couple of hours.  I stuck a cup full of crackers in my purse on my way out the door, and I eagerly accepted the offer of an additional snack from the volunteers working the line at the sale.

2. Thirst: Is there a nastier feeling than little bits of cheese crackers stuck in between your teeth?  I brought Belly a cup of water, and tucked an extra bottle in the basket beneath her stroller as a back-up.

3. Boredom: We carried a few lift-the-flap books into the sale with us, and I picked up a $3 doll for her to play with in line.  She fed the doll crackers and offered it her empty cup; she didn’t want any fuss from her baby, either.

4. Lack of attention: Much as I would have enjoyed hanging out in that line reading my Twitter stream, I knew Belly would be jealous of the attention I pay my imaginary friends (I mean followers. Right, followers.)  So, I left my phone in my purse and knelt down on the floor to sing “Wheels on the bus” to her not-quite-new baby (over, and over, and over).

5. Lack of praise: Kids thrive on praise, and I am thankful to every woman who passed by us in line and stopped to compliment Belly’s smile, her pink zebra shirt and her well-behaved baby doll.

One mama in front of me—who was holding her 20-month-old by the wrist and pushing an enormous basket of clothes, shoes and toys—commented several times during our hour-long journey together about how good Belly was and how bad her daughter was.  She repeated this, with dramatic sighs, in front of her child.  I tried to clue her in on the temper tantrum triggers, but she wouldn’t hear me.  Her kid, clearly, was bored.  Heck, I was bored, and if I hadn’t been so busy with Belly, I might have thrown myself down on the floor and started screaming, too.

While this woman and I spent the same amount of time in line, her wait was much, much longer than mine. 

Every child is different, of course, and some kids are easier than others, I know.  But most children I’ve met in my short stint as “Mommy” are not good or bad.  They are entertained or they are bored, they are snacking or they are starving, they feel admired or they feel ignored.  These little ones might be able to say “apple,” “Daddy,” “truck,” “down!” and “doggie,” but they can’t say, “Excuse me, Mama, I’m feeling some ennui right now.  Can you suggest an activity with which I might entertain myself?”  And so, they scream and flail instead.  Their delivery might be less articulate, but the meaning of their message is the same.

Belly is at least a few months away from comprehending the discipline strategies we use with her three-year-old sister.  She doesn’t get time-out or loss of privileges, yet.  My goal with my toddler is to limit bad behavior by avoiding its causes, just like I did with my high school students when I taught English.  I planned meticulously to give them engaging work, I provided a new task every 15 to 20 minutes, I stayed close, I praised whenever I could.

“Disciplining” a toddler seems similar to me in many ways, and the results are worthwhile; I walked away from the consignment sale this morning with some beautiful, inexpensive clothes AND with a happy toddler.

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