Dear Carolyn: We have a rambunctious toddler and a newish baby. Both my husband and I are committed to never spank or hurt our kids, but we do yell more than I like us to. We apologize, and try to do better, but the fact remains that we yell, and I hate it.
It’s usually in response to something surprising — for example, the 2-year-old has just poured a glass of milk in my lap — or something that involves deliberately hurting the baby, like pushing him down or trying to stand on him or something. How do we get better?
Yelling: It’s great that you asked. The ability to admit your own shortcomings without defensiveness is your best weapon against those shortcomings.
I suggest a few things:
1. Make sure you are always informed about what your kids are and are not developmentally able to do. This is the epicenter. When you know someone can’t help something, it upsets and surprises you less, which means you respond to it more sympathetically. As in, better. Imagine someone in a wheelchair who can’t reach something. Do you yell at him for making everyone wait, or do you say, “Here, let me get that for you”?
2. Remember that your reactions teach your children as much, if not more, than your actions and words do. So, when you yell at your toddler for toddler-handling the baby, you associate the baby with a negative experience for your toddler. You’re promoting love here, because you want children to be safe and love is your lifetime guarantee of their being together safely, so think love as you choose your words.
Think prevention, too; there’s less to yell about when less goes wrong. Childproof thoroughly, supervise tightly (no phone, laptop, TV) and anticipate constantly with careful diversion and distraction. Even if you do scream as something goes wrong, make sure you restore security afterward by hugging your kids, saying you’re sorry you yelled and you love them, then explaining and demonstrating what you mean by being gentle with others.
3. As possible, clear your mind and schedule of any expectations other than being in the moment with your kids. If you’ve got an eye on how much laundry you should be doing or on your dwindling prospects of getting to the gym today, or even if you have the fixed idea that your toddler has to have her coat zipped before leaving the house, then you’re about 10000000000 times more likely to snap when you get a glass of milk to your lap. There will be time for everything else eventually because everything else is secondary. Trust that.
4. There are great (and, of course, sometimes conflicting) books on toddler management out there (“How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk,” “Happiest Toddler on the Block,” “1-2-3 Magic,” “Parenting With Love and Logic”), but different kids and parents are different, too, so yay to variety. Ask your pediatrician, skim some first chapters and then pick one. Parents who adopt and work together according to a general template are more likely to stay on the rails when the Cheerios really fly.