Ingredients: Any of the resources you have at home and a willing attitude to be calm, kind and firm in helping your little person adapt to the bigger world around them.

The Big Sell: Here are your options – what choice would you like to make?

Strategy:  If you were to visit my house right now, you would find a very small, apparently cute, and innocent-enough looking but deadly serious dictator. He is three in two weeks time, and has to have his favourite food, bowl, cushion, socks, toy in hand, story, TV programme, etc.. at the time of his choosing or all hell breaks loose.

I’ve agonised over experts’ opinions on the ‘correct disciplinary steps’ and concluded I prefer a ‘let’s make it through one day at a time’ approach, not expecting too much or a one-size fits all solution, reminding myself that all his control-freak obsessions are a completely normal response to the independence he is learning to develop.

However, I’ve found a few handy hints can help along the way, and they include trying to build in as much as creativity and choice as possible, whilst steering him firmly but kindly down the path that will help him grow safe and happy.

1)      Shopping: I made own Velcro-backed food options stuck to a large sheet of cardboard (as above)so my boy can be my special helper as I drive him round in a trolley or buggy.  We also sing songs at top volume and talk endlessly about any topic of his choosing, regardless of funny looks. It worked wonderfully between the ages of 2 – 4 for my eldest son and even now he says “I miss doing the food shopping with you!”

2)     Clothes: in my book, this one isn’t worth fighting over. My two sons have chosen to leave the house in the most bizarre, weather-inappropriate outfits you can imagine – bow ties with Bermuda shorts for example – but at least they are happy and, hey, it makes strangers smile!

3)     Role-play: once safe in the home, I encourage him to engage in as much adult-modelled role-play as I can, helping with ‘fixing’, ‘washing up’, ‘bathing dollies’, etc… including him as much as I can in the family routines in a positive way. For instance, I couldn’t understand why my son didn’t want to go on his potty in the corner of the living room (so he had enough time to reach it) until I realised he wanted it upstairs in the toilet where everyone else goes.

4)     Potty training: And while we’re on the subject of potty training, for my eldest I made a ‘social story’ by stapling together some blank pages and writing out the easy steps he needed to achieve, and the effects his actions would have on those around him. E.g. X pulls his trousers down and sits on the potty – Mummy is so proud! … X washes his hands with the soap – it is fun! You can include photos or little pictures of each step to make it more visually stimulating. (Note: these are often used in teaching children with Autism – see this link: http://www.polyxo.com/socialstories/introduction.html)

5)     Food: if you have a fussy eater like I do (and like I was when I was little!) this can be a major battle ground. I’ve found the only way the Dictator and I can reach a compromise is for me to cook him foods which I know are ‘ok’ (so no asking for extraordinary feats of bravery) but contain at least some semblance of a balanced diet (often hidden – home-made veggie soup or carrot grated on homemade pizza) and then I firmly in a calm quiet voice insist that this is all there is to eat until it is finished. I don’t shout or get angry, but I also don’t back down or offer any pudding until at least 75% of it is gone. Then he can have his own choice from an easy to reach cupboard filled with healthy cereal bars, fruit bars and fruit pots. He is allowed special treats of homemade cupcakes / cookies (often packed out with porridge oats to fill tummies) after meals are done if still hungry. Outside of main meals times I try not to let him fill up on snacks, and also have learnt when his natural food times and give him his biggest meals then. I’m sure some experts would disagree with this and in an ideal world there would be no perception of ‘yummy’ or ‘yucky’ foods (in his words), but I have had to find a middle ground. Plus I always give him vitamins to supplement his diet and don’t expect the same behaviour when he’s anxious in other people’s houses!

6)     Messy play for tactile defensive children: often fussy eaters are also ‘tactile defensive’, meaning they don’t like mess, gunk, goo, anything that feels strange or unpredictable, such as sand, runny sauces, sticky play dough. I’m not having any of this in my household! When my youngest started freaking out on the beach, I made him a large sand box in our back garden and filled it with diggers, dinosaur bones and other treasures. I regularly make batches of homemade play and modelling dough of a variety of stickiness. You can also fill trays with jelly, soil, porridge oats, rice, flour, paint, etc.. and let them experiment with getting their hands, toy cars, potato prints messy and learning that this will not harm them. When summer started last year and we first went out barefoot, he also freaked out about the ants and started trying to climb up my body! This only lasted a week as we started insect-collecting together, putting them in matchboxes and gradually letting them run over our hands, he began to see them as our friends, pointing our daddies, mummies and babies according to size. [If your child goes to playgroup for a few hours, you can try to leave a few trays with activities in tempting spots when they come home (ready with some kitchen roll for mishaps!) and just leave them to it, to give no added pressure.]

The verdict:

This age can be a real challenge, and I have produced two sons who are very vocal about what they want (and don’t want) in life, which has been difficult at times. The hardest moments come from older generations who are sometimes (but not always) liable to say things like “Well, we didn’t stand for that in my day!” which is particularly unhelpful mid-public tantrum. Occasionally we’ve had to shut them in their room for a short time (a minute for every year of their life) to “calm down”, but I rarely use naughty steps or reward charts. I’ve found its far better to take a preventative approach by prioritising their choices and giving positive praise where possible, and establishing a dialogue which encourages useful language to name the big feelings they are discovering for the first time. For instance, we use a lot of puppet and drama play which explores feelings and behaviours, such as sad / happy / angry, kind / unkind, helpful / unhelpful – meaning both parties are less likely to fall  back on words, such as naughty /  stupid which I worry will lower their self-esteem and attach harmful labels.

For more information on a liberal approach see this article reported this week about a Montessori approach: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9150574/Ditch-the-naughty-step-says-new-parenting-guide.html

I also think it’s been important for me to establish realistic expectations for my children and myself in stressful situations. Second time round, I don’t expect the terrible two’s to last for two weeks (they lasted for about 3 years with my first son), don’t expect a naughty step to be a cure-all, and don’t expect to always get it right. Instead I aim for the ‘good enough’ parenting model, in which we both try to do better tomorrow and give myself treats at the end of a hard day to ‘thank myself’ even if my child isn’t ready to thank me yet for my tolerance and patience. And I definitely don’t enter into competitions with other mums about whose child is best behaved – I use my friendships as a sounding board for the hardest bits and with relief find out no one else’s child is perfect either.

When all else fails, I remind myself that nothing frightens me more than an overly passive child, afraid to speak out in company and nervous about making their own suggestions. By establishing respect through offering choices and rewarding for kind, helpful and considerate behaviours, I believe children develop a solid sense of right and wrong and respectful relationships with others.

Catchphrase: From my ‘tactile defensive’ dictator yesterday morning: “Mummy, your car’s all messy!”

Me: “Oh dear, do I need to tidy it up?”

Him: “Yes”

Me:“Oh I’m sorry I don’t meet your exacting standards, my lovely boy. Shall we do it together this weekend?!”

Left wanting more?

So many wonderful books for this age group to choose from:

  • You Choose, by Nick Sharratt & Pippa Goodhart, published by Corgi Children
  • I want my potty! (and all the Little Princess books) by Tony Ross, published by Harper Collins
  • I have feelings! By Jana Novotny Hunter, published by Myriad Books
  • I feel Angry / I feel Frightened, by Brian Moses, published by Wayland
  • Hello Dudley / You’re Not So Scary Sid, Puppet books by Sam Lloyd, published by Templar
  • All the Alfie books by Shirley Hughes, published by Red Fox
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