Nature and nurture
Part and parcel of growing up is learning how to live and let live, getting along with others. One of the joys of being a child under two or three years of age is that it is probably the only time in your life when you can be absolutely selfish … and free of guilt! And unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we cannot remember this carefree time as adults.
However, at some stage, the world expects us all to grow up and learn ways of living peacefully with our neighbours. This is best started at an early age, before bad habits and rigidity really set in! We look at some of the most desirable personality traits and how to show your toddler how to achieve them.
Empathy: try a little tenderness
We all have an innate ability to be empathetic to some degree. Just think of the chorus that starts up when one baby is crying – all those little lungs working overtime in sympathy! Yet our toddlers can also show amazing acts of aggression and even violence in equal measure, hurting and upsetting their friends and family out of frustration, anger and other negative emotions. Despite that, it is possible to teach your toddler how to be selfless and generous.
One of the best ways to help your child’s behaviour is to help them identify different emotions. You can do this through books, by talking about why a character is upset or angry and asking when your child has ever felt those emotions. You can also point out when your child shows any empathy. For example, if cry out in pain after bumping your head and your child gives you a hug, you can say, “You are very kind to hug mummy like that”. This shows that you value and recognise her actions and praise is one of the best ways to reinforce desirable behaviour.
However, it’s equally important to help her understand negative emotions too. So do point out when she’s behaving less than civilly! ‘It made your baby brother very sad when you took his toy. What can you do to help him feel better?’ is a good way to start.
You can also use other people’s actions to highlight empathy. For example, if a lady in the toy shop gives your daughter some stickers as a present, comment on it. “That was nice of that lady to give you those stickers, wasn’t it?”
Basic manners are a good way to introduce pleasantries to preschoolers. Start with the basics such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and explain that you are more likely to co-operate with your child when they talk to you nicely. It goes without saying that leading by example is the best way forward!
Finally, try to leave anger out of your dealings with your child. It’s very natural and easy to get het up when your toddler lies on the floor and screams at you but shouting back doesn’t achieve anything in the long term. Instead, be firm and explain why his behaviour is unacceptable. ”I understand that you’re feeling angry but you shouldn’t scream at me like that – it makes me very sad. Please apologise.” And never let boys get away with more than girls. Society commonly assumes men are naturally less sympathetic than women and therefore we don’t expect the same level of empathy from boys than girls. However, it’s not down to nature but nurture, so treat both sexes equally.
Generosity: share and share alike
The toddler years are ones in which friendships are first made and group play starts to take preference over solitary activities, with toddlers often showing generous tendencies by sharing toys and offering snacks. However, as we all know, altruism comes rather inconsistently to the under-fives!
What a relief then that inconsistency is entirely normal, as is the tendency for toddlers to put themselves first. Additionally, sharing is actually quite difficult for children of this age, since, in their eyes, their identity is tied up in their possessions. No wonder then that they get so upset when their favourite teddy is grabbed. You can avoid these situations by explaining that sharing doesn’t last forever and suggesting that your toddler’s friend have the teddy for five minutes and then give it back to your child. You might get round the problem temporarily this way but it’s key that children learn, at some point, that sharing is one of the most desirable attributes in human nature.
Again, the easiest way to achieve this understanding is by example. If you’re eating a piece of pizza, offer your child a bite. If you are making a cake, invite your toddler to help you. If sharing is associated with pleasure, she’ll soon learn what it means … and that it’s nice for all involved!
If your toddler behaves very badly when asked to share, take a firm but consistent stance but avoid anger. Try explaining why his actions are unacceptable. “We like to share in this family. Please let Sophie have a go with your game.” If your toddler insists on grabbing everything from everyone, suggest that this unkind behaviour might mean that her friends won’t want to come around anymore because they are never allowed to play with anything. This prospect might drive home the fact that not sharing can bring unpleasant results.
As with anything, praising can work wonders so, whenever you witness your child being generous, be sure to comments on it. All toddlers like to please their parents and rewarding good behaviour means you’ll get more of it (fingers crossed!).
Honesty is the best policy
From age three, toddlers can start telling truth from lies but doesn’t mean you can faithfully rely on everything he says. He’s not a modern-day Pinocchio: it’s just that reality can be coloured by forgetfulness, wishful thinking and imagination.
If and when kids do lie, it’s normally because they’re scared of how they will be punished or that they will disappoint us. To help your toddler to know that it’s wrong to lie, let him know that you simply don’t like falsehoods – but never call him a liar as it will make him defensive and even start living up to this reputation! Instead encourage him to tell the truth and say that it is normal to worry when we feel we have done something wrong – but that lying is not an acceptable way to get out of it.
It’s also important not to set your child up for the lie. So if, for example, you know that your child did not tidy up the toys, don’t ask him if he’s done it. Instead, calmly state, “I can see you haven’t tidied your toys up yet, please do so now.” Or say that you will come back in a few minutes to see how he’s tidied the toys away – this is an assertive way of dealing with the behaviour and also leaves him in control to rectify the situation. Plus he knows you mean business!
White lies are more difficult to tackle. In theory, yes your darling son is telling the truth about how horrible his new knitted jumper is from grandma. Yet there is a fine line between lying and not hurting someone’s feelings and perhaps this is the best approach to take. You could try explaining that while lying is not a good thing, it’s important to find positive things to say to people about the presents they give or the things they do to make you happy. So, a blanket statement such as “Thanks for my Christmas present” acknowledges the gift without having to lie about how he feels about it!
Responsibility: I get by with a little help from my friends
As far as toddlers are concerned, they are the centre of the universe! They don’t really have any idea of their role in your family and in society beyond that and certainly are not able to take on complex tasks set to a military-style timetable. However, your child will want to feel valued and important and will show an interest in the things you do. Involving her in your busy tasks will help her feel more valued and proud of her achievements, which is a great step towards instilling a sense of responsibility in children.
Granted, when you are dashing around with a vaccum trying to tidy up before the in-laws arrive the last thing you will want or need is to have a toddler under your feet, slowing you down. But giving him a little, age-appropriate job, such as dusting or putting a few toys in a box makes him feel very important and valued, plus it can make boring housework more fun! You’d be amazed by how much pride and self-reliance he will gain from helping with such easy tasks.
Daily ways in which you can reinforce a sense of responsibility include giving your child a particular task. It could be unloading the cutlery (not sharp knives of course!) from the dishwasher or setting the table (be prepared for knives and forks to turn up in odd places!) Walk through this with him at first by showing him where you put the cutlery and where the plates and napkins go. Also, be prepared to lead by example. It’s unfair to berate your child for a messy room, then to dump your newspapers all over the floor and leave them!
You can also teach your child a sense of order. For example, work sometimes does have to come before play – the washing-up needs to be done before you can go to the park. If you let him know that you’d find the park more fun too but that it’s important to straighten things out at home, he will see it more as a responsible thing to do rather than you nagging him! You can also lighten the mood by making it into a game – putting on dance music when you’re vacuuming or racing against each other to see who can finish first. It’s like Mary Poppins says, “In every job that must be done, you find an element of fun. You find the fun and … snap! The job becomes a game! Then every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.”
Finally, don’t forget to praise. While it can be frustrating when your toddler takes ages to stack a dish in the sink or dishwasher, if you grab the plate in exasperation and do it yourself, not only are you removing any sense of achievement but you are also making the task less enjoyable. Sure, you lose a few minutes but you gain a lot in other ways.
We all like to be respected yet we rarely get the sense that we are from our toddlers. From screaming “NOOOOO!” at your insistence that it’s bedtime to shouting “Go away!” when we interrupt their playtime with dinner, under-fives desperately want to have it their way, or no way. This is also due to an interest in how much power they have within the family. They will start by testing you a little bit and gradually crank up their undesirable behaviour the more the boundaries are stretched.
This is completely normal behaviour for kids of this age: indeed, psychologists say they would worry about any child who did not exhibit some sort of tendency to question the rules and push their parents’ buttons. However, it’s equally important to start teaching them the basic elements of respect at this age. After all, the younger you start, the easier it should be (in theory!) before bad habits really set in.
The first step is – you guessed it! To lead by example. Without realising it, we often don’t give kids the respect they deserve… and that we expect from them. For example, if your child is trying to explain something to you, give them enough time to do so, rather than butting in early or dismissing their opinions. Make sure you do this on her level, keep eye contact and let her know that you are interested in what she has to say. That way, you are also teaching her how to listen attentively to you.
Again, manners also come into this. When she wants something, stress that it’s important that she asks for it nicely, with a please and a thank you. Remember to say it to her too, rather than simply demanding that she tidy her toys up! If she reacts hostilely by calling you a name, try not to get wound up by it – it’s not meant personally. Instead, calmly say, “We don’t call each other names in this family” and show her how to get what she wants in a respectful manner, e.g. “If you want to leave the table, just ask nicely”.