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The Art of Negotiation

Madeleine’s well on her way to toddlerhood, and nowhere is it more evident than in her discovery of – and assertion of – her own will.

For a kid who can’t talk, she certainly knows how to make herself understood, and will go to great lengths to get her point across if it’s something close to her heart – like walking.

She’s hit this point where she LOVES to walk (see previous entry) and is incredibly upset to find herself in 1) a carseat; or 2) a stroller. After screaming and arching her back to avoid the stroller, for example, she’ll spend much of the stroller walk time pointing at the ground and speaking anxiously to me, just in case I didn’t understand that she really wanted to get down and walk herself.

So I’m trying to allow her to walk as many places as possible – the park, a friend’s house, whatever. We even go for daily walks around the block so she can stretch her apparently restless legs. But even allowing her to walk isn’t always enough for her, and Maddie and I have to find a way to discuss the situation and arrive at a reasonable compromise.

How we walk, for example, has been discussed in great length and is only just beginning to be accepted. Maddie can walk holding on to my hand or the stroller, but can’t walk free by herself. She knows this and accepts it most of the time, but at a couple points in every walk she’ll get frustrated and try to pull herself away.

Likewise, I’ve explained that she can’t walk across a street; an adult has to carry her. She moves too slowly and our neighborhood’s too busy for a toddler her age to walk, even holding onto an adult. In the beginning, she’d cry every time I picked her up to cross a street. Now, though, she’ll give a token whimper but wait until we’re across to demand to be put down.

My girlfriend Abby gave me a terrific book for Madeleine’s first birthday – Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles. I highly recommend it for parents of toddlers through teenagers. Astonished that I would need to read something like this at such an early age, I nonetheless dutifully sat down during nursing time and read the book.

And boy, am I glad I did.

One of the book’s main premises is that toddlers and children can’t always identify what they’re feeling, what emotions they are experiencing. This book teaches you how to verbalize a child’s feelings for him (without putting thoughts in his mouth) and diffuse a potentially tantrum-laden situation. I started practicing this on Maddie and can already see a difference.

You see, in the past I’d see Maddie trip, fall, and begin to cry. I’d go to her and say, “Oh, that didn’t hurt. You’re ok.” I didn’t want her to be scared and I’d try to put a good spin on it. Now, I’ll go to her and say, “I think that scared you more than hurt. It’s scary when something happens you weren’t expecting. Are you ok?” She calms down just as quickly, and is learning to put a name to what she’s feeling. Sympathy without suffocation, and diffusing a situation without denying it.

What does all this have to do with walking? When we go for our walks, let’s say it gives me lots of opportunities to practice what I learned from the book.

Maddie doesn’t yet know enough to recognize her physical limits, for one thing. I have to point them out to her, and enforce a rest if necessary. And if she doesn’t like what we’re doing, I offer her choices so she has some control over what’s going on.

Easy to type, not so easy to do, but we’re working on it.

The first walk where I put this into practice was a long one. Maddie reached the point where she wanted to keep walking, but in a different direction from where I wanted to go. When I refused, she began crying and stomping her feet, pulling on my hand. A meltdown was imminent. I knelt down beside her.

“Madeleine,” I said, “You’re frustrated because you want to go towards the park and we need to go home. I know you want to play but you can play at home. Now you have two options; you can walk, in that direction,” and I pointed towards home, “or I can carry you. Now do you want me to carry you?”

She shook her head and said, “No no no.”

“Ok,” I said, “That means you’re going to walk this way.”

She stood there for a moment, then tried to walk the direction she wanted to go.

“Ok,” I said, “Then Mommy carries you.”

And then she turned, still whimpering, and began walking the correct way.

We went through this a few times on that walk; she’d get tired and want to sit, and want to stay there longer than I felt prudent (busy neighborhood, after all!). Or she’d get cranky again when being carried across the street. But every time, we’d go through a patient dialogue and I’d let her make the choice.

Look, I’m not saying that she understands one hundred percent of what I’m saying: she’s not yet fifteen months old. But I do see her ability to cope with frustrating circumstances getting better, and I know she’s able to make choices about her immediate future and that makes her feel like she’s in a bit of control.

Of course, as older people walk past us squatting on the sidewalk I can only imagine what they’re thinking. Here’s a grown woman hunched over, earnestly discussing snack options with a toddler who looks more than a little skeptical. I’m sure they think I’meither pandering to her, giving her control of the situation, or fooling myself that the little monkey understands anything.

But I know I’m not pandering, and she’s not running the show. I’m not offering cookies if she’ll just be quiet; I’m offering her alternatives, any of which are fine with me but none of which give away my power as a parent.

And hopefully, I’m laying the foundation for coping skills that she’ll keep for a lifetime.

Any of you have any tips for how you empower your toddler without giving away your own power? How you diffuse potential tantrum situations? I’d love to hear them. 


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