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Toddler Training

Some of the most memorable moments in your life as a parent are the ones where your child shocked, appalled or entertained you with his perverse behaviour. It's often funny in retrospect though very trying at the time. But when faced with that tantrum or barefaced lie, don't forget that children are supposed to be 'naughty'.
It's their job to test boundaries and assert themselves. It's how they learn about social norms and risk. Of course, we do it ourselves – it's just that we have the social skills to disguise it or deal diplomatically with the aftermath.
But with a toddler bereft of much of that understanding, how do you deal with it?
Telling lies
Lying is normal behaviour in younger children because the boundaries between fantasy and reality aren't so clear. So how should you respond?

Look at the funny side - there usually is one. 'I didn't mess my room up, it was Polly,' said my youngest, Henry, aged 2. Polly's our cat and, clever though she is, she can't trash a bedroom.

Point out that it's unacceptable. You need to be careful though, because a child can't tell the difference between you saying to your plump friend, 'No, of course you don't look fat,' and little Jack saying, 'I didn't eat any chocolate,' when he's covered in it from head to foot. White lies are too subtle for a child to understand, so use them with care.
Being tactless
'I hate you, mummy,' is what your toddler might say when she's angry, simply because it's the worst thing she can think of to express her anger. But she doesn't really mean it; she's just annoyed with you for that split second. Toddlers have a limited capacity for empathising with or anticipating other people's feelings.

Learning how to be tactful comes with age and although there are certainly times when children can innocently offend, there are also moments when you know beyond a shadow of doubt that your little one is out to get you.

Ruth, mum to Lauren, 4, had one such experience. 'My mother-in-law wears a wig and I confess that I have, on occasion, called her "Wiggy" behind her back. Unfortunately, Lauren must have overheard because the next time we were all sitting at the dinner table, she piped up with, 'Granny, did you know that mummy calls you "Wiggy"?' I suppose the moral of that story is never slag off your relations unless you're in a soundproof room!

As for dealing with it, there are two core strategies:

  • Ignore the remarks in the hope that your toddler won't register their impact so won't waste her breath next time.
  • Take her to one side and remind her of how she feels when someone is rude to her, preferably using a real and recent example. It will sink in eventually.
Hands up anyone who can say, 'Cross my heart and hope to die, I never, ever pick my nose.' Anyone? So let's not confuse our children! What we need to do is teach them when behaviours are acceptable or appropriate.

Use a funny example to illustrate your point. She wouldn't pick her nose when she's about to choose a slice of cake off Aunt Sandra's tea tray, for example – would she?

Try reverse psychology to counter that 'contrary trait' so many young children possess. You could try, 'I want to see that finger up that nose right now.' You can see how it works in principle, but accept it's a high-risk strategy that will sometimes backfire.

Bribery! This isn't to be used regularly but makes her realise there are consequences and trade-offs for her actions. One tactic that works for me is to say, 'If you're to continue doing that, you won't be getting any pudding' – on the grounds that she's already eaten! From then on, if the offender were to be spotted, the finger would be withdrawn in haste.
'Shan't' runs a close second to 'no' in many children's vocabulary, whether it's a refusal to wear a hat, leave the park or go to bed. My friend, Cathy, recalls one summer's day when her three-year-old refused to come inside unless her pet worms could come too. 'No way was that happening, so she sat in the garden all afternoon and eventually fell asleep,' says Cathy. 'When she woke up, the worms had gone.'
Protest is an early and crude form of self-assertiveness. Again, it's just that your toddler needs to learn to apply it in appropriate measures and at suitable times. It's not always that easy but the following can help:
  • Avoid making an issue unless it's really important. If your toddler wants to go shopping in a Batman outfit and sparkly slippers, why not just go along with it?
  • Choose your battles. This applies to conflicts throughout your child's (and eventually teenager's) life, so it's a principle worth mastering.
There are three things worth remembering about tantrums that will help you cope:
  • Anyone watching will be full of sympathy and understanding (and if they're not, then they should be!)
  • Don't think of your child as a screaming heap of embarrassment but as a spirited, lively individual with bags of personality and a mind of her own. Imagine the opposite – a placid, unimaginative, lethargic conformist – how unnatural! It will help you to deal with her as a person rather than a behavioural problem.
  • Stand strong in the face of blackmail. That's what a tantrum is. Unsophisticated it might be, but it tugs and strains on your raw emotions, often when you're tired and vulnerable too. So the temptation to give in is huge. Don't – or the demands will continue and probably escalate. Remember that revenge is a dish best served cold, so make a mental note and store it away to use to embarrass your child at some later date – such as the first time she brings her boyfriend round for tea, or during a speech at her wedding!
All in all, remember that your toddler isn't behaving unacceptably out of pure defiance, perversity or obstinacy. She's an innocent too.

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