I’m about to share with you the best advice I ever received in regards to parenting a toddler, which, if you’ve ever been around a toddler, you know is comparable to charming a cobra, wrangling a pig greased with Crisco, or climbing Mount Everest. This is very valuable advice; you’re going to want to write it down.
The key to a happy, (relatively) well-behaved 3-year-old is this:
Say yes to everything you can.
When your knee-jerk reaction is “no,” say yes instead.
“Can I wear my pajamas to church?” Yes.
“Can I bring my trains in the bath?” Yes.
“Can I paint right now?” Yes.
“Can I bring my lunch in the car?” Yes.
“Can I go play in the rain? Stomp in the mud? Roll in that puddle? Bring this fistful of gravel inside?”
As you can imagine, there’s a condition, otherwise the whole world would look like it was dominated by a Lego block-Goldfish cracker-Thomas the Train-dirty clothes tornado. In other words, my living room.
The condition is this: Say yes to everything you can, provided you can say no to what you must.
Saying yes as much as possible is not about placating a child. It’s not giving them anything they want to eliminate all their reasons for fit-throwing. (Some of Madeline’s first words were courtesy of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” She could sing it by the time she was 2.)
Saying yes is about working really, really hard to make sure that your child’s day is more positive than negative.
A toddler’s whole world is “No.”
Don’t touch that.
Don’t pick your nose.
Get your fingers out of your mouth.
No we can’t watch another video.
No you are not excused.
Don’t throw that.
Don’t be rude.
Don’t push your brother.
No you can’t have more cookies.
No you can’t skip your nap.
No I can’t come to preschool with you.
No we cannot buy that toy today.
Even that is a little misleading. It actually sounds more like this:
“No, no, no. NO! STOP IT. Stop, stop. STOP IT RIGHT NOW! I SAID NO! NOOOOOOOOO! YOU ARE MAKING VERY BAD CHOICES YOUNG LADY. PULL IT TOGETHER. STOP!
Three-year-olds are testing boundaries and asserting their little independent selves. The very nature of being three means that a child runs into walls, into “no’s,” all day long. They push here, and mom pushes back. They push there, and mom pushes back. It’s part of growing up – a rite of passage.
But telling a bright-eyed, wonder-filled three-year-old “no” and “don’t” and “stop” all day long is a sure way to crush their bright-eyed, wonder-filled spirit.
They grow weary.
They get frustrated.
They get jaded.
And weary, frustrated, jaded toddlers are whiney, cranky, fit-throwing toddlers. Kids have bad days, too. Kids act out on bad days, too. They pout and slouch and mope, sass and snap and fight – just like their parents.
There’s no way around it - as parents we have to say “no” to a lot of things. Saying “no” is largely about teaching our offspring what is and is not socially acceptable. (But mostly it’s about keeping them alive. ”NO YOU CANNOT STICK THAT HANGER IN THE OUTLET!”)
So, to preimpt the inevitable weary, frustrated tantrum, say “yes” to everything you can. Your child will learn the word “no” all by himself. Work hard to teach him yes. Even if it means extra effort, extra cleaning, extra hustle. Even if it means that people look at you judgementally when your child wears a batman costume in a nice restaurant in the middle of July. The batman costume is not a hill worth dying on.
Delight them. Put some positive into their day. Show them you’re on their side. Say yes.
(Read Part II here: “Through Children’s Eyes“)