“Super Toddler” – a story about parenting skills

Posted by: Joseph Kuo | August 23, 2019

A little while ago, I read on the news about a toddler who drove his battery-powered tractor to the county fair, at night, without telling his parents. Fortunately, no one was injured or hurt and the boy was soon reunited with his father, who promptly removed the battery from the child’s tractor.

First of all, I am so glad that things seemed to have worked out and everyone’s safe.

At the same time, I find myself wondering how I would respond if I were the toddler’s father. This story nicely illustrates the conflict experienced by many parents.  On the one hand, there is the instinct to protect their children.  On the other hand, most parents also want their children to develop strong characters and values. I am not suggesting that it’s safe for toddlers to drive to the fair on their own. However, I appreciate that it can be easy to get into a pattern of “punishing kids for their own good” when we witness them doing things that can get them in trouble, which may not foster good decision making skills for the kids.

If I were to take the car away after an incident like this, what will I have accomplished? After all, if the child is willful and has determination, he will continue to take his own initiative to get what he wants, with or without my approval. Is my strategy simply to take things away whenever he does something irresponsible? How long will I keep doing this and how many things will I take away?

On the flip side, let’s say that the toddler does learn his lesson and stops taking his own initiatives. Is that what I want? Do I want my son growing up being fearful of taking his own actions because of the consequences he might face? Will he have learned how to make responsible decisions on his own?

One idea around this dilemma is to focus on connection and on opportunities for learning.

Connection and learning opportunities

It can be a difficult transition when allowing our children to take their own initiative, make choices, and, in some cases, fail in their endeavors.

Cultivate an environment, where the consequences of actions are conversations – about desired outcomes and different options for achieving those outcomes. 

Here are some ideas as alternatives to punishments:

  • Sincerely work toward and maintain a channel of communication. This means that people are speaking in order to understand one another.  An opposite to communication, is speaking in order to only inform, educate, convince, direct, or otherwise try to control each other.
  • Think clearly about the desired outcome. People are complex and few people only want one thing. Even when the topic at hand seem simple (eat your broccoli), the request may represent the parents’ desires to be heard and appreciated, their wish for children to make healthy decisions for themselves, and their expectation based on what the parents learned when they were kids themselves. It may be that the result a parent is aiming for (kids eating broccoli) no longer makes sense once he or she really think about the desired outcome (kids enjoy doing things that are healthy). It can be very impactful to help kids clarify and articulate what they really want, e.g. they want to eat candy but they also want parents to be happy with them. It’s also extremely helpful for parents to think through what we really want, e.g. for kids to make good decisions and for us to stay connected. 

This conversation may not be easy or simple to implement.

Having a conversation requires us as parents to think about what we want and maybe even be a little vulnerable. Exploring options for the kids to get what they want, may require us to be more open minded. At the same time, punishments are what most of us grew up with. For that reason, punishments can seem much faster and more straightforward. However, if our ultimate outcome is to raise adults capable of making responsible decisions AND who will continue to welcome connections with us, wouldn’t it behoove us to explore options that will give us everything we want?