How to hold kids accountable for their choices

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This past weekend, my husband, toddler and I came home from the rose garden close to nap time. Once home, we offered him two choices: “Do you feel like napping now, or do you want to nap in half an hour?” We weren’t surprised when he chose to nap later, expecting him to want to settle in at home first before conking out in bed.

When half an hour elapsed and we announced that nap time was here, he protested: “Want to stay in the living room.”

We then reminded him about the choice he made, and how it was him who decided when to nap. Miraculously, that simple reminder helped him understand (or at least believe there was some logic to this napping business) that his very own choices determined his nap time. Maybe he felt that since he made the decision to nap at a certain time, that the idea must be a good one.

He was held accountable for the choices he made.

We’ve since applied this same accountability to other circumstances, including giving him options on which food to eat or what activity he wants to do next. And so far he has accepted responsibility for what he chose. In addition to a higher likelihood of following through with the choices that they make, children also benefits from accountability in other ways:

  • They learn that consequences follow choices and actions. Assuming that parents follow through with consequences, kids will realize that their choices have a direct relation to what comes next.
  • They are more likely to think through and be deliberate with their choices knowing that each one bears different consequences, rather than spouting off impulsive actions.
  • They feel like a contributing member of the family. When we take their choices into consideration and especially when we follow through with consequences, they’ll learn that they too can be decision-makers in the family and that their choices bear weight. If we’re fickle with the consequences to their choices, they might learn instead that we may not always take them so seriously.

Keep in mind, however, that kids can’t be held accountable for everything. For one thing, kids don’t have a choice all the time—if it’s cold, they should wear a jacket, regardless of whether they would choose to or not. They’re also too young to bear the responsibility of being 100% accountable for their choices and shouldn’t be burdened with choice-making for every possible action—that’s a job for parents, not kids. And sometimes you just have to pick your battles.

Lastly, too many choices can inundate everyone, even adults. According to psychologist and author Barry Schwarz’s The Paradox of Choice, offering people a bazillion choices isn’t freeing; in fact too many choices often stump people into not making any at all, whereas offering a few choices helps make clearer decisions. That may be why I much prefer shorter menus at restaurants than the ones with hundreds of fine-print size options.

As our toddler grows up, he’ll be held more accountable for his choices as he begins to assume more responsibilities and is given new privileges. With consistent consequences, he’ll hopefully learn to weigh his choices and follow through on the ones he makes.

How has the opportunity to choose affected your kids? What accountability do you enforce in your home?


What you should know about separation anxiety—an interview with Kim Peterson

What you should know about separation anxiety—an interview with Kim Peterson
I remember when my then 18-month-old son wanted to be with me… and only me. Little that his dad or regular caregiver did could pry him away from me without tears. “Where’s that kid who would ‘go to anyone’?” I glumly wondered. Separation anxiety proved difficult for everybody—for my toddler who was clearly unhappy being away from me, for others who felt shunned despite wanting to help, and for me, who felt no flattery and instead exhaustion and frustration at being the object of his attachment.

Thankfully we were able to move beyond the phase, and while the little guy can still be attached to me, he’s nowhere near the anxiety he felt in the past. Other parents, however, can be struggling with their kids and separation anxiety. That’s why I’m excited and honored to welcome Kim Peterson, MA, a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist, to Sleeping Should Be Easy. A regular SSBE reader and mom, Kim sat down with us for a Q&A to explain the ins and outs of separation anxiety:

Sleeping Should Be Easy: What exactly is separation anxiety?
Kim Peterson: Separation anxiety is when a child experiences anxiety when they are separated from a primary caregiver. They will become visibly upset when the parent begins to leave the room or hands them off to someone else. They may attempt to clamor back into your arms or cling tightly to your legs.

Separation anxiety is seen in most babies and children at some point and can be considered a normal part of development. Still, it can worry many parents because it happens so quickly. I remember when my son was 10 months old, he went to other people with no problem. Then, all of a sudden, he cried when I started to leave the room and looked at me with distressed eyes. I felt guilty and worried, although I really had no reason to worry.

SSBE: Is there a specific age where separation anxiety begins, peaks and ends?
KP: Every baby and child is different. Some experience separation anxiety around 8 months; for others it may be around 24 months, or anywhere in between. Your child may even experience separation anxiety at multiple stages of development, or they may never show anxiety about a parent leaving.

SSBE: Why does separation anxiety happen?
KP: There can be various reasons for separation anxiety, some which are centered around your child’s developmental stage. Babies develop a sense of object permanence around 5-7 months, which means they realize that objects (and people) exist even if they can’t see them anymore. So, when mom disappears into another room, the baby knows mom still exists, but they aren’t quite confident if or when she will return. It’s around this stage of development that we start to notice separation anxiety.

At the toddler stage, your little one has likely developed a sense of attachment to you. Even though she probably realizes you will return after leaving, being away from you is just upsetting and she is most comfortable and happy when you are around.

Separation anxiety can also be brought on by a transition or stressful event, such as beginning a childcare program, changing providers, a new sibling in the home, or moving or changing schools or day cares.

SSBE: How can parents help ease the child’s anxiety and help him or her feel comfortable without the parent?
KP: This question is probably best answered with a few simple tips:

  • Maintain as much normalcy and consistency to the child’s routine, providers, diet, and environment as possible. This is especially important if there has been a significant change in their life, such as a new sibling.
  • Try your best not to express your own worry or angst about leaving when it’s time to say good-bye. Show them there is nothing to fear.
  • You don’t want to prolong your departure, but be sure you tell them good-bye. Sneaking out can be confusing and it’s good for them to see there is nothing to worry about.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. “Riley, I can see you are sad and don’t want mommy to leave. I have to go, but I will see you when I get off of work today.” What they are experiencing is normal and I strongly believe in reassuring our children of that and offering them a loving gesture, even if it’s brief.

SSBE: Is there a way to prevent separation anxiety, or a way to better prepare for it?
KP: I don’t think there is necessarily a way to prevent separation anxiety altogether, but there are a few things you can do to ease the length or severity:

  • Prepare them for any upcoming changes by talking, reading books, and drawing pictures. Let them know what to expect.
  • For babies and toddlers, present them with plenty of opportunity early on to spend time with other adults, especially relatives and potential caregivers. I recommend starting this around 5-6 months.
  • Allow the child an opportunity to meet new teachers and visit new classrooms before they will be dropped off. This helps them have a visual of what they will experience and mentally prepare.
  • Establish a routine and as much consistency as possible.

SSBE: If a parent is concerned that her child’s separation anxiety may be extreme or lasting too long, when should she seek help from a professional?
KP: With every stage in a child’s development, there are “normal” behaviors that can seem to go too far. If you have a feeling something is not right, talk to your pediatrician or child therapist. As a parent, you are the expert on your child and if something is out of the ordinary, there is no harm in getting more information to ease that nagging feeling in the back of your mind.

I treated one preschool child who developed separation anxiety after learning about the sudden death of a family member. The child cried when mom walked into another room, refused to sleep in their own bed or take a bath without mom near, and was fearful and anxious for most of the day. This is an example of extreme separation anxiety.

SSBE: What resources can you recommend?
KP: There are some fabulous books for the kids out there. Use these to prepare your child for separation or to help ease their separation anxiety.

There are also some helpful reads available for parents:

Thank you, Kim for shedding some light on this often confusing and frustrating behavior in our kids. To learn more about Kim’s background and practice, visit her site, Kim’s Counseling Corner.

How have you dealt with separation anxiety with your kids? After reading this post, what new tips will you take to help ease separation anxiety?

p.s. If you liked what you read, you can subscribe and receive free full-text posts from Sleeping Should Be Easy in your email inbox. Or, tell us what you think about this post on Facebook and Twitter.

Ask the readers: consistent rules or pick your battles?

Ask the readers: consistent rules or pick your battles?
Consider this scenario: Your child knows not to climb on the couch, yet right when you need it the least, she pulls herself up on to the arm chair, apparently oblivious to the rule you’ve drilled in her head from the get-go. You feel your patience draining and would rather ignore her defiance to save your sanity, but a thought nags in your head saying you should be consistent with the rules and implement proper consequences. Consistent rules or pick your battles—what do you do?

That was the question SSBE reader Carolyn posed on our Facebook page several days ago. After reading our post on how to stay calm with your child—in which I proposed picking your battles—she wrote:

When you say pick your battles isn’t that conflicting with being consistent with your child? If you let them get away with drawing on the wall one day and take their currency away from them the next, isn’t that confusing and compounding the problem? Don’t children thrive on knowing that those boundaries are always in place? I realize a colored wall is better than a beaten child and would never argue that. I’m not criticizing, I really want to know where the professionals stand on this issue as it has always been 2 very different yet common pieces of advice.

She absolutely nailed it when she said that the two are different yet very common pieces of advice. On one hand, a lax parent who doesn’t hold his ground isn’t taken seriously after a while by his kids. I was at the library once when I heard a lady scold her grandchild, “If you throw that toy one more time, we’re leaving.” About a minute later, the kid threw the toy, yet the grandma didn’t follow through with her rules, and both continued to stay at the library. Rules should be regarded consistently if kids are to learn the consequences of certain actions.

But then you have the other scenario: when the kid isn’t budging to eat his dinner unless he absolutely has his toy with him, never mind that toys aren’t allowed at the table. The time when you’re on your last nerve, and you’re just about ready to throw all rules out the door just to keep the kids quiet for once. That scenario.

Personally, I would define what is and isn’t negotiable. There’s the safety and hygienic reasons that I’m sure we can all agree on: car seats have to be buckled and diapers must be changed, no matter how much the kid protests. But beyond that, each scenario presents a personal choice for each family. For instance, there’s no way my kid is going to draw on a wall. That kind of stuff just drives me nuts and truthfully, I like me my clean white walls, no matter how much my toddler throws a tantrum. But I do know others whose kids draw on the wall and to those parents, it’s what saves them from going bonkers.

In other situations, I can be a bit more flexible, given the situation. I mentioned my toddler wanting to bring a toy to the table. And while we try to keep dinner times toy- and interruption-free, sometimes my toddler just really wants to have that toy in hand, so we decided that it’s not a huge deal at this moment. In fact, when that issue came up, the first thought I had was, “What if he’s confused as to what the rules are because we don’t allow toys one day and allow it the next? What if he assumes that throwing a fit will get him what he wants? Or worse, what if our authority is now undermined and he’ll defy future rules we try to impose?”

Thankfully, bringing the toy to the table that one time did none of that. I think if anything, it helped him learn that yes, the world is often a bit one-sided with the Big Adults making most of the decisions, but once in a while, even little toddlers get to negotiate a bit here and there. I also think he just forgets that he brought the toy that one day, especially if we don’t make a huge deal about him bringing it to the table.

But here’s where I admit I falter a bit. I’ve changed the rules, sometimes often. For instance, we used to tell him that he couldn’t open and close the linen cabinet doors because they’re too loud when he shuts them and he can get his fingers caught. So what did I do when my kid opened and closed the doors with his hands on the knob (so his fingers wouldn’t get caught) and as quietly as a cricket? I didn’t say anything; I let him open and close those darn doors. I suppose rules change as much as our kids do.

So far my toddler doesn’t tend to push our buttons too often. That may just be his personality, or maybe he understands which issues are an absolute no (he can’t write on the walls, touch the fans or stand on tables or chairs), and which ones are a bit more flexible. Either way, I try to maintain a balance of standing my ground while allowing some flexibility, particularly when my toddler is having a bad day or we’re on our last nerve.

That was generally my response to Carolyn (albeit much shorter!) but as I told her, I was curious to see how other parents handle this difficult situation. So:

What do you do when consistency and flexibility conflict in your home? What issues in your home do you set absolute boundaries on, and what are more flexible? Do you let your kids “win” certain issues, or do you stick to the rules? Why?

I won’t be surprised to find varying answers to this conundrum. As Carolyn wrote at the end of our conversation:

Parenting is so complex and I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules.

p.s. If you liked what you read, you can subscribe and receive free full-text posts from Sleeping Should Be Easy in your email inbox. Or, tell us what you think about this post on Facebook and Twitter.

2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it’s not because he is)

2 reasons your toddler seems ungrateful (hint: it's not because he is)
The other day, my husband made one of our usual breakfasts—oatmeal and fruit—with a little extra treat for our toddler: a peanut butter sandwich. LO practically shoved aside the oatmeal in lieu of the sandwich and gobbled it up in record speed. Once his hands were empty though, he cried for more. “It’s all gone,” we tried explaining to him. Nothing seemed to register. Rather than being thrilled at having eaten a favorite snack, he instead showed little thanks once the sandwich was over.

This wasn’t the first time our toddler seemed ungrateful for something that should have brought more joy than cries. I had offered to show him slideshows on my computer and to see some waterfalls which I knew he liked. Both instances ended with him asking for more rather than enjoying the moment that transpired. We have also given him a smoothie only to face more crying when the drink ran out, and we took him to a playground he loved—staying for several hours—just to be thanked with a tantrum when we had to leave.

“Do you think he’s being ungrateful?” I asked my husband later that day. “I don’t feel like doing anything fun or giving him special treats if doing so causes him to throw a fit.”

“I don’t think he’s being ungrateful,” he responded. “He’s just dealing with emotions that we assume as ingratitude.” We thought about potential reasons why our little guy cried instead of relished the treat and came up with the following two:

  • He’s unsatisfied. When he’s having fun at the playground or drinking a smoothie, nothing seems worse than when it all comes to an end. I imagine the same is true for adults: eating a bowl of ice cream just isn’t as great when it’s over as when I’m actually eating it. Except with kids, they don’t always know that things come to an end, or why we have to leave the playground, or that there truly aren’t any smoothies hidden somewhere.
  • He’s unhappy about something else. My toddler also wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with when he threw a tantrum at the playground. He was tired, teething, and for the past several days, wasn’t his normal chipper self. When kids face rough days, any little nudge towards unhappiness takes on a wild ride in itself.

It’s so easy to feel down when kids don’t seem to appreciate the effort and intention we had. After all, when we treat others and surprise them with fun activities, we expect joy, not necessarily a fit of tears. Yet often it’s up to us to thicken our skin and realize that kids aren’t being ungrateful so much as they are disappointed, confused, frustrated, and a slew of other emotions they’re just learning to process. Instead of succumbing to their frustration, my husband and I now help him try to understand a bit more about the world:

  • Give him notices. Even though our toddler probably can’t tell time yet, we help transition him from one activity to the next by letting him know we’ll be doing something different soon. Whether it’s five minutes before leaving the playground, 10 minutes until stepping out of the house, of 15 minutes until bath time, my toddler seems to appreciate knowing that a transition is about to occur and can mentally prepare for it rather than simply whisking him away when it’s time.
  • Entice him with the next activity. If you’re lucky to find something fun in the next activity, highlight that fact to help your child move on from her current activity to the next. For instance, bath time in itself may not sound exciting compared to being able to continue playing in the living, but saying, “Let’s play with the water like the way we played with the puddle earlier at the park today!” may just be what he needs to leave what he’s doing in lieu of what’s next.
  • Plan treats accordingly. With the best of intentions, my husband probably could have waited to give our toddler the peanut butter sandwich after he had already eaten the oatmeal. I imagine the same goes for me should I be given dessert before my main meal. With a full tummy, kids are less likely to want more and instead appreciate the treat they have.
  • Describe and relish the moment. Rather than treating an activity or a treat as something to be consumed, we can help kids appreciate the moment by recounting what’s happening as it’s taking place. For instance, as my toddler drank his smoothie, we could have described its yummy taste, cold temperature and thick texture. When kids focus on the moment, they’re less likely to rush and instead take pleasure as it happens. Talking about the moment can also stretch the time rather than rushing through it.
  • Accept the tantrum. Sometimes kids will just escalate their frustration to a full-blown tantrum, and the best course of action is to simply accept its occurrence and handle the tantrum appropriately.
  • Consider his point of view. The overarching tip I’d like to end with is to always consider the scenario from your child’s point of view. Only in expressing empathy can we begin to understand children’s emotions and determine that he’s not trying to spite us and be ungrateful but rather is simply expressing frustration in the ways that he’s developmentally able to.

As tempted as I was never to take him to the playground again, I knew that withholding fun activities isn’t the best remedy (nor a realistic one). With a bit of timing and preparation, we’ve since been able to continue his favorite activities with less cries and seeming “ingratitude.”

How do you handle your kids when they fuss about a treat that has finished?

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Stop comparing your kid to others

Don't compare your kid to others
I jinxed myself, again. Just as I was writing about how my toddler’s tantrums don’t seem as terrible as in the past, he threw an all-out, can’t-catch-my-breath tantrum in what should have been a fun Saturday at a children’s birthday party. We had to listen to him cry the whole ride home—through traffic, of course—before he eventually calmed down.

All the while, I couldn’t help but think back to the birthday party where I saw his two-year-old cousin (the birthday celebrant) laughing with the family, sharing his toys and accepting gifts from his guests like a gracious host. And here was my toddler, ready to cry if I even so much as got up to grab a cup of water. And sadly I couldn’t help but compare their two very different dispositions.

The close proximity in their ages don’t make comparisons any easier. Only seven months apart, comparisons are bound to happen, whether one likes to dance, the other likes to fiddle with gadgets, and who got their teeth/started to walk/ate solids at what age.

If seven months seem short, one of my friends has a son who is just two weeks younger than my toddler, so you can imagine the comparisons running through my head: “How come LO isn’t into cars and bikes like L?” “L can already jump and is potty trained.” And so forth.

It’s so easy to compare. We compare whether our kids are into the same hobbies as others, what skills other kids have mastered that ours still haven’t (and vice versa), and we even compare their personalities. When I find myself comparing my little guy to others, I remind myself not to do so in a way that would make me doubt his own pace and abilities, because:

  • Every child has his own interests: Just as we adults have our own hobbies and pastimes, so do our kids. Children differ in their interests and will therefore expend effort on those that they enjoy.
  • Every child has his own skills: It’s so easy to forget our kids’ own amazing skills when we compare their shortcomings to others.
  • Every child has his own personality: While I absolutely love my toddler’s personality—his inquisitiveness, quick mind, humor and playfulness—one of the issues I grapple with is his fiery (and loud) temperament. Accepting kids for who they are rather than comparing their temperaments is key.
  • Every child develops at his own pace: While my toddler started walking early at 10 months, he was 21 months before he finally spoke his first words. As SSBE reader Tragic Sandwich wrote in a comment a few weeks ago:

There is a really wide range of normal, and all the weird stuff your baby is going to do fits right in the middle of that range.

Rather than comparing kids only to feel like we’ve failed, maybe we can use comparisons as a way to introduce new skills and interests. For instance, I recently read on a blog about a mom who showed her toddler how to slice a banana. I had never considered this skill, but rather than pressuring my toddler to slice every bunch of banana or worry whether he’s set back because he has yet to slice his own food, I found a plastic knife and showed him how fun slicing one of his favorite fruits can be.

I took the same approach when I heard that one of his playmates can remove his own shoes. Rather than sulk about my toddler’s inability to do the same or push him to perfect this skill in a day, I gradually introduced and practiced with him on how to remove his shoes. So yes, we can notice what other kids are doing and even introduce some of those skills to our kids, but try not to worry or fuss if they don’t catch on right away or have no interest.

Even though my toddler threw a tantrum in front of my husband’s family while his little cousin smiled sweetly and happily, I also have to assume that every parent, no matter the child’s temperament, has dealt with his or her own versions of the worst-tantrum-ever. In the moment, tantrums are embarrassing and draining, but in hindsight, I’m willing to bet that even my toddler’s sweet cousin has had his terrible days as well.

And even if his cousin’s tantrums are nowhere near the caliber my little guy can throw, accepting my toddler for everything that he is will serve us much better and lead to fewer comparisons. Tantrums are terrible, but I can’t imagine trading my toddler’s personality for anyone else.

And his shoes? He can now remove them all on his own.

How do you keep yourself from comparing your kids to others? Have you used comparisons in a positive way, e.g. as a way to introduce new skills?

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