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how to talk so kids listen

Parenting

23 steps to nurturing autonomy in our toddlers

25 June, 2013

We went to a pyjama party at the Science Museum last week. It was a VIP party, with just the one guest; Ramona. Obviously the thousands of other children and adults looking around the rockets didn’t get the invite- they were in school uniforms and daytime wear- ha! Suckers!

Was it embarrassing wandering around this crowded place with a toddler in her Number One Favourite and Best outfit of mismatched PJs, barefeet and carrying a cuddly toy? Not really. I have an incredibly high tolerance for public humiliation- I was just happy that they were clean on and that it wasn’t her second favourite outfit which is her birthday suit/ in the altogether/ au natural/ stark raving naked.

pjs

Ramona wears alot of peculiar things- a Spiderman top with a tutu, a princess dress with a Bob the Builder hard hat, wooly tights and a Hawaiian shirt. Our hand-me-downs come from a variety of places and it makes her fit right in with the local hipsters rocking their charity-shop chic. And I just don’t get involved. Since as long as she has wanted to we have been happy to let Ramona choose her clothes- for me it is just one of the steps we can do to nurture her autonomy.

A few weeks back a Guardian article Leave Our Kids Alone did the rounds. It was a snippet from Jay Griffiths’ book “The riddle of the Childscape” in which she describes the wild, uninhibited childhood of more primitive societies in a way that possibly made every parent in the UK want that for their children! Gangs of rambunctious children running together free through jungles pitted against our over cautious, often quite isolated experience where the metal confines of the playground provide our kids with their only taste of freedom.

We had a good discussion on my Facebook page (come and find us!) about it and concluded that nurturing this sense of freedom comes down to generating autonomy in everyday life. Perhaps this is especially important for us urban dwellers for whom letting our kids roam alone in fields is a pretty remote ideal.

I am fairly sure that the more autonomous a child is be the more likely that together the space you occupy will be a cooperative one. The more in control of some aspects of their lives they are, the less defiant in other areas toddlers will be.

Nurturing autonomy in toddlers

Here are the things we do to nurture autonomy for Ramona:

Ramona sets the pace for her own independence. The worst thing for our kid’s autonomy would be to force them in to it! We wait for cues from Ramona that tell us she is ready for something and then figure out how to help her work it out.

She wears the clothes she chooses. Once it became obvious she wanted to get involved in this area we gave her an option of two outfits but now she asks for specific things (mostly her Pirate pyjamas.) And most of the time she just chooses to be completely in the buff. We accept that completely just not outside the house.

We are stripping back the help we give her getting dressed. So far we are up to just putting her head through the hole in the tee shirt- she finds the arms. She can also put shorts, skirts and pants on herself- even if it does mean a few minutes of hopping about with two legs in one hole first!

We keep food in accessible places for her- either snacks on plates on coffee tables so she can help herself, or cereal in a cupboard she can reach, along with a bowl. Early on this did result in a few branflakes on the floor but we got there in the end. (And there would be a tidier way of doing this I am sure!) This not only allows her to be in charge of her hunger but also helps us avoid the massive blood sugar lows that generate tantrums.

We let her be the judge of what she likes to eat and doesn’t, and when she is full or not. We like her to try things that we are fairly sure she likes but we don’t make a big deal about it and we let her refuse to eat things (onions are the only thing i can think of!) We also really trust her decision to stop eating her meal. Sometimes she eats every scrap and has seconds and other times she’ll only eat a mouthful or so. There is a whole blog post I could write on this but I just don’t believe in mealtime battles or coercing food into our kids. I want our meal times to be a pleasure together, and for the rest of our children’s lives. And I’d be mad if another person tried telling me I wasn’t finished yet when I was!

We have organised our home so that Ramona can do or be wherever she wants. We keep laptops and things we don’t want her touching out of the way. This way we limit any interference with her movements. I just don’t agree with keeping precious things within reach in order to teach them “rules”- it is totally natural and instinctive thing for them to explore so we mustn’t set things up in order for them to fulfill a “naughty toddler” role!

Find a wild place! Make it your mission, search high and low, for somewhere you can get to where your toddler can just be herself and explore without any interruptions. It might be a fenced dog free area at a park, or a huge sand pit within the grounds of a child care centre, or a huge garden of a friend (these are our own wild places) – somewhere that you can sit and zone out while she enters “Flow”. Read this excellent piece by Nature Play on becoming an expert at this!

We don’t interrupt. This is quite a hard one as our default as adults is to give an opinion on our children’s activities! “OOh look, you are reading a book!” “Hey, great dancing!” If they are happy and engaged in something, just leave them to it, to be the boss of that activity and the feelings they are having while doing it.

We do this at the play ground too. It requires a determined shrug of the shoulders towards other parents who give off a “Why don’t you help her?!” kind of a vibe. But, unless she asks for it, and even then we sometimes just encourage  with a “Maybe try it this way”, we stay out of her way. If it is something high or tricky that Ramona hasn’t done before I stay within catchable distance but mostly I let her attack the ladders and nets with abandon. I’m fairly confident that unless the bad luck pixies attack (and they can attack in the most tame of circumstances; Ramona broke her leg falling half a metre!) kids are pretty good at working within their capabilities.

We give Ramona a say in what we are going to do during the day. “Park or garden?” “Hanging out with Ivy or Esme?” We are only just on the cusp of doing this but I hope it will become a habit for us, so that eventually the girls understand that they are a key part in our family decision making process.

Before people come over to play we give Ramona a chance to put some toys away that she doesn’t want to be played with. This gives her the sense that she has chosen the toys that we do all play with and avoids a bit of angst. We also allow her to choose when she is ready to share. If kids are tussling over a toy I ask the one who has it to say when it is the other kid’s turn. It sounds like a gamble, but 30 seconds in they will nearly always yell “Annie! Your turn!”

We create opportunities to help around the house and in the kitchen. She cut up the mushrooms the other day (they were a bit wonky but hey!) and stirs the rice. When we go off on our European trip I’m gonna get her doing the dishes *high fives* – our ceramic sink (HELLO? Who’s idea was THAT? Looks beaut but even Tim and I break one piece of crockery a day on it.) doesn’t really give her chance to do real washing up.

The authors of How To Talk So Kids Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (the greatest book by the way, every parent should read it!) have some brilliant suggestions too, some of which might work for older kiddos:

Let them make choices.  Turn everything into a presentation of choice. Rather than “Please take your medicine” make it “Would you like to takes your tablets with water or ginger ale?” Alternatively, if you think a forced choice isn’t much of a choice at all, present the problem and allow them to come up with the solution.

Show respect for a child’s struggle. Don’t help them out of it but verbalise the frustration. “That is quite tricky, it can be hard to do it by yourself.” Add some helpful information too “Sometimes it helps to come down the ladder backwards.”

Don’t ask too many questions. Sometimes being bombarded with questions is a parents way to connect but ends up with the opposite result. The often asked “Did you have fun today?” is loaded too – a child can feel the pressure to experience an activity a certain way.

Don’t rush to answer questions.  Usually when a child asks a question she has already done some thinking about the answer. Sometimes just encouraging the conversation is enough “Hmm, you wonder about that.”  Or asking them what they think, or repeating it back to them. The process of searching for the answer is as valuable as the answer itself.

Encourage them to use resources outside of the home. This allows them to be free from dependence on you and that there is a whole community of resources that can be tapped into. Have them ask the petshop owner their questions about animals.

Don’t take away hope. It can be too easy to say in response to a child’s yearning for, say, a horse “That’s ever gonna happen!” Allow them to dream and fantasize, trying to prepare children for the possibility of disappointment can deprive them of important experiences.

Let her own her own body. Avoid tucking in their shirt, rearranging their hair band, brushing dirt off. It is an invasion of their physical privacy.

Stay out of the minutiae of a child’s life.  “Sit up when you do your homework.” “Get your hair out of your eyes!” “Why are you doing that?” Just let them get on with it!

Don’t talk about a child in front of him, no matter how young he is. When a child hear themselves discussed this way it can make them feel like an object, a possession of their parents.

Let a child answer for herself. “Does she like having a baby sister?” A real mark of respect for the child’s autonomy is is to say to the inquiring adult “Ramona can tell you, she’s the one who knows.”

Show respect for your child’s readiness.  Express confidence in her ultimate readiness. “I’m not concerned. When you’re ready you’ll get into the water.”

Watch out for too many No’s. Some children experience NO as a call to arms and they mobilise their energy for a counter attack.  Alternatives to No include:  Giving information, accepting their feelings, describing the problem and giving yourself time to think.

Phew. What a list! I hope it might help you feel okay about living in a Western, urban society where our tots can’t run free with machetes. Your child can still experience the beauty of self-governance and the liberation of wearing PJ’s in inappropriate settings.

In what ways do you encourage independence in your child?