When it comes to power struggles, wouldn't you rather not go there? Sure, setting limits, making nonnegotiable rules, and enforcing them consistently are tried-and-true strategies that often work with toddlers. But when you're staring down a defiant 2-year-old who refuses to get dressed, have a bath, or go to bed, sometimes you just don't have the energy. Instead of caving in or screaming, try changing the mood by turning frustration into fun. Here are three ways to use humor to disarm if you're in a difficult situation. They'll let everyone win-and may make you smile.
For example: Amy Hunter, of Mobile, Alabama, and mother to Henry and Lukas, both 2, says there is one thing that amuses the twins without fail: objects other than a hat placed on the head. "They were screaming because they didn't want to be in their car seats. I decided to ignore them and calmly handed them each a book to read, put in a Mozart CD, and drove off. Soon there was silence, followed by giggles. I congratulated myself on my fine parenting, but when I peeked back, Luke had put the book on his head. Now, when we have meltdowns at dinner, the whole family will eat with napkins on our heads." Hunter adds that she will crawl very slowly up the stairs, as if she's a baby, to get the boys to follow her to the bath.
My friend Carol O'Reilly says she can only get her daughter Noula, 3, to rinse her hair in the bathtub by pretending the cup of water is coffee. "Noula will take the cup and say 'Here's your coffee, Mom,' and I spill it over her head and she laughs hysterically," O'Reilly says.
Telling your child to do the opposite of what you want her to do works because toddlers are contrary by nature and love to assert their independence.
For example: When my 3-year-old daughter refuses to eat dinner, I'm often at the losing end of the struggle. But when I stop insisting she eat, see what happens:
"Chloe, eat your supper."
"I don't like it!"
"You love macaroni and cheese."
"No, I don't!"
"Okay, good. I'm going to go check on your brother, and I'll be right back, so don't touch that food because I'm going to gobble it all up."
I saunter back into the kitchen a few minutes later. Chloe can barely contain herself. "Daddy, all gone!" she says, showing me the empty bowl.
"What?!" I exclaim in mock horror. "I was going to eat that!"
She laughs, Daddy laughs, and dinner is over.
Of course, this strategy has a limited life span. My 5-going-on-16-year-old daughter rolls her eyes when I try this. "Go ahead, Dad. It's all yours."
This one is similar to the shock-them-with-silliness strategy above. When you're locked in an argument, insert a different name-one they know is wrong-into the conversation.
For example: When Scott Alexander's oldest child refused to stop playing to go pick up her brother from preschool, he said, "Come on, we have to go get Elmo!" The craziness of that statement ("Daddy, Elmo's not at Tommy's school!") distracted her from what she had been doing, allowing Alexander to get her out the door without a fight. (Of course, if your child is old enough to appreciate Elmo but not old enough to realize he can't possibly be waiting at the school, you're asking for trouble, but you'll at least get your child in the car.)I use this trick when my kids are insisting that only Mommy can pour their milk or read a story. "But I am Mommy!" I insist in a high-pitched voice. This usually provokes screams of laughter, which moves things along somewhat. Or, when my daughter is whining, I'll say, "Now, baby Charles, I said no whining." "I'm not Charles, I'm Chloe!" "Zoe? Who's Zoe?" "I'm Chloe!" By then, she's forgotten what she was whining about.
Sometimes you can't jolly your kids out of a power struggle-instead, you've got to change your own attitude. When my girls push my buttons, especially at the end of the day, I sometimes lose my temper, which never accomplishes much. Dealing with these difficult moments is an ongoing progress, but I'm trying. For example, it's hard to keep my cool when Chloe insists that, after brushing her teeth, she must drink and slowly spit into the sink at least two full glasses of water before her palate is sufficiently cleansed. Writing about it makes me laugh, but sadly, I've never done so while it's happening. Instead of getting annoyed, I should be proud of the creativity of her stalling technique. Wish me luck tonight!
Sing silly songs. I find that simply changing one word delights my kids to no end. I'll launch into a rousing rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Car." Anna and Chloe immediately start protesting. "Daddy, it's twinkle, twinkle, little star." So I apologize and begin again with "Twinkle, twinkle, little refrigerator." Before you know it, the kids want to try.
Make bath and bedtime fun. I will hang my arm over the edge of the tub and pretend to be distracted; the girls then pour water on my hand and "surprise me." "Heyyyy! My hand is all wet!" Lately they've been pretending that the hair on my arm is a beauty parlor client-shampoo, conditioner, the works.
After my girls, who insist on sharing a bed, are tucked in, they like me to snuggle with them. I will "fall asleep" and let my hand gently fall over one of their heads. "Daddy, wake up!" "What's wrong?" "Your hand is on my head!" Soon enough, this leads to exaggerated snores and two hands lying on my head. Guaranteed to rob your children of ten minutes of rest.
Play freeze tag. When the child says, "freeze," you must do so. It helps to be an inch away from tickling them and to mumble through frozen lips that they must unfreeze or they'll be in big trouble. When they unfreeze you, say, "Young lady, don't you dare freeze me again because I..."
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of American Baby magazine.