After devouring almost every parenting manual I could get during my pregnancy (my mantra: if in doubt, do your research) and clinging to a few firm favourites for the first few months, I’ve broadly left baby books alone recently.
Partly, I think it’s because I’ve calmed down a bit and have slightly more belief in my own abilities. I remember reading over and over again that you’d be able to understand why your baby was crying, and in the first days/weeks/months being baffled as to how that was ever possible. Then, suddenly, I mostly could.
It’s also partly because almost every parenting expert disagrees with every other one, the advice changes radically from generation to generation – sometimes from year to year. If in doubt, read this fabulous rant about baby sleeping advice which makes me snort with laughter and weep in sympathy.
But as toddlerhood has arrived, Minnie’s forceful little personality is getting ever more determined. Forget the terrible twos, we’re already on the wilful ones – today’s highlight? Putting her coat hood on her head sparked delighted giggles, trying to get her arms in provoked wails of anguished distress. I have no idea why, once I got her in, she was fine. Here I take comfort from another website, Reasons My Son Is Crying.
With a whole world of tantrums ahead, and that long-haul flight on the horizon, I thought a bit of advice wouldn’t go amiss though. So new book ToddlerCalm, published in October, seemed to have arrived at the perfect moment.
Aimed at parents of children from 12 months to four years, it promised a different approach than the standard advice out there. So no naughty step (no use for a 15-month-old anyway), no sticker charts and a belief that understanding goes further than ignoring bad behaviour.
I hadn’t done any of the BabyCalm classes, or the more recent ToddlerCalm versions which were started 18 months ago – in fact, I only vaguely remember hearing about them through a newborn fug – so I had absolutely no preconceived notions.
To start, the book focuses strongly on putting yourself in your toddler’s position – one suggestion, to imagine you couldn’t speak or write (say a virus had temporarily deprived you of the ability) and show the myriad events that a toddler is presented with every day, was an impressive way to communicate their frustration. Meals are presented, plans are announced, strange routines are applied so a toddler who is more or less tired than normal, who fancies soup not sandwiches, and who really would rather play with a toy than go outside is given no choice.
Of course, it’s not always possible to take that into account (I’m leaving aside whether it’s desirable or not for now). If a child can’t communicate, you can’t offer a thousand different dishes until they choose one they like. And maybe they don’t want to go out to the supermarket, but toddlers don’t have the concept that if you stay in, there’s no milk for later.
Then there’s the physiological differences, the fact that toddler brains simply aren’t developed enough to expect them to feel empathy, understand consequences or even handle the strong emotions they feel – so there’s no point treating them like miniature adults and expecting them to behave in the same way.
So what should you do, according to author Sarah Ockwell-Smith (a mum of four herself)? And this, to me, was one of my biggest problems with the book.
I’m not expecting a magic wand to wave (sadly). All babies are different, in the same way that all people are different. And not only can you not press a button to change a behaviour, it’s probably a good thing. After all, some of what’s temporarily annoying is vital for development. Annoyingly.
But there seemed a bit of a gap between point (a) that eg toddlers couldn’t be expected to share and point (b) that parents needed to help them learn this as an important life skill. If they don’t want to, don’t understand why they should and think it’s wildly unreasonable of you even to ask, but at some point they need to be able to do it with good grace, the advice seems to focus on understanding their position and the physiological reasons rather than on how you teach them.
Equally, the suggestions that a baby who doesn’t want to be left at nursery/childcare might simply not be ready could be perfectly valid, but isn’t desperately helpful for someone who has to go back to work. Ockwell-Smith does a good job of not piling on the extra guilt that some experts do, and acknowledges that the real world doesn’t always allow for perfect solutions, but it did feel a bit unsatisfying to outline a reason for an issue when the solution is unlikely to be possible.
There is some specific advice at the end on 10 common toddler problems (including sharing), so I tested out the section on throwing as Minnie throws everything. Not just in frustration, not just because she’s done with it, not even (I don’t think) as a scientific exploration of the world to find out what happens.
We’ve had mixed success – after repeating phrases and actions over and over, it did seem to be working (which is all I can ask for). Then it stopped. Then it seemed to work again, mostly.
It’s certainly a different approach, and not altogether a bad one, I think. More understanding of why something is happening can’t be bad, even if not everyone will agree with cuddles rather than time-outs as a response to tantrums.
Some makes a lot of sense on paper, but needs a lot of patience and determination in practice – I defy anyone hit in the face by a high-speed wooden brick not to grouch instead of gently reinforcing the ‘don’t throw’ response.
Perhaps the underlying message is that there’s no easy solution. What we want isn’t necessarily what our toddlers want, and a life skewed to suit them is as impractical and undesirable as a life where they’re made to feel a pain and a nuisance for behaving as toddlers do.
Which might not be popular, but is very probably true. My advice? Take hers, and use your own judgement to apply it – which, in the end, seems to be what parenting usually comes down to.