I had to put that little qualifier in the title --1.5 to 2 years old-- because I have a feeling some of these behavior helpers may need some tweaking (or an overhaul) now that Gavin is two. Still, I've been thinking about this post for a long time, and as I reflect back on Gavin's transition from pre-toddler to toddler, I realize that it's a significant span of time in his sweet little life. I'm so thankful I had these tools to help make it more enjoyable.
So here they are: little things that have helped me direct his behavior in positive ways. Many of them came from On Becoming Pre-Toddlerwise or On Becoming Toddlerwise (Gary Ezzo, MA and Robert Bucknam, MD) or Brain Rules for Babies (John Medina). I think a couple may have come from my own head, but my brain doesn't stay unscrambled for long, so who knows.
These are little behavior tricks, not a comprehensive plan by any means. I mention that because Ezzo and Bucknam make a good point: it can be tempting to focus on "what" to do about behavior instead of focusing on "why," but the "why" is so important for success in those sticky situations. In addition, Medina's full discussion on the importance of empathy cannot be covered here, but it has changed the tone of many interactions with my toddler and husband. (For more, click here for my book review post.)
Though I am a clumsy, inexperienced first-time mom, I hope some of these translate to your own experience. And of course, please add your own ideas in the comments section.
Fold your hands: I read this in Toddlerwise, and I was like, "What?!...yeah, right." They say when your child starts getting fidgety or poking his/her sib at a restaurant, tell them to fold their hands. Their rationale is that children's energy must go somewhere. Just telling them to "calm down" or "stop" doesn't work because they don't have a constructive place to channel their energy. The act of folding their hands is enough redirection of energy to calm them and allow you to give them a constructive instruction before they spiral out of control. And that's the key. You have to do it early, when you first see the signs, not after they've popped their sib or started full-on whining or thrown the crayons -- especially when you're training them to do it. When you're training them, you have to catch it very early, so you can make it seem like a cool new thing, not a punishment. This is to help them control themselves. It should feel good. I think I taught it to Gavin at about 15 months -- it may have been earlier. I had to demonstrate the folding hands, and help him. He looked down at his hands and was like "cool." Sometimes, I would ask him to look at his hands. Sometimes, if I couldn't redirect him to another activity in a timely way like they suggest, I would sing a song ("Mary had a Little Lamb" was particularly mesmerizing to him at that age), or I would say, "I'm going to count to 10 while I wash these blueberries, and I'll be right with you." This tool is not supposed to be used to keep them still and quiet indefinitely -- just enough of a pause to stop the crazy and give sane one more chance.
Prepare in a matter-of-fact way: I think it was a parent comment in Toddlerwise. A mom said that she prepares her kids to obey by telling them what was going to happen in a matter-of-fact way -- so that when the time to obey comes, it feels to the child(ren) less like an opportunity for a power struggle and more like just-how-things-are. She used the example of being in the mall and telling her kids a few times throughout the trip, "When we leave we're going to stop in the bathroom and go potty," so that by the time they get to that point, they kids were like, "Okay, yeah, that's how it works," rather than "Mommy wants me to do this thing that I don't feel like doing."
Say yes mommy (yes daddy): This was from Toddlerwise, too. Ezzo and Bucknam make a good point. It's really hard for a child to throw a fit after they've said "Yes, Mommy" (not impossible, but...) Like the two prior tips, this one can't be a tool in a power struggle. It has to be used way before that to work as intended. When I first started teaching Gavin to say it, he was talking, but not always on command, so a lot of times (most of the time), he wouldn't actually say it, but I kept it up thinking at least I was laying the groundwork. At the beginning, I found myself making the mistake of only asking him to say in obviously contentious situations or when he already had resisted me. I tried to train myself to use it in all kinds of situations where I was directing him, so that the very act of saying it wouldn't become another point of contention in and of itself. I wanted him saying it to be something pleasant -- a way for me to know that he heard, understood and was ready to obey. I have to say, I really like the way this one has worked. I also have to say, as he has gotten closer to two, he is practicing the art of ignoring me and/or the ability to say "Yes, Mommy" and still complain or try to negotiate.
Offer a choice: This is a classic recommendation for toddlers, and there is a reason. It really helps. Pick up any article on the topic, and you will read "make sure all the choices are acceptable." In other words, no matter what they choose, they are accomplishing your goal (do you want to put your shoes on while on the floor or in your chair?) or you are fine with either (do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?). This helps the toddler feel they have control over something. Don't overuse it, though, and at this age, two options are plenty.
Make it a song: So Gavin, in true toddler form, is opinionated. We both love music, but he's pretty bossy about it. "New song" (translated press skip on Pandora), "just listen" (stop dancing, Mommy), "just Gavin" (don't repeat my improv, mom), "no no" (don't try to cheer me up with singing). This is what I hear most days. So I was shocked to learn that making unpleasant tasks a song kept working after he became a toddler. It ONLY works with fun, very familiar songs. For Gavin, it's Old MacDonald (his favorite), the "goodbye" song we sing at The Little Gym, Mary had a Little Lamb, maybe a few others. I change the lyrics to fit the activity he is fussing about at the moment (usually diaper, changing clothes, brushing teeth) -- something like "Now we're brushing Gavin's teeth e-i-e-i-o." He may be protesting all my efforts to comfort up to that point, but when I start putting silly words to one of his favorite songs, he just looks at me like, "That's funny, Mom." He can't help himself. I think part of the reason it works is he is just listening to see what I'm going to say in between the e-i-e-i-o's.
Can you...?: I read that with pre-toddlers (and early toddlers), it's all about accomplishment. We all love to see that look on our child's face when they are proud of something they've done. I've found that tapping into that trait when trying to direct behavior really helps. The first time I remember trying it, we were in a public restroom -- one of the places you really don't want your toddler to test you. (What? Don't touch? That sounds fun! Maybe I should also trying lying on the floor.) So I started asking him, "Gavin, can you touch your head? Gavin, do you know where your ears are?" I have to remember to ask it like a challenge, not like a command. It's "can you" and "do you know," not "will you" and "I want you to." Also, I save this one for the important times. I want it to keep working in those public restrooms.
Empathize: There is a much larger discussion to be had on this topic, which is why I highly recommend Brain Rules for Babies by David Medina. Since this is a "tips" blog and not meant to cover child-rearing philosophies, I will keep it simple (and hope you read the book). When correcting Gavin, I have found it so helpful to empathize first. For example, today we were at the park, and it was time to go. He started asking for one more thing (one more slide, one more swing). I said, "I know it's so fun to stay at the park and play (empathy), but now it's time to go eat dinner (consistency)." I could see his defenses drop, and he was on his way to compliance. My empathy helps him feel heard and also validates his feelings. Toddler feelings are very strong, and though often irrational, they are nonetheless very real to the toddler. It's possible the phrase perception is reality has never been more true. Discounting Gavin's feelings by saying things like, "It's not a big deal -- we can come back tomorrow," or "You should be happy we got to come at all," creates a disconnect rather than inspires trust. When I communicate that I understand how Gavin feels before redirecting his behavior, I see a big difference in how he responds. I know that I am also modeling a very important skill for him -- one that I can definitely use more practice at myself. Oh, and lucky me, since he's now two, I think I'm going to have plenty of opportunities to practice!