Q: My parents recently told me that my husband and I are letting our toddler run our family and that it’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable for them to visit or have us visit with them — they live 10 miles away — because of her misbehavior. Mind you, she is only 28 months old. They told me, for example, that she should be toilet trained already. Her pediatrician, however, told us to wait until she was closer to 3. In addition, she throws frequent tantrums and often refuses to do what we tell her to do. That’s normal for this age, right? Anyway, my parents told me that I ought to begin reading your column and books so I thought I’d just write you and get your opinion on all this. My parents are sort of stuck in the old ways of doing things.
A: Saying that your daughter is ONLY 28 months old may go a long way toward explaining this situation. Your parents, being “stuck in the old ways,” understand that the most advantageous time to deal with any given misbehavior on the part of a toddler is when it first appears — by nipping it in the bud, so to speak. This very active approach to discipline recognized that misbehavior snowballs very rapidly.
For better or worse, major disciplinary precedents are set during the third year of life (24 to 36 months). These precedents determine, to significant degree, whether the child’s discipline will be relatively easy or extremely difficult from that point on. I’m going to guess that your parents are concerned that by excusing your daughter’s behavior on the basis of her age that you are creating a significant disciplinary “debt” that will create ever more stress down the road for all concerned.
I’m sure you want nothing more than for your daughter to be a happy child. Consider, then, that obedient, well-behaved children are much, much happier than disobedient, ill-behaved children. Common sense confirms that and so does the best research into parenting outcomes. I urge you to get a move on before your daughter becomes a full-blown family tyrant.
First, create a “tantrum place” — a safe and relatively isolated place where you put your daughter as soon as a tantrum begins. When screaming commences, in she goes until the screaming stops.
Time-out does not generally work well with older children or major discipline problems, but it can be very useful with a toddler.
The child’s room, assuming it is not a self-contained entertainment complex, will do. Five or 10 minutes in relative confinement for disobedience sends a powerful message to a child this age. Use a timer set outside her door to let her know when her time of repentance is up.
Your parents are also correct concerning toilet training. Just as it is easier to house train a 4-month-old puppy than it is a 1-year-old dog, it is easier to train an 18-month-old than a 3-year-old.
Do not wait a day longer.