Thursday, November 11, 2010


Ok, so indulge me with a little literary license.  I’ll make a point by the end, I promise.  The following conversation is fictionalized, but loosely based on a composite of many conversations I have every year in my work with parents. 

I firmly believe that ALL parents love their children, and MOST parents really do the very best they can with their kids.  But I also know how hard it can be, and I admire parents who look for help and answers.

However, see if you can tell me what “attitude problems” the following conversation might reveal.  Do you think that possibly, if the parent in this scenario could find a way to meet her own adult needs, and then work on those attitudes, the child-behaviors and overall family atmosphere would improve? 


PARENT: “I need some parenting tips.  My three-year-old son is driving me crazy.”

TEACHER: “What kinds of things are you wondering about?”

PARENT: “He’s incredibly active, never sits still for a minute.  He wears me out!”

TEACHER: “Being extremely active physically is completely age-appropriate.  I’d worry about any 3 year old who isn’t! Developmental experts say that ages 3 through 5 are the most physically active humans will ever be throughout their entire lives.  But yes, it can be exhausting for parents to keep up with kids this age!”

PARENT: “But….. I don’t know, he’s driving me crazy.”

TEACHER: “Can you tell me some specific things that bother you?”

PARENT: “He never listens!  When I tell him to stop doing something he doesn’t stop!” 

TEACHER: “What kinds of things do you tell him to stop doing?”

PARENT: “Wiggling at the dinner table, for example.  He just won’t sit still.”

TEACHER: “Hmm….. sounds to me like this behavior is very much related to what we talked about a minute ago:  a 3-year-old boy’s intense need to move his body. How long is he able to sit still before he starts getting wiggly?”

PARENT: “Only about 10 minutes:  just long enough to gobble down his food, then he starts going nuts and he ruins our dinner every single night.  His dad and I would like to have a nice relaxing meal.”

TEACHER: “Wow- he’s able to sit still for 10 minutes!  That’s a long time for a 3-year-old. What would happen if you let him leave the table when he is finished eating his dinner?”

PARENT: “He would run around the house, getting all the toys out all over again!  I always try to clean up the toys before dinner,  so I don’t have to do it at bedtime. He would probably dump out all the block or legos. Like I said, he drives me nuts.  I worry that something is wrong with him.  Do you think he could have ADHD?” 

TEACHER: “Maybe you could try leaving out his blocks, and then excusing him from  the table to play with them when he is finished with his dinner.  Do you think he might play with his blocks while you and your husband finish eating?”

PARENT: “Well…… maybe, but he always wants to interrupt us when we are talking. He would want to tell us about everything he is doing with the blocks.  We could really use some peace and quiet.”

TEACHER: “Wow- he likes to talk about his work!  It sounds like his language development is really exciting right now!”

PARENT: “Yeah, he talks all the time, but that’s probably what makes me so mad when he won’t do what I say.  I know he understands the words.  Like when I tell him to clean up his toys, he usually puts 2 or 3 toys in the basket but then he runs off, and I have to clean up after him myself.”

TEACHER: “I’m impressed that a busy, active 3 year old has time to help clean up even 2 or 3 toys! He’s learning a lot about being clean and tidy from your example, but most kids aren’t able to be fully responsible for their belongings until they are much older.  What about other aspects of his behavior?  For example, how is he with his baby sister?”

PARENT: “It’s cute how he says he loves her, but he won’t stop touching her and patting her. I tell him over and over to leave her alone, and when he doesn’t listen, I tell him it’s naughty to ignore his mom, and that nice boys listen to their parents.  But he still wants to stay right next to the baby, and he always brings all the teddy bears and other toys to her.  And then like I said, he won’t listen when I tell him to put them away.  And when she is napping,  he won’t be quiet.  I turn on the tv really quietly and tell him to sit still and watch cartoons, but he keeps jumping up off the couch to run around.”

TEACHER: “He sounds like a very loving brother who is trying to be nurturing. And he sounds like a very sweet, normal little boy.  I’m wondering about how much time he gets to play outside, or to run and climb at a park or playground.  When 3 year olds have plenty of outdoor play, they seem to be able to settle down a little bit more when they go inside.”

PARENT: “Sigh….. I just wish he were still the cute, cuddly little baby he used to be when he was his sister’s age!  When he was little, I didn’t have to worry about taking him outside, or worry about his behavior at all. Now I’m always exhausted just because I try to make him do the right things all day long, and half the time, he won’t do what I say.”

Whew….. I’m exhausted too, after this conversation. Imagine what it would be like to be this little boy.  His beloved mother is never satisfied with him, even when he tries to help.  She always wants him to sit still, but his body just CAN’T.

So tell me:  who has the problems?  The child or the parent?

Parents often want “tips” and quick-fixes for behaviors that they find difficult in their children.  But what about fixing the parents’ expectations first?  There is absolutely nothing that improves the (perceived) behavior of young children as much as helping the parent learn about child development. Once a parent has begun learning even a little bit about age-appropriate expectations,  the entire atmosphere in a family changes.  Frustration,  anxiety,  and anger can soon be replaced by joy in the child’s ongoing growth, and by the relief that comes from knowing that you’re experiencing normal things that are universal to children and families everywhere.  The most important “tip” I could give this mom would be to give her son the time he needs to grow.  She seems to want him to be able to behave like an adult, even though he is only three.

Knowledge is power:  even a little knowledge of child development can give you the power to relax, and fully appreciate your child’s growth.  Equally importantly, it can give you the power to enjoy your role as a parent.

Even though I’m sure that some of you (you know who you are!) were certain I was writing about you, please realize that I try hard to be non-judgmental with all my parents.   The parent I was thinking about most when I wrote the above scenario was myself, when my sweet daughters were little. I was the world’s worst when it came to expecting-too-much. Sorry, girls. I loved you very much, but I just didn’t know then what I know now.

But I promised you A POINT, and my main point is this:  

Sometimes it’s a good idea to look for the answers within ourselves.  

There is no job that requires as much self-reflection as parenting.


  1. I think I have the hardest time when we are around people who don't have kids or don't have a 2 year old yet. Sometimes it is hard not to feel judged as a parent when your normal (albeit "spirited") 2 year old is acting in a very typical way, but other people don't understand that and seem to expect you to "make her behave". That's when I feel the most tempted to try to make her behave like a little adult. Usually I am completely unsuccessful at that because my kid has a willpower made of steel, so we just have to avoid those situations (restaurants) and people as much of the time as possible.

  2. I definitely relate to this blog because this is how I felt most of the time with my daughter. Now as I’m taking a child development class I can understand her a lot better. I’m working very hard to change the ways I was with her trying to always push her to hurry up and grow up be an adult. One of the things I have learned is you can’t rush development each child is unique, different so we cannot expect the same for all of them. I think this is a very important issue. When we expect our child to act like adults it’s just unrealistic. I strongly believe all parents should take a child development class this will definite make them understand what the child is growing threw and make us as adults make better choices for our children.

  3. Lisa, I totally agree that the non-understanding adults around us make our job of parent much harder than it already is. One part of parenting that I, personally, was not prepared for, was the part about being strong in the face of criticism or unsolicited advice. But it's hard to be strong when you don't really know for sure that you're making the right decisions, and when you're in the middle of it, you just don't often feel that sure.

    Which is why I loved your comment, Olivia. To me, the knowledge of agreed-upon principles of child development make this a bit easier. If you understand even a little bit about development, it's much easier to ignore "advice" from people who do not. And then, you can let your parental intuition kick in as well, and when that intuition is also based on developmental knowledge, it can be pretty powerful. (Ok, Olivia, I should give you EXTRA POINTS for reading my blog..... but you're already doing so well that you aren't going to need them! You are my favorite kind of student: you are always eager to learn, and I'm so glad you are in my class.)


I would love to hear comments from readers! Please let me know what you think.