Category Archives: Gentle Parenting Toolkits

The Cautious Child: Big Changes in a Familiar Place

AlexanderAtKarateAlexander was three. We had been taking his older brother to karate lessons for a year. Alexander adored hanging out in the waiting area watching his brother through the big glass windows, copying the things that he was doing. He made friends with all of the adults and kids and knew them by name. Then the old location closed down and a new location opened up. All of the same people were there. The same kickboxing bags. The same mats on the floors. But re-arranged in a new building with new rooms and new walls.

I had told him “Karate moved to a new place.” That “We will be taking Isaac to karate here now.” We said goodbye to the old location, peeking through the windows at the empty rooms. We said hello to the new location each time we passed by. Alexander was excited. Until we walked into the new building. Alexander started to scream and try to climb up my leg. Keenie was tiny, still. In a wrap on my chest. I pulled Alexander up onto my hip and we walked outside together. “Come on. let’s take a walk.” I told him. I slid him down my side until he was standing next to me. He did not resist. I took his hand in mine and we walked over by some trees. His sobbing slowed and stopped.

“Alexander, you got really upset when we went inside.” I said. “We are going to go back inside now, super-fast, just to see where everything is and then we’ll come back out and go for another walk, okay?”

I carried him to the building again. We paused outside the door and I asked him if he was ready. We took a quick tour and I pointed out the kickboxing bags. “The punching bags are over there, now.” I told him. We found the office space. ‘And look, it’s the desk where Joshu works.’ The  locker rooms. The bathroom. The water fountain. “Would you like to get a drink?” He clings to me in response. Not yet.

We walk outside again. He relaxes. We walk around near the trees for a few minutes and look at rocks, at bugs, at leaves, at a little dried up stream bed full of rocks and mud.

When we go back inside he knows where everything is and he is calm. I carry him through the building pointing everything out. Now we are looking for familiar faces so that we can say hi. His body is relaxed in mine, now. He isn’t clinging to me. Soon he kicks to get down and holds my hand. Then soon after that he is playing like nothing has changed.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I am bringing laundry upstairs.

Isaac, Alexander and Keenie are in the kitchen. Keenie and Alexander are eating some Mac and Cheese. Isaac has made himself a bowl of ramen noodle soup using the electric tea kettle the way I taught him.

Alexander is screaming his head off.

I stop by. Ask what is wrong. Alexander can’t tell me. I ask Isaac.

“Alexander wants some soup. I told him he can have some after I am done.” Isaac says.

“Why is he so upset?” I ask.

“He wants some right now. I told him ‘you can’t always get what you want.'” Isaac tells me. His voice takes on a hard tone when he quotes what he has said.

I sigh.

“Isaac, I know that someone in your life has been using those words with you when you are upset.” I say. “If you were in Alexander’s place right now, what would you want to happen?” I ask.

“Well he’ll have some when I’m done.” Isaac starts off. Then he thinks for a second. “You know what? Can you get me another bowl?” he asks.

I get him another bowl. He uses his spoon to ladle out some soup for his brother, then he goes to get him a spoon.

No. You can’t always get what you want when you want it.

But a person always has the ability to make a compassionate choice when someone that they love is upset over a situation that they feel isn’t fair.

As for Alexander’s screaming… That is not something that I want to reinforce. Usually I have the hard and fast rule that we don’t make changes until everyone has calmed down so that we can talk about things. When Isaac has been away for visitations and re-joins our family, Alexander and Keenie both have a lot of emotional overwhelm and feel like Isaac ignores their personal boundaries, doesn’t listen to them, and is not treating them well. They become more raw. More quick to anger and more easily frustrated.

When it comes to sibling interactions I try to intervene in a way that will help the relationships that they have with each other. Sometimes that means putting my personal rules off to the side to remind them that they love and care about each other and that they are ultimately really good friends.

Sometimes Isaac will hold fast to whatever outside lesson he is trying to teach them. At that point I will provide them with comfort and help them weather the situation until Isaac remembers that isn’t how we do things in our house.

I’m Not Afraid to Say No. (I Just Try Not To)

noThere’s a lot of talk about “No”. About why not to use it, about why to use it, about being “afraid” of it..

It’s really not that big of a deal.

It’s just that as a word it’s a closed door. Heavy, cumbersome solid wood hanging on a rusted hinge and squeaking uncomfortably against its frame for which it is ill-fit.

In the middle, printed clearly, are two letters. “NO”.

No! Not for baby. Cut it out. Don’t do that! Stop that! Don’t! Stop! Not a toy! You’ll break that! Don’t climb! No Jumping! Not for you! Put it down!

It’s a door that, when slammed shut, is often mistaken for teaching. For being firm. For setting limits.

Sure. It teaches. It teaches “no”.

Which is fine. Many people feel that “no” is a good word and that in the early years it’s impossible to over-use.

It is not the approach that I have chosen.

In that thin strip of empty space at the bottom of the door, curious shadows dance and a bright enticing light shines. There’s a world of wonders, and the promise of those things will send children to that doorknob time and time again until they are strong enough to be able to pull it open and sneak past.

And then they will. Old enough to get in trouble that they lack the knowledge to understand.

What comes on the other side of that door? When you step past that first reaction with your child and you explore that thing hand-in-hand, side by side?

Many things.

“Look. See?”

“Can I show you how?”

“Right there. Look. It is sharp. It is hot. Ouch!”

“This is what being careful looks like.”

“Hold on to it like this, see? Yes, just like that.”

“If you fall, fall away from the edge.”

“Mind the edges.”

“That is a narrow space to stand. It is high up. Is there anything to hold onto?”

“Look? See? That pulls away easily, then you will fall.”

“Maybe if…”

“That is fragile. See how carefully I pick it up? And then it goes down slow..”

“I don’t think Alexander likes it when you do that.”

“Does she look like she is having fun?”

“Oh dear, I dropped a glass and it broke. I have to clean it up carefully because all the pieces are sharp like splinters.”

“Oh no, this room is a mess! We cannot find anything. Let me show you where each little thing lives so we can put them all away.”

“How do you think we can…?”

“Can I help you?”

“I’m watching. You’re doing it safely. I’ll let you know if you need to be more careful.”

It’s not a tear-free approach. Sometimes things get broken. But I’m pretty sure that my life isn’t tear-free either, and sometimes things get broken.

And I learn from those times.

So do they.

My job isn’t to say no every five minutes. It’s to keep them safe from the unacceptable consequences while teaching them how to do all the things that they want to do. Safely.


Why Are You So Clingy When You’re Sick?

sickchildWhy are you so clingy when you are ill?
Why wouldn’t you be?
It’s a wise thing for a little person.
Your instincts are to cling close to the person that will take care of you.
Your instincts are to cling close to the person that will clean you up and help you take little sips of water.
That will keep you safe when you are too sick to keep yourself safe.
Your instincts know nothing of all the amenities of modern-day life.
Right now those instincts of yours speak louder than all the parts of your mind that do know those things.
They tell you that the safest place is here.
In my arms.
Where I can care for you.
Of course you’re clingy.
Your tiny body contains much wisdom about your needs.
So cling close, little one, you are tiny still, but together we will be big.

Playing together requires trust.

Consequences and Punishment

Playing together requires trust.
Playing together requires trust.

At the breakfast table. Isaac is back from a weekend away. He is not integrating easily back into the way that we do things.

“Isaac, if you yell at Alexander and Keenie, what are the consequences?”
“I’ll be in trouble?” he asks.
“Isaac, that would be the punishment. That is not the consequence.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well.. What if I thought that you did something but you really didn’t? I could punish you anyway, right? You have been punished before for something that you said you didn’t do, right?”
“Well the consequence of the choice to punish you was that you missed recess unfairly, right?”

The cogs start turning in his head.

“Why did you get punished when you didn’t do what the teacher thought you did?”
“Because another kid said I did it.”
“So who did the wrong thing?”
“The other kid.”
“The teacher also accidentally did a wrong thing. She punished the wrong person.”

“Isaac, why did the teacher believe the other kid when he said that you did something?”
“Isaac, does that teacher trust you?”
“Isaac, if that teacher trusted you and didn’t believe that you were the type of person to do that thing.. What do you think would have happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think that the teacher would have punished you if she trusted you?”
“I don’t know.” He’s thinking.
“I don’t know, either.”

“So. Isaac, if you yell at Alexander and Keenie, what are the consequences?”
“You won’t trust me?”
“I will think that you yell before you try to talk.”
“But I do try to talk!”
“Did you just try to talk to them?” I don’t actually know either way, I just know that Alexander ran into the room upset and saying that Isaac had yelled at him.
“…No.” He tells me the truth reflexively. We’re not trying to figure out if he’s going to be punished. I’m trying to help him understand how things work.
“And what will Alexander and Keenie think about their relationship with you?”
“That I yell at them?”
“Right. That’s not good for your relationship with them.”

He doesn’t look like he likes that idea. He looks over at his brother and sister who are building with blocks in the other room. He’s quiet.

“Isaac, I want you to think about something today, okay?”
He waits.
“I’m not punishing you for yelling at Alexander and Keenie this morning.”
He doesn’t look any happier than he did a minute ago. I’ve just told him that he’s not going to be punished for yelling, but he is knee deep in the consequences anyway.
“Can you think about the difference between consequences and punishment?”
“Okay.” he says.

“Can I give you a hug?” I ask.
He agrees.
“You’re a good kid.” I say. “I love you, and I hope you have a good day today.”
He runs back into the other room where his brother and sister are. He says something to them that I can’t hear, gives them a hug and comes back to wait by the door for his bus.

When children are fixated on the idea of punishments… They often forget about consequences.

Misidentified Feelings, Inaccurate Words, and The Lies of Toddlers

Nurshable“MOMMY, ISAAC PUSH ME!” she comes to me crying.
Isaac is at school. There is no way that Isaac just pushed her.
Keenie is two and a half.
What she told me is not true.
But is it a lie? Is she lying? Is she manipulating? Is she trying to get her brother in trouble? What is happening here?

“Keenie, when did Isaac push you?” I ask. Is she upset because she is remembering something that happened?
She can’t answer and just repeats herself.
“Keenie, are you sad about Isaac?” I ask.
She is.
She is sad about something. Some memory. She feels the sadness and the hurt inside but she doesn’t know why. But she knows that she felt this way when Isaac pushed her.
She is two and a half, the age where kids believe in monsters and fairies and invisible friends.
Where sequencing is not a very strong skill, but cause and effect is very firmly rooted.
She has a feeling that has just popped up from nowhere. She has a memory. She has an understanding that things happen that cause feelings. And she doesn’t quite grasp the flow of time or days. She has an intense imagination and a desire to explain the world around her.

“Keenie, Isaac is at school.”
“Isaac come home?” she asks.
“Isaac will come home later. After lunch and after snack.” I say.
Her lower lip quivers and she starts to cry.
“Keenie, do you miss Isaac?” I ask.
She nods.
“You are sad because you want Isaac to come home? You miss him?”
She melts into her sadness.
“I MISS ISAAC. COME HOME!” she says.

She was sad because of Isaac being at school. She was not lying to try and get him in trouble. She was not not sure what she felt. She was sad. Isaac. Sad. Isaac. Memory. Push. Push. Sad. Isaac. MOMMY, ISAAC PUSH ME!

Yes, little one. You are feeling something and you have words. So you try and tell me what it is that you are feeling. You need new words. More words. Not for me to get angry at you for “lying”.

If Isaac had been home would I have gotten angry at him?
Would I have confronted him?
Would I have assumed that he was lying if he told me that he had not pushed her?

If the context had been the same, if she had been trying to talk about some sadness that she had that he had not caused, what would have happened to her if I had reacted out of assumption? What would have happend to him, to their relationship?

Cooperation and Compliance are Not the Same Thing

When people talk about a child being “uncooperative” it can often be helpful to consider that cooperation and compliance aren’t the same thing.

Cooperation is working together towards a mutual goal. If one person does not share your goal it’s not being “uncooperative”, it’s being non-compliant. Thinking about things in this way helps me shift my thoughts onto a different path.

Compliance is “you do what I say” instead of “working together on a shared goal”. We often mis-label cooperation and compliance when it comes to young children.

So if we want our child to cooperate we have to figure out how to get them to share our goal instead of simply saying “You are going to.” At this age “no” is still a valid answer to “please” and “it’s time to.”

Children at this age also have very very little impulse control. They are locked into their own thought process and are still developing empathy and the ability to control their impulses. This is not something that they’re taught to have, this is something that is linked to brain development.

A toddler’s brain is not an adult brain. The part of the brain that allows a person to control themselves and their impulses is NOT fully developed until a person is in their early 20’s. It develops gradually between birth and adulthood.

So how do we get a child to “stop banging her spoon”? We have to help her change what she is doing, shift her thought process closer to what we want it to be. She has to be engaged in something because trying to pry her mind out of the gear of “bang the spoon” is not going to work too well. Think of a car. Drive. Reverse. Neutral. If you’re on a hill and gravity is pulling you down the hill and you want to back your car back up the hill then shifting from drive to neutral isn’t going to reverse you up the hill.

“Stop” with a child is sort of like shifting into neutral. The child’s brain is committed to the path that they’re on. If we want them to change direction rather than temporarily stop and continue, then sometimes we need to provide them with a new direction instead of simply trying to get them to “stop doing that”.

“Are you my baby bird? Oo, look. There is a noodle worm in your bowl. Can you scoop it out?”

“Are you all done eating? Can you help me put your bowl and spoon into the sink? We can wash it together.”

“Where do the bowl and spoon go when you’re all done eating?”

“Is your spoon a drumstick? Nooooooo That’s silly! It’s a spoon. What do we use spoons for?”

What about a child cooperating as you get ready? Resistance to shoes, for example?

“Where are your shoes? Do you know? Oo, what color are your shoes? Do they match your pants? That’s fun! Do you know how to put them on or do you need me to put them on for you? Do socks go on first and then shoes? Or do we put your shoes on and then your socks? Is that comfy? No? Let me fix it. ::swoops finger around the back to make sure that the shoe isn’t folded over:: Now you’ve gotta walk and jump to make sure the shoe’s all the way on! Okay, what do we do next now that your shoes are on?”

What about when the child is trying to change every single option as soon as they have the option? It can easily become endless and even more frustrating as the child is overwhelmed and needs some sort of boundary for their choices. If I’m regularly stuck in that type of cycle I try to sort of shut off the other options once a choice has been made. Pink shoes? Awesome. Let’s go sit on the stairs and put them on. ::shuts closet so that the other options aren’t available::

“oh, you want the sparkle shoes now? I’m sorry but we already picked and we need to go now. Would you like to wear the sparkle shoes next time?”

I also try to figure out if there’s something that is bothering them. For example if the child is saying that their shoes are too tight or not comfortable, what do they mean? The automatic reaction is “The shoes are your size and if they’re any bigger you will fall on your face.” But what if the shoes are too narrow? What if your child’s socks are bunching up as they slide on? What if the socks are pulling uncomfortably on their toes no matter how big the shoe is? What if the back of the shoe has folded over and is digging into their heel?

It’s simple to dismiss a complaint as “The toddler is being a toddler and is uncooperative”. My daughter objects to the car seat frequently saying it is “too tight” when what she really means is that her dress or shirt have ridden up behind her uncomfortably or the harness is putting more pressure on one shoulder than on the other, or the lap belt part has gotten caught lower on her legs rather than sitting on her hips. The harness is not “too tight” in a way that requires me to loosen it to the point of it being unsafe, but it is uncomfortable and something does need to be adjusted in order for her to feel that it is not “too tight”.

One final thing is that I have found that the more my children are forced to comply the less cooperative they become. Mondays are difficult for us because others in the house are more inclined to utilize force and distractions which have a long term negative impact on actual cooperation. A child who is regularly “made” to do something will often resist until they are made to do it, and will try to resist even then. Sometimes taking a step back and re-evaluating which battles we are choosing can be a good and healthy thing.

What is necessary?

No. You can’t run with the knife. I am sorry.
No, I won’t let you go out into the snow without boots. You can put your foot in the snow to feel how cold it is, but if you won’t put your boots on we will stay inside.

On the other hand… Do I really need for you to sit on the high chair instead of on a regular chair? Do I really need for you to eat your chicken with a fork or do I just need for you to clean your hands off before you get up? Do I really need for you to learn this RIGHT NOW at two and a half or three, or is it a skill that you can approach when you are more comfortable with your fine motor skills and when you have more of an interest in keeping your body clean?

Not everything has to happen perfectly RIGHT NOW. Some things can develop and grow over time. A two year old is very different from a one year old, a three year old or a four year old.

Pre-Teaching About Dangerous Objects That We Use Every Day

“What about situations where natural consequences are unacceptable”?

I teach about the object before the child approaches the object.

Knives, for example.

Here’s a picture of me peeling potatoes with two toddlers and a four year old. I don’t do this on the counter while my kids stay away. I keep them close. They’re engaged. I have them hold the potatoes, have them take the peel away from the potato after it’s been almost cut all the way through. When they move too fast they are reminded that we are careful around knives. I talk about how I’m holding the knife, how the sharp edge cuts the potato. How the potato is harder than their skin is but the knife can cut right through it, how the knife can cut skin too so we have to be REALLY careful. I show how the knife moves under the skin of the potato and under my thumb not into my thumb.

They watch. They dance around a few feet away but when they approach me they slowwwwww down. And I always remind them to slow down even more.

Even the little boy in the lower right who is a friend’s child.

While I’m peeling the potatoes I’m careful to keep the point of the blade pointing into the pot if there is a child in line with it. I make sure they move away from the point of the blade otherwise I can’t continue peeling. I’m ready to turn my arm so that they would run into my elbow rather than the knife, if they are moving too fast. (Which has never happened. I’m just always prepared to do that when I see them moving towards me.)

I talk to them about how when I carry the knife back inside I make sure that the point is pointing down inside the metal pot because if I fall I don’t want to land on the knife. And how when they’re bigger they can help me peel potatoes too.

They see my caution. When they are invited to touch the knife they touch the flat part, not the tip or the cutting edge. And they wait for me to touch it first.

It’s not a “thing mommy plays with”. It’s a thing that mommy uses VERY carefully. It’s not something that they’re kept away from or punished if they touch. It’s something that mommy is VERY cautious with.

If we use punishment then a child is punished for taking a cookie from a cookie jar. They’re punished if they reach for a knife. They can’t differentiate between “cookie” and “knife” in terms of what their experience with it will be. They don’t learn from punishment that the knife is dangerous. They learn that mommy will get angry if she sees them with the knife. Just like mommy will get angry if they take a cookie.

This way they don’t want to touch it because they understand that IT is dangerous. Not me seeing them try to touch it. But them touching it. They are cautious with the object itself.

Q: When do I start teaching this way?
A: When my child is able to push chairs around and climb onto them. This is when knives start to concern me. By this point my child has already learned to be gentle with things like caterpillars and worms, has the fine motor control to touch without grabbing, and is able to approach things with caution. So… Closer to two years than to twelve months.

He Had a Bad Day.

He had a bad day. I could see it on his face as he walked off the bus.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”

So I let it go.
Then when he was ready he cracked wide open and told me about the things that were bothering him.

I said that they would bother me too. That I experienced some of those things, and that they taught me compassion for others and clarified who I wanted to be.

Some things we don’t think about until they happen to us.

Then I helped him come up with strategies for next time.


Sometimes kids tease because they are teased. It is not nice or right, but their parents value toughness and thick skin over compassion. We value compassion over thick skin. So things that seem normal to some kids seem cruel to ours, even if they are far from bullying.

Children repeat how they are treated.

So the child who is told not to be a crybaby will tell other crying children the same thing. Not out of malice, but because this is the response that he has learned.

We talk about safe places and true friends. About the difference between family and aquaintances.

We talk about how he feels in the moment where he says or does similar things to his brother or sister. About honesty and about kindness. About finding out more about ideas before dismissing them. About how to present an idea that you want people to listen to. About making sure to listen to the ideas of others because very few people are open to listening to people that don’t listen to them.

Long slow conversation that took many turns as he tried to piece things together in his head, gave me more examples of situations. Asked me what-ifs.

He was too fragile to be nice to anyone, so I made sure that he had space, books, his bed. Calm. He chose to accept this retreat I offered, and I checked in constantly offering head rubs and shoulder hugs.

Then later that night dad put the little ones to bed and we spent time in the big overstuffed chair in the library reading some books together and snuggling.

He had been building up all the little stresses for some time before he boiled over.

He went to sleep happy, loved and at peace.

I could have gotten angry about the negative things he was doing and his short fuse. I could have felt manipulated by his tears of frustration when he was unable to quickly and easily complete a task he does each day.

I didn’t.

When Your Toddler Takes an Object and Won’t Give It Back

What should you do when your toddler takes objects and won’t give them back when asked for them?

One option is to pry it out of your child’s hands, but that teaches them that when someone asks for something and the other person doesn’t give it to them, it’s okay to pry it away.

Another option is to just let them keep it. But what if it’s an expensive piece of equipment like your phone, something dangerous like a battery or a bottle of laundry soap?

I have found that it’s sometimes easier to ask my child to put an item somewhere and ask my child where that place is rather than asking for the item directly.

I’ll say “Okay, let’s go find the phone charger so that we can plug in the phone. Where is the phone charger? Can you help me find it?” Then we put the phone down to charge and wave bye bye and go find some books to read.

This avoids the immediate possessiveness that a toddler sometimes exhibits when they have a toy and someone else wants a turn and is being insistent about it instead of waiting for the child to be done. It is also helpful when a child uses an item at certain times or in certain situations and telling them “That’s not for you to play with” would be confusing or ineffective.