When I was a kid there was a public service announcement that used to run on tv about what to do if your house was on fire. I don’t remember the exact details, but I do remember Ronald McDonald telling me to: “Get down low and go, go, go!” I’m sure it was good advice for getting out while avoiding as much smoke as possible, but I wonder how many kids had nightmares about crazed clowns starting grease fires in their bedrooms. Just me? Thought so.
Fast forward to today and there’s a new fire starter in my house. He’s not a junk peddling clown but a feisty two year old. I hasten to say that he hasn’t actually started any actual fires yet (although when I am tied up feeding or changing the baby, I do sometimes wonder if the noise is him lighting small ones in the next room).
Hunger and tiredness, however, are two sticks rubbing together. It only takes the tiniest spark for the fire to ignite. Maybe I’ll say that ice cream is not a breakfast food. Maybe he’ll notice that one of his pictures has been moved from the fridge. Maybe I’ll tell him that he has to wear pants to the library.
And then… Kaboom! The fire has started.
The fire burns in an unpredictable manner. Often, all that needs to happen to douse it is some food, or a nap, or a hug. Usually we know the warning signs well enough to have avoided public places. Don’t take a hungry or tired toddler to a supermarket. If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.
But then there are the other times. When the fire spreads out of control. How do you douse the raging flames of cranky, crazy defiance?
There are several schools of thought on toddler discipline. And I have been reading the books, as is my wont. As with all parenting advice, there are some pieces of information that just don’t fit right for me or our family. There are other things that I have taken on board to adapt and implement. I’m sure our methods for discipline and setting boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour will need to change over time.
In amongst it all, there is one piece of advice that has stood out for me and that has had an almost immediate impact; when you want to change the way your toddler is behaving you need to physically get down to their level.
Sometimes my toddler drives me crazy. Sometimes I want to yell. But this doesn’t get us anywhere. I feel myself looming over him. My voice is thunder. The power imbalance is enormous. It is intimidating and unfair. It also tends to only add extra fuel to the fire.
When I get down on his level he sees me. He hears me. He listens.
When I get down on his level I see him. I hear him. I listen.
When we are face to face I can’t be angry. I realise that the world is still big and new and scary. I remember that when I’m hungry I get “hangry”. I remember that when I haven’t had enough sleep little upsets are devastation. I remember that he’s small and I’m big and it’s my job to help him through this tough business of growing up and learning about the world as best I can.
So now when I see the toddler fire starting to burn, I remember Ronald McDonald, that wise old sage. I get down low, and I go, go, go. And we can usually escape unharmed.