Understanding Your Toddler- Why She Does the Things She Does

March 20, 2012 · 20 comments

in Daily Life, Development, Discipline, Toddlers


Alice Callahan, of Science of Mom, shared my post What To Say Instead Of No, on her facebook page last week, which led her to observe she often says “no” to her daughter, not in an angry way, but in a sad way. This led to a conversation that gave us a fascinating peek into BabyC’s mind and learning process as she struggles with self mastery. Alice also gained insights into how she might best support BabyC in attaining self discipline and co-operation.

Alice: I was watching my use of “no” yesterday and realized that I use it often in a sad way, not an angry way. I use a genuinely gentle but sad tone of voice when BabyC (16 months old), throws her food on the floor: “Oh, no, BabyC, now there is a mess on the floor. You can tell me “all done” when you feel done with lunch.” Lisa, do you think that is any different? I feel like it is useful for me to use “no” as a simple word that instantly conveys that her behavior is inappropriate, followed by the WHY and the alternative.


Dinner Uncertainty


  First: Define And Clarify Your Goals.

Lisa: Alice, I love how thoughtful you are about your parenting! I want to reassure you that it’s not the end of the world if you sometimes use the word “no” when talking with BabyC, but I’d encourage you to try to maintain a neutral tone, as opposed to using a sad tone, because you want to avoid pleading with her to co-operate. You also want to avoid shaming BabyC, making her feel guilty, or acting solely to please you. If you think about discipline as a process of teaching or guiding, and BabyC learning, to make good choices for herself (not dependent on a reward, or pleasing you, or an adult being present to direct her), and you think of your overall goals, it will help you to stay calm and more emotionally neutral.

In the short term, you want BabyC to refrain from throwing her food on the floor, and to learn to tell you when she’s all done so you can simply remove the food instead of having to clean up a big mess. Bigger picture: You want BabyC to learn proper table etiquette, self control, and good communication skills!

 Second: Try To Understand Your Child’s Point of View. Ask: Is this behavior developmentally appropriate? What need is my child trying to meet or what is she trying to communicate? What information does my child need in order to better co-operate? What support does she need?

But here’s the thing: BabyC doesn’t yet know or understand that she can/should tell you she’s all done, so she indicates it by throwing her food. Or maybe she understands she can/should tell you she’s done, but for some reason she still throws her food. Maybe she’s doing physics experiments, or it’s just fun, or your reaction is interesting to her, or maybe she just wants to see if your response will always be the same.

It often takes many repetitions for babies and young toddlers to understand what we’re asking of them, and then it takes them time to gain the self control and desire necessary to internalize the requested/accepted behavior, and act on it without being reminded or supported.

 Third: Remain Calm. Communicate Directly and Clearly.

By staying calm and emotionally neutral, and simply stating, “Oh, you’re throwing your food, that tells me you’re done, so I’m going to put it away now,” you aren’t giving any emotional charge to the issue. You’re giving BabyC information about how her actions impact you, about the expectations you have, and about what she can do instead of throwing her food.

“BabyC, are you all done? When you throw your food, I think it means you are done. If you throw more peas, I’ll put the food away and lunch will be over. If you still want to eat, please keep the food on the table. If you’re all done, you can hand me your bowl and I’ll help you wash your hands.”

Fourth: Use the Environment to Support Learning and to Minimize Frustration (for Both of you!).  Include Your Child in the Process.

BabyC might need to test to see if you mean what you say. I usually give one chance, and then follow through with what I said I’d do. You can make this whole process easier on yourself by using your environment to help encourage the behavior you want to see, and in this way further involve BabyC in her own learning.

By this I mean give BabyC only little bits of food at a time, and before serving more, ask her if she’d like more. Therefore, she has less food to throw and there is less for you to clean up, but even more importantly, you are modeling the behavior and communication you want her to learn, and including her in the process of her own learning.

  Fifth: Always Assume the Best. Trust Your Child is Doing Her  Best and Will “Get It” in Time.

Trust that BabyC will “get it,” in time. Trust that she is doing the best she can, and she is learning every minute. This is what works so well in the parenting classes I teach, and in group childcare settings. (Did you see Janet Lansbury’s video, Baby Table Manners?) Parents are often amazed at how well their children”behave” and cooperate in these settings. I think it’s because the environment is set up to support children, but also because the communication is so clear and respectful.

It works for parents at home too, but sometimes not quite as smoothly- but this is to be expected, because your baby (ideally) has the closest relationship with you, and so will save her “worst” behavior for you too! It’s an expression of her great trust in you, so it’s a good thing! I used your example of throwing food to describe a process that can be applied to any behavior to help guide a toddler to develop internal control and discipline. (The 7 guidelines are listed throughout this post.) What do you think?

 Sixth: Observe. Look For Clues to Determine if You’re on The Right Track.

Alice: Thank you so much for your thoughts on this! The food-dropping thing has been a chronic struggle in our house for several months. It isn’t a huge deal, because I basically do what you suggest: give one warning, and then take the food away if she does it again (as she almost always does). What worries me is that probably 2 out of 3 meals end this way, so I know it is one way that BabyC communicates that she is done with her meal. The other 1/3 of the time, BabyC signs or says “all done” (or both) or hands me her bowl and utensil to indicate that she’s done.

Right before she drops food on the floor, she will often pause and look at me and then shake her head – the same reaction that I give her when she actually drops it. All of this tells me that she knows other ways to communicate that she is done (and I always thank her for telling me in the appropriate ways), but she seems to still be testing my reaction to food dropping. I’m sure it IS interesting to her! But your point about removing the emotion from my response is a great one. That might just make my response less interesting to test. The other thing I know I can do is be more present with her during mealtime. I often finish eating before she does, and I usually pull her high chair around by the sink while I do the dishes. Although I try to stay attentive to her, I’m sure I’m a bit distracted, and I might be missing some of her early signals to me that she’s done eating, so she resorts to food-dropping, which always gets my attention. I’m going to work on this – I’ll let you know how it goes! Thanks again for your insights, Lisa. Your writing and the RIE approach have been so helpful to me.

Seventh: Celebrate Understanding and Signs of Growth!

Me: Oh Alice, This is wonderful insight! You just gave me a missing clue and answered your own question! Your focused attention makes ALL the difference, AND, it is clear BabyC is understanding and working on self control! The pause and head shake tells us this! She understands what the expectation is, she’s thinking about it, and shaking her head is what I call “self talk”. “I’m done and I want to throw my food, but I know this isn’t the best way to tell Mama.” She’s beginning to internalize the expectation, but doesn’t always have the ability (self control) to stop herself (YET).

Remember: Developing Inner Discipline and the Ability to Cooperate and Make Good Choices Takes Time and Lots of Practice.

When I taught RIE Parent/Infant Guidance classes in Silver Lake, there was a barrier of low wooden blocks separating the play area from the entrance area (which was not childproofed). As children became mobile young toddlers, many of them would challenge this boundary by trying to climb over the blocks into the living room. Sometimes, they’d be shaking their heads, or even be saying, “Not go there.” They were struggling to internalize the limit. I’d stay close, and let them push the limit to the very edge. Sometimes, just my quiet presence and focused attention was all the support they needed to refrain from venturing over the edge.

Could they climb up and sit on the blocks? Sure. Fine with me. But as soon as they started to cross to the other side into the entrance area, I’d say, “I don’t want you to climb over the blocks to the other side. If you want to go over there, Mama has to be with you.”

Some children needed to spend an entire class doing this again and again, and some needed to repeat this over many weeks before being able to internalize the boundary- but they all got it.We used the blocks to demonstrate the process of setting boundaries with young toddlers. It was (and still is) my favorite part of working with young toddlers. I love to see how they are actually working on internalizing the concepts. It’s amazing to see how they are all able to accept the boundary too, without having to be reminded again and again, once they go through this process.

It just takes the time it takes, and to us as adults, it can seem to take a very long time! I also understand that it’s harder at home, because I take care of children for eight to ten hours every day, and I go home exhausted some days! In fact, after an hour of teaching a parenting class I can be exhausted, if I’m focusing very intently and working with children around boundaries or conflict!

Alice: Lisa, this is fascinating. Thinking about our food dropping issue this way just makes me appreciate BabyC’s efforts and learning process and helps me to have patience with her.

Has this exchange been helpful to you in thinking about how to understand and work through a discipline dilemma with your own toddler?



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Rebekah March 21, 2012

I’m from Melbourne, Australia, attempting to follow the RIE approach in parenting my 18 month old. I always find your thoughts helpful Lisa, but this is particularly pertinent to me as my daughter is currently revelling in the discovery of her free will. I realised I was using No a lot when I read this, and am grateful, having read this, for the tools to do it differently. Thank you so much.

Lisa March 21, 2012

Dear Rebekah,

Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so very happy to know that these posts are helpful to you- it’s why I write! I especially appreciated receiving your note today, as another reader not only didn’t agree with my suggestions, (which is fine- different strokes and all) but then went on to suggest that I was being irresponsible by publishing my thoughts. It makes a big difference to me to hear from readers who feel they are benefiting from reading.

Gina Osher March 21, 2012

This is so fabulous, Lisa! I need to sit and digest this a bit, but what came to me immediately is how hard much of this is for a person like me who has difficulty remaining slow, patient and mindful. When we are so busy multi tasking and “getting things done” it is so easy to miss or misread our children’s messages. It is really amazing how much easier parenting becomes when you take the time to connect and to remember that it’s not just about teaching your children to understand you, it’s just as much about learning to understand your child.
Beautiful post…as always. 🙂

Lilly March 26, 2012

I also have issues with remaining slow and mindful, and I’ve also noticed I’m very reactive emotionally. It seems to me that I’m benefitting from RIE too. I did not learn much emotional management.

Lisa March 26, 2012


Many of us didn’t learn much about emotional management when we were growing up. The wonderful and exciting news is that it is never too late to learn, and caring for or parenting young children gives us many opportunities to practice. Each time you are able to slow down a bit, or remain calm in the face of a challenging situation, you are strengthening your ability to do so the next time, and you are modeling for your children how to manage strong emotions in a healthy way too. I’m so glad that some of the principles I talk about are benefiting you!

dorit March 21, 2012

This is extremely helpful and great ideas. I’m going to shamelessly borrow, under the famous saying that “imitation is the best form of flattery”.
I often say “no” (that’s not when I’m upset) because he needs to learn what to do, he does not yet know it. It does not seem to me, in those situation, to be an insult, or a criticism, but a direction: like Alice, I say “no” with the explanation. Then if Daniel does what I asked, I usually give positive feedback: Good job, mommy said “no” and Daniel listened. Ideally, I do it even if it’s the 15th time I said the no – unless it’s a boundary testing, and then – like your suggestion above – I try for direct consequences: take away the toy, etc’.
But I do find myself really really angry sometimes, and my experience is that losing my temper is a lot less about what specifically he does and a lot more about how tired I am. Ideas for self control when tired? How not to take it on your boundary-testing toddler?

Lisa March 21, 2012


Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you find the ideas helpful, so feel free to borrow away! Just a few thoughts. You say that you say no because your son needs to learn what to do, but how does saying no help him to understand what you do want him to do? No says what not to do, but doesn’t give guidance as to what to do instead. And no is an overused, tired old word that toddlers tend to tune out after awhile.

I try not to say “Good job” when a child listens or co-operates. Instead, I like to say “Thank you for ___________ (fill in the blank).” This specific feedback positively reinforces the behavior I want to encourage.

Toddlers are often apt to test boundaries- it is their job, and our job as adults is to calmly and patiently hold firm. That’s one clue to staying calm even as your son tests boundaries- to realize that his behavior is not personal, he’s just doing his job as a toddler. It makes sense to remove toys if your child is throwing them repeatedly, for instance, but not to let the boundary testing go on for so long that you find yourself growing impatient. In the parenting classes I teach, we let the children know that if they throw a toy outside the playroom, it will stay there, and not come back until the next class. When you calmly, kindly, firmly, and consistently set limits long before your patience wears thin, your son quickly learns what the limits are, and can make good choices within the parameters you have set. (He also learns to trust you to do what you say you will!)

It makes sense that you sometimes find yourself getting tired and impatient, as caring for a toddler day in and day out can be exhausting. The best way to avoid exhaustion and impatience is to know your own limits, to practice good self care, to ask for help when you need it, and once again, to use your environment to support you in your parenting. For instance, creating a safe play area for your son creates a yes environment, and creating consistent daily routines allows your son to know what to expect and to cooperate more easily. I’ve written several posts going into much more detail on this aspect of living with and nurturing a toddler. If you’d like to learn more, and if you haven’t read 1,2,3 The Toddler Years, A Practical Guide For Parents & Caregivers, I highly recommend it as a great resource!

Kimberley March 25, 2012

I love reading articles that encourage us to think like our children. Thank you for the tips and insight, beautifully written article.

Heather March 26, 2012

Thanks for this – I found it helpful for my current challenge with trying to encourage my 18mo to eat with his fingers. I had a success this morning when he actually fed himself some small pieces of toast! I will be printing out these steps for myself and see if it helps for my next attempt – I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sarah April 20, 2016

Any tips for using these techniques in my situation where my attention is constantly split and spread all too thinly between my 19 month old twins and almost 4 year old? There is often no time at all between one “problem” behaviour and the next (as in just enough time for me to open my mouth to start to say ” I think you’re finished when you throw your food…” and one of the others throws their food or climbs on the table or or or…). I spend a lot of time saying “it’s hard to wait isn’t it” as, for example I am wiping one child’s hands and one or both of the others are doing something messy and/or destructive. I seem to spend all my time running round putting out fires rather than doing any positive parenting. How do you create the space to follow through with each child?

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