Toddlers are incredibly complicated humans. After the first year of remarkable milestones, they start growing into their own personalities and focusing on mastering specific capabilities. Toddlerhood is also the time when kids start testing boundaries and learn the power of their actions and words. While it can be exciting for both parents and kids, it can also be frustrating and difficult for both. It’s no wonder so many of us parents don't realize we are shaming our toddlers. In the end, it seems, those of us in charge of toddlers must walk the thin line between teachable moments and losing all of our damn self-control.
Toddlers are impulsive. They don't think about the consequences of their actions and lack a rather impressive amount of foresight. Still, and even though adults are aware of this very obvious toddler trait, it can be easy to find yourself expecting too much from your 2 or 3 year old. Parents aren't faultless and parenting does not come with any sort of a manual. Plus, as helpful as parenting books can be, we still have to search for books that work for our child, since each mini-human is unique. In other words, we're all just stumbling through parenting. I bet even those parents who seem to know exactly what they are doing, don't. Instead, I bet they are as scared and as unsure as the rest of us.
Of course, there is some science involved that can help any parent of a toddler avoid accidentally shaming them. For example, according to Tovah Klein, author of "How Toddlers Thrive," there's a specific reason why toddler behavior is so confusing. "There’s rapid change going on in the brain in these early years – 700 synapses per second are being connected! That’s why toddlers are exhausting to be around." Klein goes on to say it's important not to shame a toddler for having a need or desire. "When parents are respectful of their children as individuals but continue to set routines and boundaries, children become more sure of their own ideas and desires over time." In other words, if you acknowledge your child's needs, even if they can't be met, you won't accidentally shame them for needing or wanting something because, well, needing and wanting something is normal.
When I look back at some of the terrible and crappy ways I've tried to make my point with my kids, I am truly appalled at my behavior. The funny (or not so funny) thing is that, although logically I knew some of the things I said to my kids were completely counterproductive, I still said them. It's as if my mind and my speech were disconnected and my rationality was a delicacy available only by special request. It's too late to go back and change things now, but maybe the lessons I have learned can help new parents. Not that I did any (or all) of these things, I just heard about these from a little birdie. A birdie that feels really, really guilty.
When You're Potty Training
Potty training is already kind of annoying for the kid (and the parents). However, when you add shame and embarrassment to the equation it all becomes a big pile of hurt feelings. Both of my kids did not have any problems peeing and pooping in their diapers. They probably would still be doing it if my partner and I didn't train (the word itself is kind of crappy, isn't it?) them.
Many parents shame their kids during potty training because they don't realize their words can be humiliating for the child. Yelling at your kid after he/she has an accident is shaming. Telling your kid diapers are for babies is shaming. Pushing them before they are ready is shaming. Potty training can be stressful, I totally hear you, but trust me when I tell you it's more frustrating for your toddler than it is for you. You're kind of taking away a crutch, and that is really difficult for a 2 year old.
When You Do Things For Them
Every morning we are rushing out the door. No matter how much time I allow us to get ready, we are still always somehow running late. Have you ever watched toddlers put on shoes? It's cruel torture. I watch my son all happy-go-lucky, putting the left shoe on his right foot and the right shoe on his left foot and I am rapidly dying inside.
Personally, I want to rip that damn shoe out of my son's hand and shove his foot in there and yell, "Enough!" But, I know I shouldn't. Doing things for your toddlers to save time not only shames them because they are essentially being told, "You aren't able to do this right, so I won't even let you try." It also teaches them you will just do things for them. It instills a feeling of inadequacy instead of feelings of empowerment.
According to Klein, allowing your child to do something for themselves also sets them up for the future. "When we allow them to play as they wish, to build the block tower however they want without correcting them about what should go next, or allow them to wear mismatched socks, the child learns, 'I can make my own decisions.' We still set limits, but keep the firm 'no' for when [it's] needed."
When You Say "I Don't Understand"
When kids first start speaking, their sentences are incomplete and often incoherent. No one likes to be told they are hard to understand, but toddlers are specifically sensitive to ways of communication. Consider the fact that they just spent at least a year not being able to speak and communicated only through crying and babbling and now, when they can finally get their point across, they are told they do not make any sense.
It sucks not being able to understand what your kid is trying to tell you, but try asking them to show you instead. That may work, although not always.
Telling Them They've Had Enough
If you give a kid a candy, he's going to want all the candy. Your kid probably wants all the treats at the candy store and all the toys in the toy store. Toddlers don't understand moderation or balance. They can't understand any of that. According to Klein, "Consequences don’t make sense during these years, as toddlers have no sense of time and consequences follow a time sequence–X happened, now Y happened." In other words, they understand that something makes them feel good, so they want more of that something.
Imagine you're out with your friends and everyone is eating dessert. Suddenly, as you reach for another fork-full, one of your friends turns around and says, "You've had enough," and takes away your cake. How would you feel? I'd want to simultaneously die of humiliation and claw her eyes out. Yup, that's how your child feels.
When You Force Them To Share
It's nice to share. We hear that our entire life. "Sharing is caring," people say. However, toddlers are possessive and it really is OK. They are learning about property, so when we ask them to respect their own things but force them to let others play with their things, we're sending them a very confusing message. Forcing your kids to share is essentially saying anyone should be welcomed to their things, and that just isn't true. As grown ups we don't share everything we own, so why should we force our toddlers to do what we as adults don't?
I've seriously heard parents say, "If you don't share, no one will want to play with you." Think about that sentiment for a second. Yeah, feels kind of mean, doesn't it?
When You Say "Big Boys And Girls Don't Do That"
I'm so, so guilty of this one. My kid sucks his thumb. He's almost 3 and he still sucks his thumb. Part of me thinks it's no big deal, but a larger part of me doesn't want a kindergartner who sucks his thumb in class. (I hear that is socially unacceptable.) I always kind of figured he'd just stop on his own. Maybe? But, that dream did not come true, so now are trying to get him to stop.
When I said that only babies suck their thumbs and that "big boys don't," I immediately regretted it. He started crying and screaming that he isn't a baby and my heart sank and I wanted so badly to take back my words. So yeah, not using that tactic again.
I don't care what your kid is doing at the supermarket or at the park. Remove them from the public eye and then have a discussion about their actions. Any lesson you intend to teach your child is lost when you try to do it in public. Lecturing or punishing your child in front of others fosters shame and doesn't accomplish anything productive. Public discipline is humiliating for your child, no matter the form.
According to Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., research psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, it's important for parents to understand the difference between discipline and punishment.
"Often when we talk about shaming, we talk about the obvious forms: spanking or other physical punishments, public reprimand. But there are other, subtler ways that parents shame their children in the pursuit of discipline. These include making a child feel guilty, deficient, or "bad"; a source of trouble; just plain dumb. It can include belittling a child, or even something as seemingly benign as rolling your eyes at him or sighing in response to something he's done."
In other words, discipline is necessary. Punishment is not.
I was not an affectionate child and neither is my daughter. My mother never made me hug anyone and I learned that lesson very quickly with my own daughter.
My grandmother would get really upset when my daughter refused to hug her, so in an effort to make my grandmother happy, I would prep my daughter on the way to her house. I'd say something like, "Please hug your great-grandmother when we get there. It would make her really happy." Then, I'd watch my daughter reluctantly and awkwardly hug my grandmother. It was cringe-worthy and did not send any good messages to anyone (but at least my grandmother was happy). After a few of those instances, I just told my grandmother to be patient and when my daughter is ready, she would hug her on her own. Since that day, I refuse to make my kids show affection to anyone unless my kids wanted to.
Telling Them To Stop Crying
"Stop crying! Enough." That usually works, right? To this day I remember how much it sucked when my mom used to tell me to stop crying. Or, when my dad used to tease me for "crying over nothing." These comments may seem harmless, but they are actually infuriating. They invalidate your feelings and make you feel shamed for expressing a completely normal response to a frustrating situation.
Putting Them On Timeout
I honestly hate timeouts. I've put both of my kids on timeout on occasion, but each time I did it I hated it. I've stopped putting my son in timeouts, but my poor daughter got plenty of timeouts prior to my son's arrival. The whole "stay here and think about what you did," message is just humiliating for a child. Quiet time away from everyone is a useful tool for decompressing and processing one's feelings and emotions, but today's "timeout" is just a tool for humiliation rather than a teachable moment. Instead of isolating your children for misbehaving, it's helpful to walk away from the situation with them, wait for them to calm down, and then have a conversation. Remind yourself how it feels to dwell on something you did wrong, too. Wouldn't you much rather have a discussion than to be ostracized for your misconduct?
Many things we do involve shaming our kids. It's unfortunate and we don't even realize what we are doing until way after it's done. If your child responds to you by crying and by being visibly hurt, you're probably shaming him. I've been trying to think of how I would react if someone would say to me what I say to my kids, and I definitely wouldn't like hearing most of it. So, now I ask myself, "Would I like hearing that?" If the answer is no, then I won't say it to my kids. It's simple and, still, somehow so difficult.