The earth shakes, walls come tumbling down, wild animals run for cover; you can hear his mighty roar long before he marches into view. Get ready. Suit up. Shields out. Phasers set to stun. The angry toddler dictator is on the war path!
But before world war three starts let’s consider our options. And like all the best diplomats let’s put ourselves in the toddler’s shoes and work out their agenda.
If you’ve got children you will either remember the Lilliputian battles or find it hard to comprehend as you stare lovingly at your sleeping baby that for a (hopefully brief) time they all turn into power-crazed loons.
The moment this starts will vary a lot between children but it will probably be around 15 months and go on, I am told, until they are around three. After this they will still have tantrums but they’ll hopefully have some comprehension that they are not the master of the universe.
We are well into the little dictator years now. “No” is his favourite word after “Caaaar”, going anywhere his lordship doesn’t want to go is an outrage, getting dressed is torture, getting undressed is torture, being offered lovingly cooked food may or may not be a gross insult.
He’s not a nasty dictator. It’s not like Stalin has moved in. We aren’t living in fear of a pogrom. He’s more like King George III; an eccentric, irritable, impatient ruler who is unlikely to do you serious harm but needs to be kept out of the public eye occasionally, and turns his servants’ lives a constant game of which innocuous act will be the WORST THING EVER?
The signs that you’ve displeased his highness are subtle and can take us by surprise. You could be in the middle of a game of peekaboo, initiated by him, when suddenly the laughter will turn to shrieks of displeasure. Possibly some eye jabbing if you’re within range. “No, not our eyes. Ouchy,” we say in our firm voices.
But maybe we didn’t notice that our last peekaboo was a bit late. Didn’t we see that our Great Leader had begun to tire of our foolish prattling? It was time to go and jump on the bed. He was waiting by the bed. Too late!
If we were good servants we would have known that as we handed him a tray of carefully chopped raspberries, blueberries, grapes and strawberries, he wanted a ‘Narna’ instead.
Turn the pages faster in the book, no not that way, the other way, no I want to play with a puzzle, put the book down fool, and fetch me some carrot sticks!
It’s quite exhausting. I don’t want you to think he’s ‘spoiled’ or ‘mollycoddled’ or that we bow to his every whim.
Sometimes we leave him alone to work things out, like why a big plastic Little Tikes car can’t be driven through the shed. But mostly we simply want him to be happy and content, because life is more pleasant all round.
So like a good diplomat I do try to see his point of view. If I was recently able to think about things more complicated than shall I a) sleep b) eat or drink c) poo or wee I’d be feeling a bit overwhelmed by life as well. SO MANY CHOICES! All day long.
And no way of knowing if it’s the right or wrong thing to do other than by trial and error. Added to this is a very short-term memory, so if Little B isn’t doing something regularly and frequently he forgets about it and it’s back to square one.
Gradually though the principles about how things work, what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and the best ways to make mum and dad laugh are forming stronger connections between the synapses in that rapidly growing brain.
Our Little Dictator is a benevolent ruler really. And all he wants at the end of a long day mastering his empire is a cuddle, milk, and a story. And for once that’s a job we fight over for the honour of pleasing our Beloved Leader.
Top 10 Tips On Toddler Diplomacy*:
- Patience: Being very young is frustrating for toddlers and everyone else. They don’t know what they want a lot of the time and even when they do it’s hard to make other people understand. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and fall back on staple options – offer a snack, a drink, a favourite toy. And then when none of these things satisfy the little dictator it can start to test your patience. Especially if you’re in a supermarket queue or trying to get on a crowded bus or it’s well past bedtime. So take a breath, step back and…
- Pay close attention: We all know how annoying it is when we’re talking to someone and they start checking their phone, or you can see they’ve mentally switched off and they’re wondering if they should start watching House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black on Netflix. Well, I think it’s like that for toddlers most of the time. There they are explaining in great detail exactly what they think about your latest culinary delights, or your suggestion that it’s bath time. And all us adults do is nod and laugh and then quite obviously switch off and then say the same thing again. Toddlers think they are talking to us – in their heads the gobbledygook makes perfect sense. So we should always do them the courtesy of paying attention and then at least trying to have a conversation back! It seems to help reduce frustration in Little B anyway. And now and then we get a snippet of something that is almost a new word we can work on together.
- Persevere: It’s rare that we get things right the first time. Being a parent is one long, ever-changing journey and by the time we think we’ve cracked it our offspring have changed again and all our old ways are redundant. I think this is especially true in the first three years as the transform from one month to the next. When Little B is having a meltdown we work through the obvious options (in no particular order) – a drink, a snack, a cuddle, a story, a favourite toy? And if none of that works we’ll step back and look for clues (see point 2) and then try something new. Recently he’s become passionate about getting up on the sofa – it’s his current challenge. Once he’s done it I know he’ll become blase about it but for now that’s a classic moment for him to get cross. If we haven’t seen him trying I’ll just find him sat on the floor wailing and pointing. But a simple lift up onto the soft furnishings and he’s happiness personified.
- Change of scene: Been stuck in one room going slowly insane with your toddler? Sometime’s it’s easy to get into a rut at home. Maybe there’s one room you’ve really toddler-proofed and the rest of the house contains all the dangerous, breakable things stuffed into cupboards? Or you simply forget that while you’ve been getting on with jobs for half an hour your toddler has exhausted the potential fun in the living room? Obviously, most parents will have regular places they go – parks, soft play, cafes and so on. But a break from the routine can work wonders for a little dictator’s mood. It’s like they’ve conquered some new territory! Get on a new bus route, drive to a different park across town, go to Aldi instead of Lidl (come on – none of us really shop in Waitrose). Taking them somewhere new fires up new connections in their brains and offers a whole new world to explore. One slide/swing/tree/plastic pirate ship may look much like any other to us but to a toddler it’s Christmas and Birthday all rolled into one! The only downside is they won’t want to leave so…
- Let them lead: WHAAAT!? Have I gone mad?! Let the toddler lead the way? We’ll never get home, never eat anything but cake again, never sleep again. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting relinquishing all control. Only a teeny weeny little bit. Give your Little Dictator a false sense of power. It’s all they want: to feel that they are in charge of this big, exciting and confusing world. Being out of control is scary, anxiety-inducing. Think about how you would feel at work if your boss never gave you any autonomy or responsibility. “Do this, do that, don’t do that, stop it, come here, shush, eat some vegetables.” “For Tweenies sake mum and dad, give me a break!” It’s so tempting to be there all the time, right with our toddlers, directing them, helping them, picking them up, wiping various bits of their bodies. But everyone needs space and time out. Sit back, keep an eye on them of course, but let them be free for a while. And when it’s time to do something give them a two minute warning, then a one minute update, and then ask them first. “Shall we do XX now?” I am not claiming this will always work; you might still need to resort to scooping up a wailing mess but often we find letting Little B at least think he’s making the decision to go upstairs for bath time makes for a lot less stress and tears.
- Talk it over: Little Dictators need to be heard. Learning to express themselves and have their views respected is part of learning to be a nicer person. It’s like at work if someone is trying to introduce a new way of doing things, being consulted on their views is going to make other members of staff feel better. OK, so we all know a lot of the time it’s just paying lip-service but it still feels better than having things imposed without being asked. It’s the same with toddlers. Even of they can’t understand everything you’re saying, get down to their level and calmly talk about what is about to happen and why. “We need to stop putting Panda’s head in the cat food now. It’s time to have a nap, so we’re going upstairs. OK?” Let them answer. “Neeoaahh.” Acknowledge their views. “OK darling well Panda wants to go upstairs so we’ll go with him.” Maybe offer a false choice. “Do you want to take Panda upstairs or shall daddy?” See what I did there? This doesn’t always mean they get their way, far from it. Which is why you need to…
- Know your red lines: Like any diplomatic negotiation there have to be places you aren’t willing to go. Biro on walls, dinner hurled on the ceiling, hitting, spitting, smearing poo on the carpet and so on. Hopefully, your Little Dictator won’t approach these lines too often but that’s why it’s important they and you know what they are. Bedtime is another area where negotiation can only go so far. Which story would you like? Train pyjamas or bears? Milk in the chair with me? But sooner or later they ARE going to bed. Use all the steps above but eventually it’s time for them to know that they are a tin pot dictator and you are the United States of Mum and Dad who will unleash shock and awe – in other words a firm no and perhaps the naughty step.
- Laugh about it: Dealing with Little Dictators is tough but every UN summit needs a comedy moment. Perhaps someone’s wig falls off during a key-note speech or something gets lost in translation.
If you and your toddler are in the middle of a stand-off sometimes it’s easier to pull a stupid face, blow a raspberry, unleash the tickle squirrel and break the tension. By the time you’ve both finished giggling they’ll have forgotten why they absolutely HAD to have the cat-shaped egg cup from the top shelf of the dresser and you’ll have forgotten all the broken tea cups that died when the toddler unleashed Operation Impossible Chair Leap. (This is quite a specific scenario I admit but you get the idea.)
- Let it go: It’s OK I am not suggesting you sing THAT SONG. Only that sometimes you can let the toddler win. Remember, they have been known to tear people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. Some battles just aren’t worth the effort. Really want to sit in that puddle? Go ahead, it’s your wet bum. Really really want to eat yoghurt without a spoon? Be my guest…
It’s OK. Mr WetWipe can handle any job. Save your strength and negotiating skills for the really serious stuff like having a bath or putting on a clean nappy. Theirs not yours. Just so we’re clear.
- Fail better: We all make mistakes. Mess can be cleared up. Clothes can be washed. Broken TV sets can be claimed for on house insurance (check your policy). So don’t be too hard on yourself if living with a Little Dictator sometimes feels like the labours of Sisyphus. And unlike him your labours won’t last for an eternity. It just feels like it at the moment.
*Disclaimer: These are only my views and tips based on my experience. Parents know their children best and I bear no responsibility for any mayhem and misery that may ensue from following my advice!