If you are the parent of a toddler, you are all too familiar with their young wills. Like the explorers from days of yore, they want to go out into the great big world and discover new things for themselves. Until they get a boo-boo or want some juice. Then they call in the reinforcements: mom and dad.
In their quest for independence, they are quick to declare their opinions, most often in the form of "No" and "Mine". Many parents find childcare to be the source of this new selfishness. It starts off cute and amusing but quickly deteriorates into a battle of the wills. Why?
A behaviorist theory is the most logical explanation. From birth until they are toddlers, children have learned to navigate the world one way. They cry and a need is met. If a diaper is full, they cry and somebody will change it. If they are hungry, they cry and somebody will feed them. If they are ready to get out of the crib, they cry and somebody retrieves them or gives them a toy as a pacifier. In each situation, the child learns that when they cry, they get what they want/need. They are positively reinforced for their cries.
As they get older, a necessary shift begins to occur. Children must learn to wait their turn, to share, and they do not get everything they want. First born children, especially, find daycare to be different than home. This shift causes turmoil for the child because they have to re-learn how to engage with the world. Suddenly, cries of displeasure are no longer reinforced. At least they shouldn't be.
What do you think will happen when a toddler, who is in the midst of learning this new way of living, throws a temper tantrum in the grocery store when they are told to put the bag of cookies back on the shelf and the parents cave in for the sake of quiet and to keep other customers from staring? The child learns that their technique works to serve their purpose. In essence, the child is training the parents.
However, if the parents endure and teach the child that tantrums are not rewarded, then the parents are training the child. For example, telling the child, "If you obey while we are at the grocery store, we will get a treat afterwards." Both the control and the reward have shifted from the toddler to the parent. This is a much healthier positioning for everybody and provides parents with the opportunity to train their children rather than simply reacting to behavior.
Mind you, the transition is rough. It requires consistency on the part of the parent despite tantrums, tears, embarrassment and inconvenience. Over time, though, the child will learn that good behavior is rewarded more often than bad behavior, and they should adjust accordingly. Not every instance of good behavior needs to be rewarded to accomplish the transition. The key is to stop rewarding the bad behavior by giving in for the sake of peace and quiet. That may serve as a temporary solution, but it will backfire in the long run.
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