Adventures in Parenting: On Reasoning with Toddlers

Last night I had a parenting adventure that was both reassuring and sobering. It involved a situation all parents face in exasperation many times in their parenting careers: A toddler wide awake in the middle of the night.  You see, a small voice beside my bed woke me up in the middle of the night last night.

Drink of water.

So, I got up and got Sally a drink.

Alright Sally, now it’s time to get back in your bed.

No. Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

When Sally wakes up in the middle of the night we frequently let her get in bed with us, so her request was not out of the ordinary. I put her in bed between my husband and I and tried to go to sleep. But she wiggled. She turned sideways. She accidentally kicked me. Twenty minutes later, neither of us were asleep.

More drink of water?

So up we got and I got Sally yet another drink of water. But this time I decided she needed to sleep in her own bed. I needed my sleep pretty badly, having been up late studying, and it simply wasn’t going to happen with her in bed with me.

Sally, this time you need to get in your bed.

No! Get in mommy and daddy’s bed!

No Sally, your bed.

I led her into her room and over to her bed and explained that mommy really needed sleep and that mommy couldn’t sleep with Sally in bed with her, so Sally needed to sleep in her own bed now. Sally yelled when I tried to put her in her bed, and kicked and then went rigid as only a toddler can do and squirmed back off her bed. So I explained it through two or three more times. Still she protested.

I felt helpless. I had been taught growing up that this sort of incident was a big part of why it was necessary to hit (i.e. “spank”) children. I was told that in a situation like this there were two options: Either threaten a spanking or give in and let the child have her way. I didn’t like either of those options. I knew “Sally, get in your bed or I’ll give you a spank” was really no different from “Sally, get in your bed or I’ll hit you,” but I also really, really needed my sleep. I knew Sally wanted to get back in bed with me and I understood that desire, but I had needs too, and a few hours of uninterrupted sleep was one of them.

In desperation, I put on my “let’s get serious” voice and said,

Look Sally, I’m sorry but you just have to sleep in your bed. You may NOT sleep in mommy and daddy’s bed. Now I’m going back to bed because I am tired and I need to sleep. Goodnight.

I shut the door to her room behind me, turned off the lights, and got in my bed. And listened. After about a minute, I heard Sally’s door open and I heard walking through the hall, quietly, slowly, as if on tiptoe. Then I heard a very soft voice, almost a whisper, so quiet I couldn’t make it out at first.

Have to go potty.

Sally wears diapers at night. She has never before asked to go potty in the middle of the night, even when she wakes up. This was not normal.

My parents would probably have said that she was trying to manipulate me, trying to find any way possible to stay out of bed. But I ignored the voices in my head and instead hopped out of bed once again and took her to the bathroom. She only went a little, but she did go, and then I put her diaper back on her and praised her up and down as I always do when she potties in the toilet.

Then, to my surprise, she walked willingly back into her bedroom and climbed into her bed. I followed her and covered her up and gave her a kiss. I then left her room and shut the door and didn’t hear a peep from her until morning.

This incident taught me two things. First, it is indeed possible to convince a toddler to stay in her bed without hitting her. It’s not always easy, but you can reason with a toddler, even in a state of exhaustion in the middle of the night.

Second, though, it taught me that it is possible to be too harsh without ever even mentioning hitting. When Sally came into my room to ask to go potty, she tiptoed and whispered. She was afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of mommy being stern with her again. Perhaps my “I mean business” voice was just a little to businesslike and not motherly enough.

But why did she come back in my room and ask to go potty in the first place? It wasn’t because she had to go potty. I think it was because she wanted me to say something nice to her, and the only way she could think of to make that happen was to offer to go potty on the toilet in an effort to please me. Her plan worked, and she went back to bed willingly in a much happier state of mind, knowing that mommy was happy with her and all was well with the world.

In the future, I’ll continue to reason with Sally, and I’m sure I’ll still have to use my “I really mean business” voice from time to time. But I’ll try harder to remember that even when I’m annoyed, or tired, or when Sally is simply not doing what I want her to do and I’m at the end of my rope, Sally still desperately wants my love and wants me to be pleased with her. She’s just a little person trying to figure things out, not a monster out to get me.

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
I Co-sleep, But: Some Thoughts on Attachment Parenting
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
Busting the Mommy Myth
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Naomi

    Love this! I deal with those same ghostly voices in dealing with my toddler daughter, and am surprised to find how much she wants things to be "okay" between us. When I put her in time out, she usually reaches for a hug–not to manipulate me, I now know, but because she doesn't want to be outside my love and approval. It's exhilarating to think that our relationship (built on trust, love, and respect) can be the basis for her (our?) maturity rather than brute force and fear.

  • Tanit-Isis

    Aww, that's beautiful. Reasoning with toddlers (especially tired ones) can be so hit-or-miss, but it's always worth a try or three. I'm so glad it worked out. Funny how you can re-frame the exact same interaction, no?

  • Melissa @ Permission to Live

    Awwww, so adorable. I was spanking my oldest when she was that age, and it breaks my heart how I would have treated her in that circumstance. Since I quit spanking I have had so many of those nights battling in my head, feeling as though everything is hopeless unless I just spank the kid and show them who is boss, and like you explained here, I patience usually shows that they really just had a need or some kind. One thing I try to remind myself all the time, is that my kids deserve gentleness and respect even when it is nighttime, or I am tired, or whatever. Love was always so conditional, only given if the parent was feeling good, and the child 'deserved" it. I want my kids experience of love to be different than that. And I think you were exactly right in your suspicion that she wanted you to be happy with her, I've had moments like that, they really do want us to be pleased with them, so badly.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    It's a very nice example. I hope I can be as good and patient as you to my possible future kids.

  • Anonymous

    Great example! I love it.Beverly

  • Personal Failure

    You could try what I did with my niece when I was raising her. I always felt my parents' love was dependent on my behavior, so being punished for misbehaving meant, to me, that I wasn't loved and wouldn't be again until I pleased them.So with my niece, when I had to pull out I-mean-business voice or (nonviolent) punishments, I always ended with "I may not like your behavior right now, but I love you very much and I always will."Nowadays, I don't raise her, but I'm the first person she tells when she's screwed up, probably because she knows that my love isn't contingent on anything. For example, she managed to spill an entire plate of melted chocolate on her white bridesmaid dress at the reception. The dress was to be used a month later at a different wedding. She ran up to me, covering her dress with a napkin, frantic. "You have to help me!"I taught her that a little club soda goes a long way and all was well, though we did have a little talk about plates belonging on tables, not balanced on hands between cups and cell phones.

  • quietpanther

    Have you read Cynthia Ulrich Tobias's books on strong-willed children (e.g. "You Can't Make Me … But I Can Be Persuaded")? It totally flies in the face of the "manipulative toddler" ideology promoted by Pearl & co. Strong-willed children will virtually never take "no" for an answer … but they are willing to compromise. Submission isn't an option they'll take … but they may gracefully surrender if given the chance."have to go potty" sounds like just that — a compromise: I will go to bed like you told me, if you will let me go potty first. It shifts the battle from hostile to friendly territory and lets it end on good terms for everyone.These are the kids who will literally starve themselves to death if Pearl methods are unrelentingly forced on them. And they're also the kids that will never give in to peer pressure. They're strong, obstinate, and unrelenting … but that's not always a bad thing. And if you're careful in picking your battles, they're quite willing to be reasonable.

  • Amanda

    You're doing a great job :) My niece is hilariously awesomely stubborn (she's 15 months old) and giving my sister fits, but she also handles her child marvelously… in spite of our father muttering "Dobson".And quietpanther, I'm writing down the title of that book and sending it on to my sister. She was asking for some good toddler books that weren't all "toddlers are manipulative!" in tone, and that sounds like it will fit the bill perfectly.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    PF–this is so true. I think a lot of adults, even functional, non-abusive ones, forget that little kids can't really distinguish between anger and dislike or rejection. When an adult tells a kid that she's "bad" she means that kid has engaged in some kind of behavior that's unacceptable for any number of reasons. But the kid just here's that she's bad. BAD! As in morally repugnant, unworthy of love, unfit for the society of others. At least that's how I felt when I was a kid an was told by some adult that I was bad. I felt crippling shame and self-loathing over something that, for the adult, was probably no big deal. I don't have children (yet) but I have done a lot of childcare in my life. And I NEVER tell a kid that he or she is bad. I'll say "It's not okay to hit people" or "Crayons are for sharing" or something that actually speaks to the actual offense and explains why it's wrong, but I always make sure to be clear that it's the behavior that I don't like and not the person. I think all adults should be really mindful of how kids interpret anger and discipline. It may sometimes seem like they don't hear or care about a word we say but they actually take us very, very seriously. That much power needs to be exercised carefully. Great post and great comments, everybody!

  • Exrelayman

    Lovely, gentle lady, just lovely.

  • Sylvia

    Sally s a lucky little girl to have you for her mom.

  • LeftSidePositive

    I always ended with "I may not like your behavior right now, but I love you very much and I always will."Just a caveat, though..this can be overdone to the point of obviousness depending on the age of the child. I distinctly remember being in kindergarten and having a substitute teacher who would end every reprimand with, "I like you, but I don't like what you're doing." (verbatim. every. single. time.) Even though she never had any occasion to pull that line on me (I was a preternaturally well-behaved child), I remember thinking each time she said it to another kid "Oh, ferchrissakes! That sounds like she's parroting that directly out of some teacher-training class! Doesn't she KNOW that we can see right the hell through that?!?! Does she honestly think we'll have our self-esteem destroyed if she tells us to share the crayons?! Doesn't she realize that she's supposed to *show* that message from teacher-training class through her attitude and not say it all cliche-like?" Yes, I was six years old and psychoanalyzing the substitute kindergarten teacher–I was a very precocious child. Maybe I was the only one who saw through it–I have no memory of comparing notes with my classmates. But, on the other hand, I was raised in an uber-liberal home so the idea that someone could request a change in behavior without any effect on one's overall appreciation of that person was hardly a revolutionary concept for me. So, yeah–excellent sentiment, but some people can use a little work on their delivery.And the story about Sally is, as always, charming. Speaking as a person who was raised very much like you're raising Sally, I can state (with about a quarter-century more life experience than Sally has) that it's a totally awesome way to live, and my relationship with my parents is as good or better than that of anyone I've known.

  • Cherí

    This is just wonderful. So encouraging! Thanks for your real-life examples of these parenting principles I'm trying to cling to through the whirlwind of a busy, assertive two-year-old! :)