How to make a three-year-old behave

If you had an eleven-foot-tall, 520-pound boss with whom you were only marginally able to communicate, who corrected you 24 hours a day and decided when you slept and what you ate, do you think you might do a lot of crying? I'd probably scream and fling myself to the floor when she offered me a taste of stir fry, especially if stir fry looked like a giant bowl of trees covered in poop water. This is what being a toddler is like.

I noticed I was doing a lot of correcting with my three-year-old. Strong arming. You eat THIS youdamnit and then STAY IN BED. She would freak out and we all blamed the terrible everythings. And then I recently had an epiphany: She's only freaking out and throwing tantrums because she's afraid I'm going to make her do something. So what if I stopped? Most things are not worth a fight and I want her to feel in control about some of her choices.

What's the big deal if she lives on a menu of three items and a multi-vitamin? Is 9:00 really such an unreasonable bed time? If she goes outside and gets cold, won't she eventually realize she needs a coat? Why get upset - I'm a lazy lady. I decided to let reality do the work of most of my parenting.

Here is how the conversation went when I started being more gentle a.k.a lazy a.k.a not caring what she eats for dinner . . .

Me: Would you like some stir fry?

Bee: NooOOoOooO!!! Ahhhh!!!! [runs away]

Me: It's okay, no big deal. I was just offering. The polite thing for you to say is, "no thank you!"

Bee: shock!

Now she says "no thank you, I want something else" and that's when she gets her Bee-approved dinner. If she says she doesn't want that, I say "that's okay! It'll be here waiting for you when you're hungry! You don't have to eat now".

She's never really had bad food anyway. Her idea of a happy meal is a peanut butter sandwich, a banana and greek yogurt. In my infinite evil wisdom, I made sure she never learned white bread exists and she thinks cookies only materialize on holidays. She'll find out about my stash of Corn Nuts and Thin Mints when she's tall enough to see the top shelf and by then, I'm sure we'll have a new set of problems.

So my three-year-old decides her own dinner. Don't I decide mine? I'm a forceful person and my instinct to "mom handle" my kid was just causing more rebellion. That scares me. I'm big now, but what happens when I shrink from eleven feet tall to equal height with her? What happens when she has car keys of her own and we never learned to communicate? I can't have that. She's a person and she can't be controlled down to every bite she takes. Since this revelation, peace has returned to our house to a reasonable degree.

To quell her forcefulness about other topics, like not wanting to come or go, I make sure she knows that I understand what she's saying. If I'm like, "it's time to go!" and she's like, "I want to stay here!" I say, "oh, you want to stay here. So do I, I like it here. But sissy and I are going because our appointment is soon, so if you want to be with us, we'll be by the door". 100% of the time she comes to the door.

I'm too lazy for parenting books, but I remember someone told me a good rule of arguing is to repeat back what the other person says in your own words so they feel heard. Imagine if you were in a foreign place and had to communicate everything in a series of grunts and cries. Even after you mastered a few key phrases of the language, you're bound to TALK! REALLY! LOUDLY! when you try to communicate more important things like, "I'd rather not leave all the fun stuff that's important to me in order to venture out in the cold, to an unknown destination, that might include me getting shots". Why not just stomp around and cling to your favorite Dora book?

So repeat what the kid says. This involves me saying bizarre things like, "no boots! Bee wants purple sparkle shoes!" and "Bee doesn't want her hair brushed!" followed by, "would you like to keep your hair long and let mommy brush it, or should we get a short hair style for you?" So far, she's always picked brushing and if she ever picks a pixie, pixie it will be.

I'm no parenting expert. My kid (accidentally!) saw a flash of Sasha Baron Cohen's swinging penis on a television screen the size of a wall. I have no plans to give my one-year-old a spoon, I shut both of them up with iPads when I want to sleep an extra 30 minutes and there are three loads of laundry sitting in my dryer. My point isn't to one-up other moms, just to share what's working. Next week when it all falls apart, I'll be sure to let you know. But for now? Peace is feeling pretty sweet in this home!

I was too lazy to pull a picture off my memory card, so here's a vintage maternity photo from when I was pregnant with Bee circa 2008.

Filed under: Hippies, How-To


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  • Great advice. Only problem is my three year old knows I store the cookies on the top shelf and pushes the stool over to the counter and helps herself.

    I love your maternity photo!

  • In reply to Yoga Mom:

    What a smartie! At least she's learned early in life how to get what she wants!

  • It's definitely not worth fighting about food. My little guy (now 8) was born years after his siblings, by which time I couldn't be bothered to even think about baby food. He ate what we got, mashed up of course, and I congratulated myself (rather smugly) on what a great palate he had.
    Now? Turns his nose up at the very foods he used to love, and has exactly the same tastes as you'd expect from any 8 year old.

  • In reply to Expat in Chicago:

    Well nobody ever died from eating too many Goldfish crackers, right?

  • I needed to read this today - Thank you. And my laundry is wrinkling away in the dryer, too.

    I have approximately 47 toddler/preschool discipline books on my shelf. And I will never get around to reading a single one.

  • In reply to momwriter:

    We raised three-year-olds for thousands of years with no books! (But blogs? These are totally necessary ;)

  • I totally agree. I refuse to argue about things that don't matter with my 3 year old. It's nto worth it to be arguing all the time. I work full time and want to enjoy my time with my girl, and I want her to enjoy her time with me. I am certainly not a doormat, some things aren't negotiable and she gets her time outs or toys removed etc. My own fear is that if I parent her with yelling and arguing and threats, she will grow to fear me, and as a teenager she will do what she wants and learn to hide it from me. If we have a good relationship and she respects me, and understands why certain rules are important, she will make better choices, I hope.

  • In reply to Erin:

    I like that. Yes, some things are not negotiable. I don't want running with scissors to carry the same weight as not eating broccoli and to a three-year-old it's all the same noise.

  • Ha! Well after reading my earlier post, you already know how I feel about the whole feeding a toddler thing. I LOL'd when I read about you using your iPad to buy more sleeping time, because I do the exact same thing! Just keep doing your thing girl, your kids are going to be just fine :)

  • In reply to Tara Scalzo:

    Thanks for writing that. I realized this is a parenting blog and I hadn't written much parenting stuff in awhile! And right back at ya with the kids being fine. They grow up one way or another, don't they?

  • Great blog!!! Some of the things I did with my children when they were young and some I wish I had not concentrated so much on.

  • I LOVED reading this article. I am going to try it. I am been doing some of these things already. My son has become very independent because of it.

  • I don't have a 3 year old right now, at least not that I know of, so I'll just say I admire your husband's lustrous flowing locks.

  • In reply to gwill:

    It was my favorite phase of his. SIGH. The olden days.

  • Jenna, I love your approach. I have four teenagers and was once voted "most lenient" by my daughter's friends. I've always tried to be really NICE to them (doesn't mean I never made a decision they didn't like). Guess what? They are four of the nicest kids I know and have never given me a reason to be more strict with them- I won't go into detail, but they're awesome. I wouldn't do it over any differently.

    P.S. I'll get back to you when one turns up pregnant tomorrow. :)

  • In reply to annekip63:

    Congrats on nice kids! I wonder if mine will be nice? Bee is made of fire, but I might have hope with Buh-Stell.

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    I decided a long time ago (my oldest is 13) that there were some battles I just wasn't willing to fight. The first was clothing. If they are covered in the important areas, reasonably weather appropriate and not wearing offensive slogans, go for it. I may tell them they look ridiculous and I don't want to hear it if they get picked on for a crazy outfit, but I let them out the door. Food was another. I am going to make what I choose to make for meals. If you don't like it/don't want to eat it/aren't hungry now, fine. But this is not a restaurant and I won't make you something later, so a sandwich better be on your personal menu! I am so glad to have found other mothers who don't feel the need to be perfect or follow the socially accepted norm for mothering. My kids are decent people and THAT is what is important to me.

  • In reply to vindictive76:

    I guess I hadn't given it much thought if this view was "socially acceptable" or not. You mean it's not? Ah, great. Oh well, lol.

    As for the personal menu, yes, totally. Bee has her things she eats, so I make them, but once it's made I won't make her a second dinner. I just let it sit and if she eats it, cool and if not, oh well. I just think sitting my thai food with hot sauce in front of her and expecting her to eat it would be a waste of food and an argument.

  • Wonderful! I've felt this way for some time, and agree that we can't take all of the power away from our kids. It makes them feel helpless and angry. They just act out even more. I don't give them a choice of meals though. I did that when my son was a toddler, but he's 5 and my stepsons are 6 and 8. I make dinners that they will eat and are as healthy as I can make them. If they choose not to eat, I'm fine with that. They learn from natural consequence.

    We are trying to use the Love and Logic parenting system in our home, and it's working so far. We started using it about a month ago and are already seeing progress. :)

  • Exactly! It was actually our midwives who told us something along the lines of you decide the "what" for dinner, lunch snack, whatever, they decided the "how much" (or if they want to eat at all). Giving them power to make choices makes them feel good about themselves. And I feel good about her making choices, too. There are so many opportunities through the day where you can let them control the situation, it makes them feel smart and in charge. Then, when you do have to make choices for them over the important things they are more willing to go along with that. They don't feel like they need to fight for everything they want. That's been my experience anyway.

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