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ToddlerCalm

“ToddlerCalm” is the founding principles we use to raise our son. They are from a book called “ToddlerCalm: A guide for calmer toddlers and happier parents” by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. It is available for Kindle and paperback. In the UK there’s also a ToddlerCalm 3-hour workshop. We have found what we learned invaluable in helping us understand what our son is going through growing up. (And thus how to deal with him.) This post is about what we learned from reading the book and attending the workshop.

My wife and I both read the book before we attended the workshop, which was led by clinical child psychologist Victoria Montgomery. For me the workshop was the more powerful of the two; however, I think it was useful to have read the book as it meant I had some questions prepared. The book (& course) does teach some tricks for “how to deal with tantrums” but more than anything it helped us understand what we can expect from him at his age, and thus we know not to expect too much. You’d be surprised how much more you can handle of particular behaviours if you know that it is perfectly normal (despite what others say!) :-)

My biggest issue was his night-time sleep—or rather lack of it. I had this expectation that our son should fall asleep at about 8pm, and I was getting stressed out by him failing to do so. We tried everything: carrying him around for hours in a dark room, singing to him or playing calming music. It didn’t help much, and we were getting exhausted. The course taught us that it is entirely normal for toddlers to sleep irregularly until about 4, and as soon as we learned that this was normal it became a lot easier to cope with. He’s not abnormal: he just doesn’t sleep as much as we would like. He doesn’t go to sleep much earlier now, but it doesn’t bother us much. Bedtimes are much less stressful.

One of the most important things I learned about was the Theory of Mind and its importance on social interaction. This is what allows us to see things from another person’s perspective. Until toddlers develop this they simply won’t understand the importance of sharing, for example, or why it’s bad to hit other kids. They don’t have the mental development for it. And the real clincher is how late Theory of Mind develops—much later than I would have thought. According to Victoria only 10% of kids develop it as early as 4 years, and 10% still haven’t developed it at age 6.

Another point Victoria was keen to stress was how kids’ limited brain development makes them prone to be overcome by emotion. Their animal brains take over and they are no longer able to think rationally, or producing or understanding speech. This is when they need your compassion and understanding the most. Just about the worst you can do in this situation is punishing your child, for example by calling a time-out and sending the kid to the naughty step. They simply won’t understand why you’re being so mean to them. Victoria underlined this with a thought experiment: try to imagine you’ve had a bad day and you’re crying & hugging your partner when she or he comes home. But instead of asking you what’s up and giving you their full attention, your partner drag you off to a corner and insists you sit there until you “have calmed down and stopped crying”. How would it make you feel? What do you think you would learn from the experience? If you don’t think you would learn anything positive from it, do you think a child, with their much more immature brain development, would?

Meal times also used to be stressful for us. Again, a lot of that stress came from wrong expectations: that he would eat a balanced meal every mealtime, and that he would eat at a time of our choosing. We knew that we didn’t want to force him to eat, so we had to learn to let him eat what he wants at meal times. Within limits, of course, as he chooses his food from a selection of foods we provide. One interesting thing we’ve found is that our son goes through phases exploring certain types of food. For example he refused anything green for a while, but at the moment broccoli is one of his favourites. He also will sometimes not eat things if they are mixed together, but will wolf them down separately. We also reasoned that we have evolved to graze—we doubt stone-age man had three square meals a day, with no snack in between—so we offer fruits and berries liberally. As long as he’s healthy & developing well we’re happy to let him have a bit of control over his food. In hindsight his diet is actually fairly varied; even if every meal is not.

As an aside, it could be that the whole concept of a “balanced diet” is flawed. If you look around a bit it turns out lots of tribal societies eat incredibly unvaried diets. Eskimos, for example, eat fish and seal fat almost exclusively: no vegetables at all. (Iceberg lettuce is not named after its growing conditions, after all.) The Maasai diet is also predominantly meat.

Note: There is also a book BabyCalm: A Guide for Calmer Babies and Happier Parents and accompanying BabyCalm website for parents of children that haven’t reached toddler-hood yet. I haven’t read that, but based on my experience with ToddlerCalm I will definitively snap it up once we have a baby in the house again.