Q: My parents recently told me that my husband and I are letting our toddler run our family and that it’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable for them to visit or have us visit with them — they live 10 miles away — because of her misbehavior. Mind you, she is only 28 months old. They told me, for example, that she should be toilet trained already. Her pediatrician, however, told us to wait until she was closer to 3. In addition, she throws frequent tantrums and often refuses to do what we tell her to do. That’s normal for this age, right? Anyway, my parents told me that I ought to begin reading your column and books so I thought I’d just write you and get your opinion on all this. By the way, my parents had me when they were older and are sort of stuck in the old ways of doing things.
A: Saying that your daughter is only 28 months old may go a long way toward explaining this situation. Your parents, being "stuck in the old ways," understand that the most advantageous time to deal with any given misbehavior on the part of a toddler is when it first appears — by nipping it in the bud, so to speak. This very active approach to discipline recognized that misbehavior snowballs roll downhill very rapidly (and yes, I realize I’m mixing my metaphors).
For better or worse, major disciplinary precedents are set during the third year of life (24 to 36 months). These precedents determine, to significant degree, whether the child’s discipline will be relatively easy or extremely difficult from that point on. I’m going to guess that your parents are concerned that by excusing your daughter’s behavior on the basis of her age that you are creating a significant disciplinary "debt" that will create ever more stress down the road for all concerned.
I’m sure you want nothing more than for your daughter to be a happy child. Consider, then, that obedient, well-behaved children are much, much happier than disobedient, ill-behaved children. Common sense confirms that and so does the best research into parenting outcomes. I urge you to get a move on before your daughter becomes a full-blown family tyrant.
Time-out does not generally work well with older children or major discipline problems, but it can be very useful with a toddler. The child’s room, assuming it is not a self-contained entertainment complex, will do. Five or 10 minutes in relative confinement for disobedience sends a powerful message to a child this age. Use a timer set outside her door to let her know when her time of repentance is up.
Your parents are also correct concerning toilet training. Just as it is easier to house-train a 4-month-old puppy than it is a one-year-old dog, it is easier to train an 18-month-old than a 3-year-old. Do not wait a day longer to begin teaching your daughter the inestimable benefits of clean underwear.
My book, "Making the ‘Terrible Twos’ Terrific," is a treasure-trove (if I do say so myself) of helpful tips on discipline with toddlers. I’m sure your local library, if they don’t have a copy in stock, can obtain one for you. The same goes for "Toilet Training Without Tantrums," which has saved many a parent lots of money they would have otherwise spent on disposable diapers.
Concerning the "old" ways of raising children, which we abandoned beginning in the late 1960s and began listening to mental health professionals tell us how to "parent," it is now plain as day that professional advice, based on psychological theory, has resulted in a parenting catastrophe. Over the past 50 years, for example, the mental health of America’s children has been in free fall, with no end in sight.
The Book of Ecclesiastes, one of the so-called "wisdom" books of Jewish scripture, says "there is nothing new under the sun." Concerning children especially, that is spot on.