Q: My son is about 2½ years old. I struggle with getting him to comply with directions — putting shoes on when it's time to go, sitting still in his car seat long enough to get buckled in, sitting for meals, holding my hand in parking lots — everything. I do my best to explain what's coming, give him a countdown, etc., and I try to use natural consequences (if you don't sit at the table, you won't get to eat dinner). Timeouts would be completely ineffective because I would need a straitjacket to keep him still. I feel like a pushover, because short of wrestling him and physically restraining him, there is not much I can do to enforce rules if there is no immediate natural consequence. (He doesn't care if we're late, or if I can't move the car until he's strapped in, or if he doesn't eat dinner.) Suggestions, please?
A: According to the Center for Parenting Education, a typical child that age:
●Is in a difficult phase.
●Is rigid and inflexible.
●Has almost no patience; wants what he wants when he wants it.
●Cannot adapt, give in or wait a little while.
●Demands that everything be in its proper (to him) place.
●Requires routines be followed rigidly; does things in the same sequence, wears the same clothes, eats the same food.
●Is extremely domineering and demanding: he must give the orders, make the decisions.
●Is subject to violent emotions; there is little modulation of emotional expression (it is all intense).
●Is in an age of opposite extremes; he finds it almost impossible to make a choice and stick with it.
●Finds it nearly impossible to change gears, is highly persistent.
●Is vigorous, enthusiastic, energetic.
If this list doesn’t give you pause, it should. As I reread your letter about your son, I am hard-pressed to see a behavior that isn’t covered here. I know it doesn’t alleviate much of your frustration, but it should comfort you a bit to know that what you are experiencing is developmentally appropriate and you are not alone. Every almost-3-year-old is defiant. They just vary in their level of defiance.
From your note, it seems that you are trying all sorts of techniques: letting him know what’s coming, counting down and creating some consequences are standards in the old parenting toolbox, and they aren’t bad techniques. I’m a big fan of giving a child a heads up on upcoming events, and I’m going to suggest you keep that going. But you have found out the hard way that the other techniques are not going to work.
A 2-year-old is not interested in your perspective. So you need to shift your thinking from, “Why isn’t this working immediately” to, “I’m laying the groundwork for these discipline techniques to work later.”
You see, raising a 2-year-old is all groundwork (and grunt work). The daily grind of maintaining a safety boundary (holding his hand in a parking lot and securing him in his seat), forcing him to leave the house to get to an appointment and continuously feeding him foods he isn’t interested in will eventually lead to a little boy who stays near you, gets into a car easily and eats what is served.
It’s like planting an acorn. You water it daily, make sure there is enough light, etc., but nature is on its own timeline. Then one day, poof, the acorn has sprung into a tiny little sprout, which then turns into a majestic oak. As the developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld says, “growth is spontaneous,” but it is not predictable. Just because your son is not listening now doesn’t mean he won’t listen in the future. All this hard work is helping your son mature.
So, when will he stop running away and throwing tantrums? I don’t know. When will he stop resisting the seat belt? I don’t know. When will he enjoy your food? I don’t know (maybe never). But if you remain loving and firm, you should see marked differences in his behavior around every six-month mark (3 years old, 3½ , 4, etc.), and the hope is that around 7, he will show the maturity we want to see.
But if you try to find different ways to punish and shame him, your son will take longer to mature, so resist using punitive, shaming and angry measures. Preschoolers love to play, so create games and fun to move the work along (think Mary Poppins). Two-year-olds also like to believe they are in charge, so giving him some options (only between two choices, please) can also facilitate cooperation. Preschoolers love magic and make-believe, so tell stories and be silly. You will be surprised how far laughter can take you. Yes, there will be holding on to him in a parking lots while he screams, and yes, you will have to firmly hold him as you buckle him into his car seat (protect your face from flying feet), but if you remain steady, it will get better.
As for you, because raising a 2-year-old can be both physically and emotionally exhausting, find small ways to get away from him so you can restore your energy. Find a supportive parenting community where you can vent your frustrations and receive good advice. Finally, pick up the Louise Bates Ames series to better understand your son; knowing what to expect is immensely helpful.
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