Monday, July 28, 2014

With Toddlers, the Name of the Game is Empathy

Welcome back to The Brilliant Book Club, a collaboration of five parent bloggers. To learn more about BBC, read this post or follow us on FacebookG+ or Twitter with the hashtag #BrilliantBookClub. And don’t forget to read what my co-founders Lauren, Jessica, Sarah and Stephanie have to say about this month’s book, How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D. Links to their posts are below.

I had just begun reading Dr. Tovah Klein's book, How Toddlers Thrive, when I joined my toddler on the floor of our kitchen one afternoon. He was playing with an enduring favorite, a black diesel engine from the Grand Central Terminal store, trying to make it go by pushing it forward instead of pulling it back and releasing.

"Here, let Mommy help you," I said, taking the toy from his hand.

"No! I do!" Henry yelled.

"Let me just show you." I pulled the train back to rev it and released it across the kitchen floor. "See?"

I thought he would be thrilled to see the train shoot across the floor so quickly. But my normally even-tempered boy ran over to the toy, picked it up and threw it across the room with a shout.

Had I not read the book, I might have reacted by scolding: No throwing or No yelling. But I realized what had happened, and in that moment I became a Tovah Klein convert.

The Secret Life of Toddlers

Toddlers (defined as children aged two to five) live in a tumultuous world of their own rapidly developing brains and bodies. Any perceived disruption to their sense of command over this unpredictable world can result in a tantrum or seemingly unreasonable requests. According to Klein, Henry's need for control over his environment perfectly explains this maddening incident, among others:

He simply wanted to feel secure that water was there for him if he so chose to drink it. Fair enough.

Let It Go, Mostly

To quote Elsa, one of Klein's main messages to parents of toddlers is: "Let it go." Stop trying to control your little one's every move. The last thing he needs is a parent indicating the "right way" all the time. She writes:
Correcting a child is the same as controlling him, and both correcting and controlling rob your child of the chance to prove that he is growing.... Toddlers are all about learning through their mistakes, through trial and error, regardless of the outcome. And when you support his explorations and share in his delights, he feels valued and safe. 
In other words, I should have let Henry figure out on his own how the train worked, as he has done with countless brands of child locks, much to my dismay. Stepping in to "'fix' the situation...inadvertently sent [him] the message that [he] couldn't do it." By interfering, I "took away the opportunity for [him] to wrestle through the situation, make a mistake, and want to try again." And that made him upset.

Even at that moment, he looked at me questioningly, knowing he had done something out of character and out of bounds. I simply said, "That's okay, buddy, I know you wanted to play with it. Come sit with Mommy." The tension was diffused; he came over and sat on my lap, and we did a puzzle. Tantrum averted.

"Young children," Klein says, "learn by making mistakes and trying again. If they see an attempt as a mistake..." that is, if their parents are always showing them the "right" way, even sweetly, even with the best of intentions, "they give up."

As toddlers navigate the tumultuous transition from baby to little kid, our role is not to make them happy or smarter nor to provide them with Mandarin lessons that will get them into the top private school. It is, instead, to provide them the tools they need for self-regulation, i.e., to coping with life's undulations, to bounce back from disappointment, to handle intense thoughts and emotions, to solve problems on their own.

In order to develop these skills, they need "support, comfort and freedom" to explore without being controlled at every turn. But they also need routine, guidelines and limits. Overly permissive parents who throw up their hands are not doing their children any more favors than over-controlling, over-disciplining ones.

"Toddlers," Klein explains, "need limits and they look to us to be the authority and let them know when to stop." It seems like a paradox, but it isn't. When a child is doing something dangerous -- reaching for a hot oven over and over, for example (not that I would know anything about that) -- it is up to the parent to be firm and unequivocal in her "no." No hesitation, no reasoning. Just, no. "No" makes toddlers upset, but it also, Klein says, "builds children's trust. They know they can count on us."

Our job is to provide a safe environment where a child can explore. No touching the hot oven, but rev the toy engine backwards to your heart's content, little boy. No harm, no foul.

What About the Easy Child?

I really liked the practical (and sometimes liberating!) tips Klein offers for navigating the day:
  • On food: "Sit at a table for all meals" but don't force them to eat. Toddlers shouldn't be expected to sit at the table and wait for others to finish.
  • On sleep: "Keep routines short and simple"; "Monitor baths: for some children bathtime winds them up...."
  • On getting dressed: "Help them, but let them do what they can."
  • On toilet training: "Don't overdo the prizes... prizes or bribes make it about you, not them."
  • On play: "Sharing comes later." Two-year-olds don't understand the concepts of sharing or altruism, so don't force it.

But the truth is, I have (against all odds, one might say) a good-natured, even-tempered kid. He's always played for long stretches on his own, eaten well and slept easily. He's displayed no real separation anxiety with nannies or "camp." There is, of course, the occasional Home Depot Tantrum, so I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the "terrible two" to rear its ugly head. Maybe it still will, but at the moment, he is generally easy.

The exception to Henry's general easy-going personality.

That's why I bristled a little at the section entitled "Shaming the Compliant Child."
Is an easy, compliant child such a good thing? ... Our so-called nice kids tend to bury or squash these negative emotions because we as adults expect them to.... They become so attuned to their parents' perception of them as "easy," "good," or "nice," they shy away from expressing real, true feelings.... When we as adults signal to these easygoing children either our surprise or impatience when they do express frustration or upset, we only reinforce that they should not have such feelings.
I see what she is saying -- make sure Henry isn't just trying to please us all. Perhaps probe to see if something has upset him; make sure he knows it's okay to be sad or angry sometimes. Fine. But this section smacked a little of 'you're going to mess him up somehow, it's only a matter of time' and diminished the book for me. Though, as my wise and witty friend Jane from Nothing by the Book once quipped to me, "The best we can gun for is that they will need therapy for DIFFERENT issues than the one we need therapy for."

I was similarly confused at the part where she insists that parents stop praising their child. "Praise defeats. Let them have and enjoy their own success." Perhaps she is talking to the trophy-just-for-breathing crowd when she says, "Cheering them on knocks them down. It is another way of controlling your child, who is well tuned in to what you expect of them." Gratuitous praise, I agree, is toxic. But when he completes a puzzle and shows me, am I not supposed to say, "That's great, buddy!"?

Unlike the rest of the book, which offered advice that was practical and straightforward (if sometimes counter-intuitive and difficult), these two sections left me feeling helpless. I don't know how to make sure my "easy" child isn't repressing anger without somehow planting a seed that there is something to be angry about. Likewise, I don't know how to be impassive, hiding my pride when he makes me proud or my disappointment when he disappoints me, both of which are inevitable.

The Name of the Game Is Empathy

Despite this criticism, I loved the book and have already discussed it with my husband. Her overriding message to "Accept your children for who they are. Even the parts you don't like" (emphasis hers), resonated deeply with me.

Some of her advice is counter-intuitive: you should let your toddler finish her tantrum -- even one that would make the Poltergeist run for the hills -- without leaving the room, lest she feel abandoned and get even angrier. Other advice is common sense -- yelling back always makes the situation worse -- but often easier said than done, especially when you are in the situation, up to your eyeballs in obligations and down to your last drop of patience.

But throughout the book, she implores parents to look at the world -- even for a few moments -- through their toddler's eyes. It is a simple piece of advice that can have a profound effect on your child's -- and your -- well-being.

[Update: I wrote another post on this book because I couldn't get it out of my head: Parenting in the Time of Poltergeist.]

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.