Choices. It’s an oft heard word in the realm of child hood development. Give you child choices. And it’s true, you should. You child has so little control or power over anything that happens in their lives that allowing them to have or make choices from time to time can be a powerful boost to their self-esteem and sense of worth. They are told when to play, when to stop playing, when to bathe, when to eat, when to go to bed, when it’s time run an errand, when it’s time to go to school when it’s time to leave school and the list goes on and on and on and on. In most scenarios, they need to be told what, how and when to do something because you are the grown up and they have no self regulation. So much pressure to constantly do what other, larger people tell them to do can create a volatile situation in their emotional system. But what if you could take some of that vim and vinegar out of their system by simply allowing them choices each day?
You’re Doing it Wrong
I can hear many of you now, “But I give them choices and they never decided and it always backfires…” Guess what? You’re doing choices wrong. I used to do it wrong too. When I first started working with children I didn’t understand the power of choice and I made mistakes, a lot of them. Now I have the wisdom of a lot of years in the classroom, a lot of books read, a lot of continuing education courses take and a lot of experience with small children. You may be thinking, “There’s a right and wrong way to give choices?” Yup. There is. If you have read this far and are thinking, “Children should do what they’re told because I am the grown up. End of Story.” then this post is may not be for you, although I encourage you to read it anyway.
The number one thing you need to know about giving a child a choice is that it needs to be realistic. Sounds simple, no? Yet giving children unrealistic choices is one of the biggest parenting faux pas done daily. If you tell your child to put their coat on or they are not going to school today then you have just screwed yourself. Are you truly willing to keep them home for the day because they refused to put a coat on? My absolute favorite is when parents threaten that Santa wont come if their child doesn’t listen. Really? Are you really going to follow through with no presents on Christmas morning? I consider myself a tough cookie mom and even I won’t go that far. Parents, you cannot present an option to your child that you are not 100% willing to follow through on because the second you don’t follow through, they have your number. If you threaten to turn the car around if they continue bickering in the back seat then you better turn that car around should another argument begin. If you say you are leaving the store is they keep whining about the cookies you won’t by, then you better be prepared to leave a cart full of groceries and walk out. Each time you don’t follow through with a “threat” your child logs that in their brain. If you repeatedly do it, they know you are full of bluff and have no reason to believe you, which does nothing but spell trouble for you.
Providing a child with too many choices is overwhelming. As much as possible limit their options to two and no more than three choices. Asking a 4 year old what they want for snack is akin to opening Pandora’s box. Instead say, for snack today you can have a yogurt with fruit, or crackers and cheese which would you like? Once the choices have been given that’s it, no negotiating. If they whine and plead and throw a tantrum, let them, Once again if you give in they will smell blood and know they can pull that same trick over and over and over. A a few tantrums in the beginning is much better than a life time of stress because you taught your child they can walk all over you.
Just to clarify, this is not the same as using food for reward/punishments’ which should NEVER be done, this is saying these are your options, if you are hungry and want a snack then you will choose one. Same goes for choosing anything else, clothing, toy to take to grandmas, or a book to read at bedtime. If a matter is time conscious, such as getting dressed in the morning then set a timer and let your child know that they have until the timer goes off to make their decision, otherwise you will be the one choosing.
Pick Your Battles
Simple advice but true. Not everything needs to be done an exact way. Let go of some of your need for control. If he wants to wear red plaid shorts and a lime green shirt to school, let him. Who really cares? Plus you are giving your child the opportunity to express himself creatively. If she wants to play the trumpet instead of the flute then support her and buy yourself some earplugs for the first year or two! Some nights let them pick their own dinner, some days let them watch the extra TV show. By allowing them these small bits of choice and power their need to exert full control will relax. A child’s reaction to feeling no control is a tantrum. Think about how you feel when your boss dumps task after task on your plate with little to no input from you… it feels pretty lousy doesn’t it?
By no means should tantrums be accepted as OK behavior, but they ARE normal. Do not get mad at them for having one. Stay as calm as possible and ignore them. It will stop. I promise. Through a tantrum a child is trying to gain your attention. At this point they don’t care if it is negative or positive. DO NOT FEED THE ATTENTION MONSTER. When it is over you can talk to them about their strong emotions and brainstorm together better ways to handle it. If they are being destructive or harmful then say in a firm tone that even though they are mad “hitting, throwing, kicking etc.” is not acceptable.
To sum it all up, this is what parents need to remeber:
Moms and Dads, I need your help. Please, PLEASE, stop acting like your child just won the World Series while they stood in the left-field picking their nose as their team lost the game. On the same note, don’t tell them they should get a prize for trying. All this bombastic praise is raising a generation (or two or three) of entitled, impatient, aren’t I the most fabulous children that don’t know the first thing about surviving in the real world. Now before you stop reading, thinking I am the meanest mom in the world, allow me to say this. I love praising my children when it is merited. They do not get a parade for picking their shoes off the floor, they do not get a plaque to hang on the wall for completing their homework, and they do not deserve a trophy for losing. They don’t.
How can our children learn to process disappointment, anger, sadness, and all those scary and ugly feelings if we don’t let them? It sucks, I know, I have watched my son cry because the camp he was looking forward to all summer was canceled. I have seen him stomp his feet in anger and frustration because he couldn’t quite get the new skateboarding trick. I had to explain to him that he wasn’t cast in the first play he auditioned for and really wanted to do. Instead of blaming someone or something else, telling him he was the greatest skateboarder ever or really deserved the part in the play over the other boy, I told him the truth. Crazy right?
I explained camp was canceled due to coronavirus that it was out of our control, and it is really disappointing, but some things we can’t change. I acknowledged his frustration with the skateboard and told him that the only way to get better was to practice and keep working hard, and I also acknowledged his effort. That’s different than blind, blanketed praise. I didn’t tell him he deserved something or was owed something, I said to him that I could see how hard he was trying and if he kept at it; eventually, he would get there. And when it came to the rejection from the play, as a performer, I had been there more times than anyone can count, and I said it sucks, it hurts, but it’s the way it goes. You wait for the next opportunity, and you try, and you try, and you try. As the saying goes, you fail 100% of the time you don’t try.
What you DO want to praise and encourage is their effort, hard work, determination, and insight. The key is to be specific. Tell them WHAT they did that caught your attention. Then, help them problem-solve to get to the next step. “You did a lot of research on your planet project, I saw you reading all those books from the library. Since you didn’t get the grade you were expecting, what do you think you could have done differently?” In one fell swoop, you validated their effort and work and opened the door to help them do better next time.
As parents, we want our children to have the sun the moon, and yes, throw the stars in too. We don’t want them to feel disappointment or shame or anger; how else will they learn? If we take every upset away and make them think they should always win despite lack of effort, natural talent, or unforeseen circumstances, how will they grow? If we hand them everything instead of teaching them the value of hard work, how will that benefit them? The best thing we can do as parents is to embrace the difficult times that come their way and use them as teachable moments. I know it’s not easy, but they will thank you later.
I know this post may upset or offend some people, so I will state from the start that it is not my intention. My goal is to break gender discrepancies that society adheres to and to discuss unintentional things we do to drive those stereotypes home to our children.
First, allow me to give you a little background on myself and this subject. I spent a year of grad school researching and writing a thesis paper on the development of the gender schema in children. It’s long and wordy and highly researched and runs about 60 pages, so I won’t subject you to all that, the point is I know this subject intimately. It is near and dear to me.
Did you know that before the 1940’s it was often suggested by clothing retailers and newsprint that boys wear pink and girls were blue? These two colors showed up well in print ads. We could be having a totally different conversation today if people stuck with that. Before that in the 1920s most babies wore neutral colors, girls AND boys often wore dresses up until about 7 and had long hair (gasp). Only 80 years ago is when all this nonsense about a girl color and a boy color really took off, and the American society latched on to it and went running. I always say to my students, and my two boys, “Colors are for everyone.” Then I go on to blow their minds and say pink is actually NOT one of my favorite colors (unless it is neon pink, I mean I am a product of the ’80s). If you want to read more about the evolution of clothing colors, please click on the link posted at the bottom.
Now let us delve into pants and dresses. Most of us do not bat an eye when we see a woman wearing pants. Yet again, only 100 years ago, it was taboo. Women who wore trousers were scandalous or considered perverted. They were also required to wear corsets and a lot of other bullshit gear, but I won’t rant on that, at least not today. Currently, I am wearing leggings, an oversize t-shirt, and using an exercise ball as a chair. Not precisely super feminine, but again what defines feminine has changed and much for the better. Besides, my Disney Belle leggings are really cozy.
However, a boy in a dress that is still a BIG no-no to most people in western culture. Allow me to state I am not suggesting you run out and buy dresses for your son; unless he wants to wear them, and then I totally support you being the awesome parent that encourages him to be who he is. Here’s the thing, most preschool boys (and having been a preschool teacher well over a decade I can tell you they will) put on a dress while playing at some point. I’ve had little boys who would walk into the classroom, and the first thing they would do is head to the dress-up bin and put on their favorite dress for the day. Children like to mimic what they see. Maybe mom wears a lot of dresses, when teaching, I can often be seen wearing a long maxi dress. Or perhaps they just think it’s fun and pretty like the girls do. I am raising two boys during the rise of Frozen, dresses happen. Dolls happen too by the way; embrace it, studies show that boys that play with dolls grow up to be more attentive fathers. No proof or research points to a boy being gay or transgender because he wore a dress or played with dolls when young. If your child is LGBT, you can’t change that, so love the shit out of them and support them through life; even with loving parents, it is still a hard path. Would you tell your daughter to stop wearing pants and pretending to be an engineer? Nope, probably not. Extend the same to our boys.
Our culture tells boys to “Man up” “Don’t be so sensitive” “Don’t cry” or my personal favorite “Stop acting like a girl,” implicitly implying to our boys and girls, that girls are bad and weak. Our language has so much power, even if we do not mean to be derogatory, we can do a lot of damage with words. The old “Sticks and Stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is frankly, bullshit. Take it from someone who was in an emotionally abusive relationship at one point in college, words can destroy you. When boys are to hold in their emotions because it is weak to do otherwise, we are sending them a message that their feelings don’t matter and that real men are tough and don’t feel things. Some of the manliest men I know I have seen cry. We are doing our boys a disservice by shutting down their emotions. Emotions are human, not gender-specific. Hey, there’s a new phrase! “Feelings don’t have gender.”
For our girls, we need to stop telling them they are pretty all the time or how cute their outfit is. Sure, a lot girls like to hear that, but when you hear to it too often, especially when you are young, you start to believe your looks define you. Studies have shown that the majority of greetings young girls receive by their teachers as they enter the classroom are related to their looks. At the same time, boys, are much more likely to be greeted along the lines of “Hey, how are you today?” The problem is we think we are just giving a compliment. Compliments are lovely and necessary exchanges; they make us feel good to both give and receive, so give them. However, I challenge you next time you see your niece, stepdaughter, neighbor, or student pay attention to what you say. Is the first thing out of your mouth about their appearance? One of the most unintentionally damaging things I ever heard was done by a father to his daughter. A dad came in to pick up his 3-year-old daughter from my classroom. She pulled out a picture she had drawn and said, “I made a picture of Mommy!” You could see how proud she was. He looked at the picture, and incredulously said, “That’s Mommy?” and laughed, he continued to say, “That must be Mommy without her makeup on.” The message that was sent to this young girl was: 1) Your picture is so bad I can’t even tell what it is 2) Because it’s so bad and you say it’s Mommy that means women are only attractive with makeup on. I know for a fact he did not intend to send that message, but he did. Words have power.
We do not need to force children into cross-gender roles or out of gender-typical roles. We simply need to let them be who they are. Gender Roles Need Not Apply Here is the message we want to send. You are a boy who loves to cook and garden, awesome those are great skills to have. You are a girl who wants to become an astronaut, you will be great at the because astronauts must work hard. You are a boy who wants to be a dancer, that’s amazing you have to be really strong to become a dancer. You are a girl who wants to run her own business, that means you must be really good at math! See where I am going?
Studies show that gender roles are becoming more neutral in the household. Our world is changing, and that’s good! I know in my house it is pretty much 50/50. He cooks, he cleans, and he does his own laundry. I enjoy doing the yard work and can often be found with a tool in my hand attempting some minor household project. Credit is due however, for the brand-new toilet he installed in our downstairs bathroom, way beyond my pay-grade. The point is there is no right or wrong way to be a male or female. My guy can be one of the manliest guys, by standard definition, you have ever met. I mean, he wore a Punisher shirt to work today, and yet I met him while performing in a musical theater production together (he’s really talented too!).
It is hard to navigate the waters of parenting. We have friends, co-workers, relatives (and bloggers) telling us how to do everything. Find your own path. Here is my final anecdote. When my older son was in the EXCEEDINGLY early stages of potty training (yes, the kids from that previous post), he wanted Disney Princess underwear. I can tell you that 6 years ago, they did not make that for boys, I still do not think they do. Instead, I bought iron-on decals from Etsy, a pack of white briefs, and I made them. He was delighted (not that it helped!) The moral is, listen to your kid, love what they love, support them, and be their number one fan. I mean, I am a nerdy, book-loving, Harry Potter and musical theater geek that can often be heard to say “Yay! Sportsball!” and I let my son play baseball. But guess what, he loves Broadway too.
Have you ever cried because someone wouldn’t poop in a toilet? I am guessing that the answer for the average person is no. If your answer happens to be yes, then I honestly hope your experience was nothing like mine. I hope you have never lost all hope and sat on the floor of your bathroom and cried hysterically over someone not pooping.
My oldest son is a brilliant, funny, silly, athletic boy who loves all things reptile. People who have met him in the last few years never believe me when I tell stories of what he was like from ages 3-6. They think I am exaggerating and dramatic, and I know there have been a few people who just thought I outright made this shit up, no pun intended. But I can guarantee you it was real. I lived three years of potty-training hell and not to be glib about it, those were some of the darkest and most stressful years of my life.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the story, let’s talk about potty-training one of the hottest parenting topics. EVERYBODY has an opinion on potty-training these days, and there are a lot of views to be had on the subject. One doesn’t even need to be a parent or early childhood teacher to tout their opinion. I know people with no potty-training experience whatsoever who loved to make comments when I was going through this ordeal. But here is the thing, every child is different. Like other developmental skills, potty-training is not going to happen at the same time for everyone, there is no one size fits all approach. Now, this is the part that really gets under my skin, parent shaming. No one has the right to shame a parent because their child is not potty trained. No one gets to judge those parents or that child. Also, the parent whose kid happens to potty train so cooperatively before 3 is not a genius or a super parent who gets to lord it over other kids and their parents. Their kid is not smarter or better than the kid who doesn’t make it there until later.
You should, by all means, be proud of your potty-trained child. PLEASE be proud. BE happy, be excited, enjoy life. I give you license (not that you need my permission) to jump up and down, pop a bottle of champagne, and celebrate. It’s a significant accomplishment. Just don’t use that accomplishment as a means to think that you or your child is better than anyone else. I will step down off my soapbox now.
The average age for a typically developed child is around 27-40 months. First off, that is a big range. Also read that first part again, go ahead, I’ll wait. Typically Developed are the keywords. Turns out, mine wasn’t ready nor typically developed. Question is how do you know if your child is ready? You look for the signs of readiness. The Mayo Clinic sites these (and I agree with them which is why I posted them)
Is your child ready? Ask yourself:
Can your child walk to and sit on a toilet?
Can your child pull down his or her pants and pull them up again?
Can your child stay dry for up to two hours?
Can your child understand and follow basic directions?
Can your child communicate when he or she needs to go?
Does your child seem interested in using the toilet or wearing “big-kid” underwear?
*During this process, we threw both those things in his direction.
I presented all this background knowledge so that my story makes more sense. So, after much ado, here we go. As mentioned in a previous post, my second son was born exactly two weeks after my oldest turned 3. MAJOR CHANGE in his life. Huge, wrecking ball, gorillas in the camp style change. We didn’t know at the time that he would be diagnosed with anxiety a little bit down the line. We knew he had Sensory Processing Disorder. He had been seeing an occupational therapist and a speech therapist for about a year. The anxiety was a curveball we weren’t expecting.
Until the age of three, his therapy was free through the Infant and Toddler program in the state of Illinois. After three, we became private pay for the OT, and we could not afford it at the time, so we decided to drop it and do as much as we could at home. Our income consisted of my meager salary as a pre-K teacher in a suburb outside the city and a living stipend received by my husband at the time who was in school.
The concept of potty training had been introduced but wasn’t going anywhere fast and then BAM! Regression took hold. He refused anything and everything with the potty. Ok, it’s cool, he’s barely three and has a newborn in the house. We’ll pause for now. Only the pause became almost 3 years of terror. This is where it gets rough, so hold on…
When the regression wouldn’t budge, and he was approaching four, we decided he needed help outside what we could do. The pediatrician had no helpful advice, so we took him to a multi-discipline therapy office. Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to pull out the calculator and start adding up the dollars. For the next year, he visited this office, during which he received the diagnosis of anxiety coupled with his SPD. I don’t remember how often he went, but I believe it was twice a month. These visits were roughly $150 apiece. No insurance accepted, but they were good, and it was convenient to my work. So after about 10 months of bi-weekly visits, our price tag is at $3,000. The good news was that this $3,000 achieved peeing in the potty and little to no more accidents in that realm. The poop…. Well, we are about to reach a new level.
I am going to pause for a moment so you can try to understand what was going on inside this little four-year-old body and mind. Life was confusing, new brother, and less mommy time. He feared the toilet, common among young children, especially those loud flushes. Lastly, because of the SPD, he could not make sense of the urge to go. His brain was literally unable to process the message from his body that he needed to pee. On top of that, he is dealing with anxiety. I have anxiety, and I can barely handle it at times, and I am almost 40. That’s a lot to have to deal with at 4.
Now that we have fully trained in pee, we were told no more pull-ups during the day. This would be fine except he would not poop in a toilet, nor did he wait until the evening when his sleep pull-up was on to go. He would simply poop in his pants. Usually, several times a day. That meant several changes of clothing each day. Because his bladder would also often release, he would be in urine-soaked pants as well. Most of the underwear couldn’t be saved. I estimate I spent roughly $500 on underwear during this phase. New total $3,500
The anxiety created two outcomes; he would be playing and wouldn’t tell me he had gone resulting in poop being caked all over his legs and bottom, or if we were out in public, he would hide from me. Now my anxiety took over. I would turn around in Target or the park, and he would be gone. My heart jumped into my throat every time. To make it worse, I couldn’t just run all overlooking for him, I had a baby with me. If you do not know what it is like to be afraid and feel fear every time you take your small child out in public, then I genuinely hope you never do.
The multiple accidents meant that in addition to carrying the standard supplies I needed for a baby while out, I had to carry at least 2 pairs of pants and underwear for him plus extra wipes. I changed my son’s poop-filled undies and pants pretty much anywhere you can imagine, and none of them were pleasant. At 4, he was way too big for a changing table, and even if he could fit up there, how humiliating for him. I’d find the most private place I could, always grateful when a public restroom was nearby, and I would kneel on the floor as he stood so I could clean him. Each time I would gently talk to him about using the potty to poop just like he did to pee. But no change happened.
The frustration for me was mounting. I loved this child so much, but how much more was I expected to take? I often cried when I was in private. I spent hours furiously searching the internet for other moms like me. Those searches usually found those individuals who thought they were the gods of potty training, making me believe I was a terrible failure, and something was incredibly wrong with my son. I seemed to be alone in this battle. I could not find another mom who really got what I was going through. Looking back, I know this isn’t true; but at the time, my heart was bleeding.
Just after he turned 5, and was still not pooping in the potty, we left Chicago and came to Maryland. He was supposed to start Kindergarten in the fall, but he wasn’t fully potty-trained, and the move regressed him again. The accidents became more frequent. There was no way in good conscious I could put this struggling boy in the public-school system yet. I had secured a job at a childcare center as an Assistant Director, and in the fall, he would begin there and do another year of Pre-K. So now we add $7,500 to the total bringing us to $11,000.
I want to thank the amazing, loving, caring Pre-K teachers he had at both schools who never made him feel ashamed, helped protect his privacy, and loved him through those two years. Each and every one of you is amazing.
Once in Maryland, I immediately sought out a therapist, and he still sees this amazing woman. Originally it was not covered under the insurance we had, so now we tack on another $600 until insurance kicked in. So, $11,600. His new therapist got him, she still gets him, and she has been the single most influential person in this ordeal. Because of his ridiculously high IQ, normal prizes and incentives didn’t work for him. You couldn’t use reverse psychology (which is mostly how his brother was trained, him never one to lose a challenge), my older son needed more. Finally, he started to go on the potty once in a while. Dare my heart to believe this was happening? Now his therapist suggested a big prize, what was the thing he most loved in the world. His answer to her was Disney World. So even though it had been less than a year since we took a trip there, that became the incentive. I did not care at this point. I did not care that we had just had a vacation there less than a year ago. I made a huge colorful chart with Disney stickers on it, and 100 spaces clearly labeled and hung it on his door. If he pooped in the potty 100 times, we would go. And he did. So we did. Total now $14,000.
Thinking about all of this now and writing it down, for the first time, is cathartic. I’ve tried to talk to people about it, but I find most people don’t get how truly horrible this was for me. My heart still beats a little bit faster. I still feel the anguish of that poor mom dreading a trip to Target, the mom who struggled to find swim diapers that fit so he could play in the water and the one crying her heart out sitting on a bathroom floor. My son caught me one time, I thought he had gone back to his room to play, but he must have heard me and came back. He asked, very quietly, “Why are you crying, Mommy?” I looked at him, and as calmly as I could, I said, “Because you won’t poop in the potty.” He gave me a hug and went back to playing. From time to time, he will say, “Hey Mom, remember that time you cried because I wouldn’t poop in the potty?” I typically smile and say something like, “I do, I was very frustrated, but now it’s no big deal!” but inside, I am thinking, “Yes sweetheart, I do, I cried so many times. I thought I was worthless and failing you, and I stressed beyond belief on a daily basis, but I loved you so much, which is why I did what I did and went through all of it”.
He is the most amazing child, who now, like a proper nine-year-old, drives me nuts for ordinary things. I hate that his journey and mine had to be what it was, but he is happy and healthy. I have finally been able to tell someone, you, about what I went through, maybe one day I’ll even be able to laugh about it… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.