ToddlerCalm – learning to parent with love and respect

I have actively resisted going to parenting courses, partly because most that I’ve come across have seemed at odds with my parenting philosophy. I find it weird when any list of techniques is universally applied to children by strangers who don’t know them. It’s the same reason I’m careful about what parenting books I read. My rule of thumb for any parenting advice I receive is to ask:

1. Is this coming from a place where the child’s feelings and experience are considered valuable?
2. Does this approach recognise that parents have to find their own answers?
3. Does what’s being said here acknowledge every child’s uniqueness?

Let me say it now: ToddlerCalm is a big fat “Yes” to all these questions. I wanted to go to one of their classes when Talitha was eighteen months and started having tantrums. All in all, she has quite a laid back personality but, like any toddler, she’s busily exploring. In that process, she’s experimenting with her independence and testing limits of everything from the law of gravity to how will mummy respond.

I’m very aware that if we’re not consciously reflecting on what we’re doing, we can become reactive in our parenting. We end up responding to normal toddler behaviour with learned habits that are so deeply ingrained they almost feel instinctive, even though they grate against our conscience. For me, this involves raising my voice unnecessarily and the urge to hit (which I have never acted upon).

In the culture that I grew up in, these were very normal disciplinary strategies. As an adult reflecting on these and other punishments I experienced or witnessed, something deep inside me rejects it all. There must be a way to help our toddlers grow into people who are physically, emotionally and socially healthy. And if there is, it’s neither controlling nor permissive.

So I do my reading around. I think my thoughts. I lay them on Laurence when we get the chance. But we’re parenting together. He has his own experiences and his own wisdom as Talitha’s father. The ToddlerCalm workshop gave us a chance to listen to ideas that made sense to us, then go away and work out what we believed and what it would look like.

We covered a bit about the way a toddler’s brain works and what’s developmentally happening for them. Did you know a toddler’s brain is twice as busy as ours? No wonder they sometimes have a meltdown! It was eye-opening and reassuring to hear that complex skills like true empathy, sharing, reason and manipulation are just not possible until they are much much older than we would have expected.

Every brand seems to need to work in its acronym so we smiled when we learned about the CRUCIAL™ (see that? trademarked and everything) points that can help us understand and work out how to respond to our toddler’s behaviour. This is what we got from each point:

Control – We want to find ways to help Talitha take some control by letting her play without dominating what she does or how she does things, and by giving her choices. Sling or holding hands, wellies or shoes, The Biggest Kiss or Mog the Forgetful Cat? It’s not always possible to give choices, but we can see how letting her take control some of the time can avoid frustration spilling over at other times. I think I’m pretty good at letting her play undirected but I do find myself asking her “What’s that called?”, “Can you say *insert word*?”, “What colour is it?” Thinking abou it – that can disrupt what she’s naturally doing.

Rhythm – I’m not naturally a routine person but I’ve learned to respect Talitha’s need for predictability. I try not to have too many days where we miss naps, though some are inevitable, and we both live to regret it if I don’t respect mealtimes! It was interesting to learn that for her, this rhythm is about her feeling safe and, again, in control.

Understanding – This is all about understanding what she’s capable of developmentally. Getting to grips with how her brain works made me realise again how important what we do with her now is, how damaging it can be for people to label small children as “naughty” and how illogical it is to “make” a toddler say sorry when they don’t fully know what it means.

Communication – This is perhaps the most important point for me. What is Talitha trying to tell me? How is she processing what I’m telling her? She has calmed considerably the more signs and language she’s had at her disposal and she always acts out on days when I spend too much time distracted with something else.

The issue I brought to the class at the start was: “She keeps doing the opposite of what I want her to do.” The teacher Jo asked me: “Do you tell her ‘No’ a lot?” In classic defensive and therefore unreflective mode I said: “No, I don’t think so.” But now that I’ve had time to come away and think some more about it. Yes, I do! I’m always telling her, “Don’t do this, don’t do that”, which is the same as saying, “No”. I really need to work on communicating more positively and simply. There’s definitely still a time for “No” but it’s probably doesn’t have come up as frequently as it does at the moment.

Individual – It is so easy to compare Talitha to other children her age and forget that they’re all different and all have their own stuff going on.

Avoidance – It’s key to work out areas where I can just adapt situations so we just don’t get into conflict. I’m already doing this by moving play dough time into rooms without carpet because I know she’ll just throw it on the floor. I had a lightbulb moment a couple of weeks ago that if I start the process of leaving the house much earlier than I thought I needed to, we could avoid the “get in the sling” conflict because she could walk for a while if she wanted to. Not every conflict can be avoided but what’s the point of actually courting it?

Love – This is about looking at how to communicate our unconditional love for our child. Ignoring and isolating them just does not do this. This is possibly the most challenging point because it’s at such odds with the way many of us were disciplined growing up. The great thing about this point is that it also takes our needs as parents into consideration by asking us to think about how we can create the space and time to (and I kind of cringe saying this but still!) love ourselves so we can parent calmly.

A lot of this I think we already instinctively knew and we were practising a lot of it naturally. Still, parenting gets more complicated as Talitha grows older and it’s been great taking the time to reflect and start a dialogue between Laurence and I about what we’re doing.

Mind you, we had an epic tantrum this morning and I still felt frustrated and a bit lost. To my surprise, though, I felt much better equipped to deal with it calmly and patiently just with all this fresh in my mind.

It goes without saying, I really recommend ToddlerCalm! We did our workshop with the bubbly, down-to-earth Jo Slator over at Yanley Court in Bristol. There are teachers all over the world though! China, Canada, United Arab Emirates! I’m so glad something this positive is spreading.

Photos: Laurence Jarrett-Kerr