Sunday, June 14, 2009

Young Children Will Do What Is Expected of Them

Sounds simple enough, but many new parents don’t catch onto this little gem early enough. Have you ever noticed how even very young children behave differently when they are with Mom as opposed to Dad; and even different still when they are at Grandma’s house?

I myself didn’t learn this fully as a parent until I began working in childcare centers. Teachers often relied on a few simple rules that they repeated often:

  • we use inside voices

  • we wash our hands before we eat

  • we do not run indoors

  • we take a nap/rest after lunch

A little bell went off in my head. That’s all it takes? I set the rules and they follow?
It is the simple truth. Parents set the rules and children will follow.

Lots of loving new parents want to avoid causing their child any discomfort or sadness, yet there are certain things that a child just can’t do and parents are often the ones that stop them from doing it. A child can’t touch a hot stove. It’s not safe. A child doesn’t like being removed from an interesting object or being told no, but parents feel they are justified in making their child unhappy for that instant to protect them from harm. The same goes for touching electrical outlets or playing inside the toilet bowl. It is not safe.

When my own daughter was small and would cry in these types of situations, I had a little mantra I had to repeat to myself so I wouldn’t feel awful for making her upset. I would just say out loud for her (but mostly my) benefit, “It’s a mommy’s job to keep you safe.” Years later when she didn't want to do her chores at age 11, the mantra evolved into “It’s my job to help you grow to be a responsible, capable adult.” For some reason, I needed to affirm that those difficult moments were part of my important job as her parent.

A more current example comes from my work as a nanny. Little M has reached the stage where he likes to roll over and crawl away during diaper changes. Mom tries to follow him and haphazardly fasten his diaper from behind. Daddy thinks it works best when he keeps M distracted by jumping up and down and making silly faces. (Note: Daddy doesn’t change many diapers). I know this because both parents have given me their tips on keeping M happy at diaper time.

While I certainly understand the value of a little song or funny game now and then to occupy a little one, it is not always possible at every diaper change over a period of 2 years or more. Diapering is a basic fact of life for infants and caregivers. It is not always exciting, but it has to be done.

Little M is a terribly smart and observant boy. When I see him on Mondays, our first diaper change always goes well because I’m new and fresh to his eyes. By the second change, he’s ready to do the quick escape. I always gently put him back in his place and say, “ we can’t roll around when changing diapers,” and I shake my head from side to side. He stops and studies my face for a few seconds and realizes I’m being serious. Then he gives me a little crooked smile to let me know that he gets it – it’s my rule. Then, I usually hand him a toy or break into a chorus of Row Row Row Your Boat.

Children learn very quickly that the rules change from person to person, and M is no different. With Mommy, I can roll all I want and she’ll apologize for having to make me uncomfortable the whole time. With Daddy, if I roll away he’ll play games with me. With Nanny Dee I can’t roll away, but we still get to sing or play.

I don’t claim to have all the answers. Let’s just say that after years of working with infants and toddlers, I’ve seen very similar patterns and behaviors being reinforced unwittingly. As the old saying goes, if I knew then what I know now, I would be a much less frazzled parent. If just one new parent or parent- to-be hears a little bell going off in their head right now, I’ve earned some karma points.
Photo Credit: Sam Hatch (Baby Maximus 2)
Young Children Will Do What Is Expected of ThemSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend


  1. Hi, I'm visiting from MBC. Great blog.

  2. "parents want to avoid causing their child any discomfort or sadness"

    As I read this line I was thinking that this is the very reason my 4 year old doesn't take me as serious as she takes daddy. She already knows, I don't want to see her upset.

    But at the same time, she would not dare touch the stove or play on the stairs.

    Very good post! I've never thought about it before, but it really is that simple.

  3. Thanks Juanita for the one Karma point! :D

  4. Great post; I am following you now... will look forward to reading more of your insights!! xx

  5. Hi Nanny Dee! You asked for permission to use my pinwheel post, and now you have it. I would love for you to post it. Funny that I found your blog. My #1 reason for taking a blog break is my family. My kids are so fun and dying to spend all day doing projects and playing their little hearts out with me. I am certain your blog will be new favorite for us!!!! I love it!