Category Archives: Behavior Toolkit

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.

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.


But What About Discipline?

But what about discipline?

I discipline, yes. I teach about the consequences of actions.

With spanking?

No, that is punishment, not discipline. Discipline is teaching, not punishment. Punishment is disconnected from an event, it is a thing done to a child, not a thing in which the child is engaged.

Discipline looks like explaining consequences connected to an event.

“If you pull the cat’s tail she may scratch you and she won’t want to play anymore.”

It looks like explaining what happened and showing empathy for the child’s upset or hurt from a situation, not trying to drive a point deeper to make them feel it more.

“I am sorry that your favorite cup broke when you dropped it on the floor. I know you are upset. I would be, too.”

Discipline means that the consequences for an action exist even if I am not in the room. That they stand alone, and even the tiny little consequences have weight all on their own.

When something needs to be made huge in order to merit attention, the child just becomes numb to that thing, the original reason.

That is not discipline, it ia desensitization and conditioning.

Don’t Think of Pink Elephants, and the Annoying Repetitive Behaviors of Children

Don’t think of pink elephants. Stop thinking of pink elephants. STOP THINKING OF PINK ELEPHANTS! If you keep thinking of pink elephants you are going to have to sit on the bottom stair for one minute. TWO MINUTES! FIVE MINUTES! STOP THINKING ABOUT PINK ELEPHANTS RIGHT THIS MINUTE!

There are some behaviors that my children start up on the minute that certain adults come home.

The behaviors that have to STOP RIGHT NOW. The behaviors that have consequences. The behaviors that pop up randomly across our days together but in small and manageable amounts that quickly pass.

When someone is fixated on something you don’t get them to stop by talking about it.

Remember the pink elephants? I’m guessing it became a bit easier to put them out of your mind after I stopped talking about them as much. Because you started thinking about what I was talking about instead. Your mind moved on.

I call these behaviors “Pink elephant behaviors”. They aren’t going to stop no matter how much you DEMAND THAT THEY STOP.

Change the topic if you don’t like it. Teach them something else to do if they’re bored. Remove them from the room where they’re doing the thing. Let them know that they can do it in a specific place, then insist that they go to that place, instead.

But stop talking about the pink elephant in the room.

The Annoyance of Whining (Emerging Communication Skills)

Dear Daughter,

You’re nineteen months old and your whines cut straight through me. They’re endless sometimes. You whine for everything you don’t have words for, or all the words that you forget in that moment where you feel a need or a want and can’t pull the words out of what you’re feeling.

Whines are just the sad and ouchy things, the urgent wantful wishful things, the hungry needing things. All the things you haven’t found words for yet. Something less of an emergency than cries, but that tries to tell me that something is on your mind. They are just a quiet sound that you hope my heart can translate rather than becoming annoyed.

I won’t let you down, I’ll look at your face, your body. I’ll try to see your need. I’ll offer up the words you’d like to be able to say. One day you’ll know how to say them, how to remember them in the heat of the moment.

You’ll be able to do this because I do this with you now.

I’ve been taught that whining is annoying, that it’s manipulative. “Don’t whine!” “Always whining.” “The whining’s driving me nuts.” “She whines like a baby.” “He won’t stop whining about the toy he wants.” These are the words that have been put in my head by other people, the words that color my emotions red and reactive.

The truth is, whines are a communication of want and need that are somewhat less urgent than cries. They’re a placeholder for words that you’re trying to reach for but that you can’t yet grasp hold of.

The whining’s just the words you’re looking for, and I’m here to help you find them.

You whine and lean your body towards something. I point around and ask “that?” And you learn to point at the things that you want.

You whine and grab at my shirt. I ask “nursh?” and I make the sign that we use. You learn the words.

“Sleepy?” “Hungry?” “That toy?” “Do you want me to carry you?” “Bored?” “Tired?” “Scared?” “Do you want me to put you down?” “All done with the stroller?” “That?” “You want to know the word for that?” “Yes! It’s a cat. Look at the cat run. Run. The kitty’s running!”

Choosing to put the words of others out of my head means that I don’t mistake the “makes me need to respond” feeling that whining brings on for agitation. The annoyance is something that the words of others has put into my head. Your whines are no different from a hungry newborn rooting. They are a call waiting for a response.

That response does not need to be the ineffective annoyance that I have been handed. It’s not you that I should be annoyed with when you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do. I should be annoyed at all the people that have told me that whining is useless or manipulative instead of telling me that it’s something to listen to carefully so that I can translate it to the words you’re trying to learn.

All I need to do is give you the words that you were looking for, and in time you’ll be able to choose the words instead.

<3 Mama

Parenting Switches: Toddler Yells Instead of Sharing

The situation: The toddler is playing with a toy. His little sister wants to play with the toy. The toddler yells at his little sister. His little sister starts to cry.


Sit down on the floor with the two children. Pick the baby up onto your lap on one side. Pat your leg to offer the other side to the toddler (who may or may not take it- My son did not.)

Say: Oh Alexander! No yell. Yelling is sad! Anne Marie says “that scared me and made me cry!” Sad Anne Marie, Sad Alexander! Anne Marie says “I want to share. I want to play! Can I take a turn then you can take a turn again?” Look! Look! A game to play. Alexander loads the digger and dumps it in Anne Marie’s dump truck! Oh what fun it is to play together. Can you sound like a truck? Vroooom! Oh what fun!

Instead of:

“Alexander! Don’t yell at your sister! Go to time out until you can share!”

By choosing to handle the situation this way I  did not isolate the children. I gave my son an alternative way to handle the situation, I put words to what my daughter was experiencing, and I modeled an example for him.

He responded not to me but to his sister. He said “Yes! I want to play. I want a turn too. I get the digger and you get the dump truck!” and he pushed the dump truck over to his little sister and they spent the next 20 minutes playing and taking turns.

He was frustrated because his little sister was grabbing a toy that he was playing with, and he didn’t have the necessary tools in his toolkit to cope with the situation. He just wanted it to stop. He reacted emotionally.

He was not “bad”, he was not “mean”. He was two and a half and acting in an age appropriate behavior that I wanted to help him change. He would have learned nothing from being isolated, other than perhaps that when his little sister is around he doesn’t get to play and has to go sit in a naughty corner.