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How to Keep a Home with Young Children
Running Smoothly

These tips are adapted from my article published in the magazine Pre-K Today. Originally intended for teachers who wish to keep their classrooms running smoothly, these tips are readily applicable, with modifications, to a home environment. I have adapted some of them for you to use at home. You can refer to them in dealing with such issues as play dates, rivalry, and sharing.

1. Make a short list of rules to post in your home. (I am including a sample list of classroom rules, which you can adapt or expand for the behaviors that you want to change at home.)

Focus your list of rules on three or four behaviors that children need adult help to correct. You should include only very important rules that children can and must understand and follow. If you can add appropriate clip art or drawings to your rule chart to remind the child of the rules, please do so. State the rules affirmatively so children know what to do rather than what not to do. Example: “Hands are for helping” rather than “No hitting.” Hang the chart at toddler’s eye level and go over each rule with your child.

Over the next few days, refer to the chart often. When a child is exhibiting an unacceptable behavior, show him or her the chart. Although children can’t read the words, they will begin to understand the illustrations, and will soon point out their transgressions themselves. A list of rules makes discipline neutral and impersonal. The rules apply impartially to everyone in the family; it is not a matter of parent vs. child. Clear rules are far more age-appropriate than moralizing or lectures.

2. Modify inappropriate behaviors.

If your child has a behavior pattern that is a constant source of stress, such as hitting a parent or biting friends, you need to stick to the following plan. Review the rule chart frequently, especially prior to play dates. If the child misbehaves, say, for instance, “Oh, you forgot the rule. Come and look at the list. ‘Biting is for food.’ If you use your mouth to bite your friend, s/he will have to go home.” You will have to enforce this rule consistently if you want your child to have friends and be accepted socially. If your child bites again, you must follow through, and the friend must go home. (Of course, you will prepare the parent and caregiver. Explain that you are working on correcting your child’s behavior, and that you may therefore need to shorten the play date.) Your child will begin to associate the unacceptable behavior with the logical consequence of not being able to play. If your child hits or bites you, remind her/him of the rule, then withhold a favorite toy or activity for a day, the logical consequence of misbehavior. There is no need to get angry or make your child feel “bad.” Explain that when you were a child, you sometimes forgot the rules, too, and that it is a grownup’s job to help children to learn them. Reassure your child that you will always love her/him.

We usually recommend child-rearing books that deal with the problems that parents face with humor, and the reassurance that “This too shall pass,” books such as How to Survive Parenthood by Eda LeShan or Loving without Spoiling by Nancy Samalin. To modify unsuitable behavior we suggest the following book, which will help you be appropriately firm with your child, A New Approach to Discipline: Logical Consequences by Rudolf Dreikus and Loren Grey.

3. Give toddlers words and reassurance to help them feel in control.

Competition for special playthings is a frequent cause of conflict for toddlers, because they are just not developmentally ready to share. It is best to avoid using the word “share” with them. Even for adults sharing in often impractical. We don’t share a computer keyboard, one person taking the letters on the right, the other on the left. To work effectively and efficiently, we have to compete our task, then give someone else a turn. Likewise, children need an uninterrupted opportunity to play with and explore the possibilities of a toy. If they feel that they will be interrupted, they cannot enjoy the experience fully. They may become aggressive in the defense of, or the attempt to get a toy. Introduce certain phrases to help them through this normal phase in their development. “This is my work” is a sentence a child can employ when another child interferes with her/his play. Whenever the first child uses those words, it is your cue to offer the second child an alternative activity. When the first child relinquishes the contested toy, tell the toddler proudly, “Now this is your work”. To further reinforce the concept use children’s names “This is Chloe’s work &… here is Dylan’s work”.

Your reassuring tone and actions help young children understand that toys will not be taken away from them prematurely; it also lets everyone know that they will get an opportunity to use a toy. Having appropriate words removes a major source of anxiety that causes tension in group situations.

4. Help make waiting easier.

It’s only natural for young children to have trouble waiting for a turn. When waiting can’t be avoided, here are a few strategies to make it easier. Verbalize the situation: “I know it’s very hard to wait to paint at the easel. Your turn is coming soon. Le’s sing a song while we are waiting.” Read a book, count, etc. are enjoyable and productive ways to make time pass. Use a kitchen timer to determine length of each child’s turn. This will give children something to watch and listen for. (Often, the playing child will relinquish his toy to watch the timer!) Set a time limit: Count slowly to twenty to get a child to give up at toy such as a riding toy that s/he has had sufficient time to enjoy. Usually the child gives up the toy long before you reach the count of twenty.

5. Define children’s individual work areas.

To help children learn to respect individual workspaces and to create separate spaces for children who wish to work alone, try using large rectangular floor mats such as carpet samples (often free at carpet stores) or vinyl place mats. This space is clearly defined and protected. Explain that children have the option of inviting another child to play on their mat, but that they may keep it entirely to themselves. (Note: If you place a metal binder ring through the corner of each mat and hang them on low hooks, children can take them down and put them back easily.)

6. Select suitable activities for sharing.

Certain activities are appropriate to introduce the children to sharing. Cooking or baking is a good place to start. Divide the ingredients so that each child gets to add salt, flower, water, and oil, and allow each to stir.

7. Involve children in snack and meal preparation and clean-up.

Toddlers often become bored and impatient when asked to wait for a meal or snack. Include them in the following activities for calmer mealtimes: washing tables with soapy sponges and drying them with paper towels; buttering bread or crackers with softened butter and plastic knives; collecting paper towels using a plastic pail or small wastebaskets.

8. Use songs to preserve the calm.

Transition times can be especially unnerving for toddlers. Some children are so absorbed in their work that they become upset when they are unable to continue, others become confused about where they should be or what they should be doing. Familiar songs help children feel secure and can help to turn transitions into pleasant, gradual experiences. Try singing this song to the tune of “Frere Jacques”

Clean-up time!

Put the toys away,
Put the toys away.
Everybody clean up.
Everybody clean up.
Clean-up time!

Clean-up time!