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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: Mom seeks alternatives to time-out

I am looking for more positive ways to teach a two-year-old rather than time-out. We don't use time-out for every little thing, only hitting, biting and occasionally refusing to follow a simple direction. It may be one or two times a day, sometimes none. Also I feel he is "bored" for lack of a better word. He has learning toys, both store bought and handmade. I spend time with him with these things, but he is easily distracted or plain out not interested. He wanders a lot around the house experimenting and generally searching for other things. He tries to elicit us often in getting what he wants and we participate where we can and /or give him what is safe. How much of this is normal development and also how do we balance our day and our responsibilities and time for him? We also have a six-month-old. Both are heavy finger/thumbsuckers. I thought we were doing everything right but now questioning this.

Thank you,
(name withheld)

 

Jan's reply:

Thank you for visiting our site and for sending these important questions. I can understand that you're feeling overwhelmed, especially with an obviously bright two-year-old and a baby who is just becoming more active as well. I commend you for wanting alternatives to time-out.

A two-year-old is a very curious person, always experimenting, always exploring. He is in fact, a scientist! And if you look at his activities in that way, it can change your perspective and allow creative ideas to emerge, making life easier for you and for him.

I'd like to suggest an exercise to try. For one day, picture him not as a small child, but rather as a visiting scientist. Pretend this scientist is staying at your home for a day. This person needs materials to use, needs time to do his research, and will need your assistance from time to time. If we had a visiting scientist at our house, wouldn't we feel curious ourselves as to what he is doing, and wouldn't we feel honored to be helping when we can? That's exactly the right attitude to take with a busy toddler.

Unfortunately, our society doesn't take that attitude, and we're led to believe that a two-year-old should behave like an adult at all times. That's absurd and unrealistic, of course, but nevertheless, it's what many in our society expect. So we hear from relatives, friends, strangers, and so-called "experts" that our two-year-old is "misbehaving" when he/she is simply "acting like a two-year-old"!

If a 30-year-old "refuses to follow a simple direction" something is wrong in the relationship that needs to be explored. But a two-year-old is not an adult! If a two year-old "refuses to follow a simple direction", it's because he's tired, hungry, wet, distracted, busy, uninterested, resentful of the approach being used, confused by the directions that have been given, remembering a painful experience related to what is being asked of him, sad because of recent disappointments, overwhelmed by loud noises in the house or neighborhood, reacting to tensions in the family or bad feelings between siblings or parents, understandably jealous of attention his sibling is getting, or frustrated because he's had to wait too long for attention, and on and on. There is a very good reason for each and every bit of behavior he presents to us!! Punishing him for doing the very best he can given his age, the present circumstances, his recent experiences, and the limited time he's been on this planet is not only obviously unfair, it's completely ineffective. It's really very simple - "Children behave as well as they are treated" and as well as they are feeling at the time.

For all of these reasons, you are very wise to recognize that punishment doesn't work, and to look for more effective and positive alternatives. Sometimes it just takes a little imagination and a good knowledge of our child's personality. When my son was two, he loved going to playgrounds, but he never wanted to leave. This became a real problem for me, as it seemed impossible to prevent the tears and frustration at the end of an otherwise happy day. When I took a little time to think about what might make this easier, I remembered that he loved racing with me. The next time we had to leave the playground, I told him it was time to leave, and asked if he wanted to race me to the car. He was very happy with this solution.

The most important advice I've ever had is to use humor whenever possible - not mean humor, of course, but silly humor. Once when my son at age 7 didn't feel like helping me with cooking, but I could have used some help, I put up a sign: "Help wanted - banana masher for cake project". He came several times to interview for the job, pretending to be too dumb, too weird, too mean, etc., and finally he appeared as the perfect kitchen helper. Yes, it took time and imagination, but his delighted helpfulness was worth it. Whenever I would get too busy to take an understanding approach, and we would both get upset, that would take even more time to undo the damage. Children do take our time. They take our energy. They take our love. But the more time and energy we give, the less they need in the future. And the more love they can give back.

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