Don't misinterpret typical toddler behavior as defiance

April 29, 2013 

Q: It seems our 1-year-old is showing willful disobedience. We tell him “no” and try to redirect but he does the same things over and over. The things in question include turning over and not being cooperative when I’m trying to change him, slapping us in the face and standing up during bath time. I’m trying to be creative with ways to entertain him and make things fun but am getting weary. Any advice on how we can correct him?

I’m fairly certain this is your first child because the examples you gave of “willful disobedience” are typical of this age. By thinking of them as acts of defiance that need correction, you’re setting the stage for ongoing and ever-worsening power struggles.

In other words, the problem here is not his behavior; it’s your perspective, your interpretation of his behavior.

The proper perspective is “so what?” So what if he squirms when you are trying to change him? So what if changing him takes three minutes instead of two? So what if he stands up in the tub? Just steady him with one hand and wash him with the other. Or wash him in the kitchen or laundry room sink so that you are also standing up.

So what if he slaps you in the face? At this age, this is not purposeful aggression. When it first occurred, it was random. Your reaction – startled? angry? – interested him, and he wants to see it again. The solution is to do your best not to put your face within striking range , to intercept as many slaps as you can, and react nonchalantly when an attempt to intercept isn’t successful.

The attempt on your part to entertain and make things fun may be part of the problem. Without intention, your “entertainments” may be exciting him and stimulating his activity level. You may believe, as do many of today’s moms, you should be constantly talking to your child to promote “bonding” and proper language development. There’s a grain of truth in that, but when mothers didn’t have lots of time to devote to their children, children still learned how to talk well.

If all you did was sing one of your favorite songs while you’re changing your son, for example, that’s language stimulation enough. In other words, you don’t have to be talking directly at your son for him to develop good language skills. And when you do talk to him, your tone does not have to be upbeat and “entertaining.” It can be very matter-of-fact, in fact. You do not have to make everything seem fun.

You said you were getting weary, and a lot of effusive child-centeredness may be the reason why.

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