Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Tammuz 5765 - July 27, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

Spoiling the Two-Three-Year-Old
by Mrs. L. Raffles, BSc.

Imagine the scene: Mother sitting having her 'cuppa' (that's a cup of tea in British), when along comes 3-year-old Shloime,

S: (Shloime) Want bottle.

Mother gets up and goes over to sink, gets a bottle and starts to prepare it.

S: Blue lid!

Mother stops what she's doing, finds appropriate bottle and starts preparing it.

S: Not that — that! (Meaning he wants the juice to be made from the larger container, rather than the smaller one containing the same juice.)

Mother puts down the smaller container and picks up the larger (and more awkward) one and makes the bottle.

S: Dry! (It isn't wet.)

Mother dries it, and hands it over, giving him a kiss.

The End

Now let's play this through again. This time, the mother is interested in raising an unspoiled and polite little boy; this is also her First Child.

S: Want bottle.

M: How do you ask? Say 'please.'

S: (Crying) Bottle!

M: Just say 'please' Shloime.

After some more back and forth, finally Shloime says 'please.' Mother gets up and goes over to sink, gets a bottle and starts to prepare it.

S: Blue lid!

M: It doesn't make any difference what color the lid is!

An argument ensues and mother is defeated by Shloime's tears. She finds the correct bottle and starts to prepare it.

S: Not that — that!

Mother is thoroughly exhausted by the arguments already, and this is the limit! "It's the same juice!"

S: That one, that one!

M: But Shloime, it won't taste any different!

Mother continues to reason with Shloime, and eventually, gives him a bottle from the other juice container.

S: Dry!

M: It's not wet! Here feel it!

More tears and frustration on both sides. The child may even have started a temper tantrum, lying on the floor kicking and screaming. Eventually he gets his bottle.

The End.

At each part of the interaction, Mother may also press for the 'please' (as in 'Please dry it!'). She may also have a sudden bout of guilt over the unhealthy teeth-rotting sweet drink that her son constantly drinks, and/or that he is still drinking from a bottle at his age. So she may choose this moment to try to deny the bottle altogether. "If you're thirsty have a cup," or moderate its contents —"Only water in bottles."

Major conflicts can spring up at any point, and a tantrum is the way the child expresses his frustration. This can seem very unreasonable to Mother. The mother may, of course, not give in the very first time there is a conflict, and not pay attention to his tears at all. The child may not get his bottle because he remains so unreasonable, or he may learn that he cannot express his will, certainly not if it conflicts with his mother's. There are some 'strong' mothers who are good at this, but I'm not one of them, just like I know I won't be able to 'let him cry it out' to teach a baby to sleep through the night.

Children at this age can be so incredibly frustrating. Even if you know what they want and do that straight off, before being asked, like finding the right bottle, filling it from the preferred container of juice and drying it (after all this may not be the first time), the child will still express his disapproval. It is the fact that they have directed events that is important to them, that they have expressed their choices. If you give them what they want straightaway without being asked, they may reject it, but still not be able to choose another option because what you gave them first is what they want, but they wanted to choose it.

It is not necessary for this stage in a child's life to be one of so much conflict and temper tantrums. Even if Mother doesn't take the first option of letting the child run the whole show, she can choose her 'battles,' like insisting that he say 'please,' but go along with everything else. The child will naturally grow out of caring which lid the bottle has. In fact, even with no intervention, he will eventually grow out of bottles altogether. If Mother decides that the bottles need to be limited, removed or the contents altered, it should be done with a full understanding of the consequences for her child and she must decide that even though he will suffer, the need is more important. Then when she fights this battle, she must remain firm, calm and consistent. If you cannot remain consistent or calm, then don't fight it. Because if you give in at the end, or even if you 'win' but the relationship is harmed because of the difficult battle, then the loss is greater than the gain.

'Giving in' on a lot of these issues is not spoiling; it just prevents a lot of unnecessary conflict, and the issues are so petty. Like a child who won't eat a broken cookie even though "it tastes the same in your tummy," who won't let one food touch another on his plate, or won't eat what someone else has touched, will only eat from a certain bowl, or use a certain spoon. A favorite is not finishing their food, or not eating what they asked for.

Young children often want everything on offer (in the same quantities as everyone else — and you can't fool them), even though you know that many of these items are disliked, or that the child does not have a big enough appetite to finish everything off. So you might be tempted to say, 'If you ask for it, you will have to eat it.' Don't be tempted. Give it and know that you will have to take it away again.

There seems no end to the child's mishugasim. Most of them are normal, and most of them he will outgrow on his own. Other issues, that he does not outgrow, will be easier to discuss with him when he's older. Even the annoying habit of always wanting an older sibling's bottle or toy. It can be very easy to explain to a five-year-old that s/he loses nothing by giving the thing to the younger one (and when he was the 'younger one' others had to give up to him). The less fuss made the better, because the fuss REINFORCES this negative behavior.

The older one just gives it up, and gets a replacement. If the 'older one' is a three-year-old, then be prepared to get two of a lot of basic things! As the child matures, one sees a lot of this behavior stop, especially if it was not getting him undue attention. At the right moment, you can put your foot down and say, 'No, that belongs to Soro, you have to wait/play with something else.' The 'foot' needs to be applied to an issue worth fighting about, not the color of a bottle. And then 'the battle' must be with calmness and consistency. In this case, you have to take into account that the other children will become upset that he is being 'punished,' and will want to give in for the sake of peace. So you need to take the 'temperature' of the situation and decide whether it is a good time to fight it out.

Are you particularly tired now? Is the child? Do you have time now or are you pressured? Are the other children going to make it difficult for you to carry through?

Hardly saying 'no' to a young child is not spoiling him. It's just that the issues are not worth fighting about, and having so many battles is exhausting for both of you. Building a strong relationship with the child is more important. As long as the child understands that when you DO say 'no' you mean it. There's an old saying, "When I had no children, I had ten principles; now I have ten children and no principles!"

"Principles" like the ones above are just not principles. The Torah gives us plenty of principles (mitzvos) worth arguing about. And even those have an idea of age-readiness, and are better received in a pleasant and non-confrontational atmosphere.


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