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Toddler Tips

Safety First

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 20 No. 2, March-April 2003, p. 67

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


I do not intend to ever force my child into doing anything against his will. I prefer to use other ways to help him learn what he should and should not do. However, my son is now 18 months old and I have recently found myself in situations where I had to force him to obey. Once I was trying to leave the grocery store and he refused to be buckled into his car seat. He was screaming, yet I had to force him into the car so that I could drive home before the frozen food thawed. Other times, he refuses to hold hands when we are out for a walk and I fear that he will run into the street. I don't want to turn this into a battle of wills, yet there are times when he needs to listen to me for his own safety. What do parents of young toddlers do in situations where it's necessary for the child to obey, and obey quickly?


My husband and I have three active sons ages two, four, and eight. Over the years there have been many opportunities for me to grow as a parent. I do try to see both sides of a situation and often I can negotiate through a sticky situation with a smile on my face. There are exceptions though, and those often arise in the case of safety. I pick my battles carefully, but this is one situation in which I insist upon being the authority. An 18-month-old just doesn't understand the complexity of why he must ride in his car seat. I have many times (with a cheerful voice) responded by saying "buckle up for safety" as I am clipping the lock and giving him a kiss. Even with a stiff bodied-screaming toddler, I don't get angry or scolding, but I clearly will not compromise on safety. Usually after we start driving, my child calms down.

With handholding, I usually announce, "Let's hook together" and I hold hands with my three children to cross the parking lot. Sometimes my youngest likes to be "hooked" to his big brothers. Other times he wants to explore on his own. In that case, I just pick him up and remind him that we need to "hook together for safety."

Jennifer DeRosa
Silvis IL USA


I remember the car seat battles when my oldest son was a toddler. Not only did he scream, he'd arch his back and kick his legs in an all-out tantrum. Staying calm was difficult but necessary because fighting him didn't help. I read all the articles I could and decided that, just like a crying infant, I had to figure out why he was so upset.

It was a power issue for him. He was trying to assert his independence, so I let him climb into the car seat by himself. It takes a few seconds longer, but it's worth it to see his satisfaction. If that didn't work, we'd make it a game. I'd put him in upside down and he'd giggle and tell me how to put him in the right way. I also make sure that I set a good example. If he has to buckle up, so do I. He's almost four now and he's the "seat belt patrol." He's even tried to explain the reason for a car seat to his baby brother, who has started fighting his car seat at 11 months.

Toddlers can understand simple explanations. If I have to explain it every day for a week, knowing that his Mommy loves him and wants to keep him safe is reason enough for him to get in the seat or hold my hand near the street. Now, he even holds my hand to keep me safe or to keep me from getting lost. Children like to have some control. My son would rather hold my hand than ride in the stroller. I give two or three safe, acceptable choices. "Would you rather hold my hand or my belt loop (or purse strap or pant leg)?" That way he can make the decisions.
When necessary, I take control with what I refer to as my "mother voice." If I need to yell a firm "stop" near a busy street, I always offer an explanation soon after. In less immediate situations, we count 1-2-3. He gets a warning and when I reach three, he needs to be listening to me. That's when I offer the explanation or a choice. My son is now quite responsible in situations such as these. He understands the decisions that he has to make and why we expect and need him to do things that keep him safe.

Caeri Chiaro
Chatham IL USA


Boy, does your situation sound familiar! As a mother with five boys, I can certainly relate. Try to alleviate the possibility of your son getting over-stimulated. If too much is crammed in at once, your son may be getting hungry, angry at too much activity away from home, or just tired of being out and about.

Try to plan trips around those times where your son may be not at his best (i.e., not going over the lunch or dinner hour, or naptime). Try to go when you know he will be at his best.

Make issues of safety the ones that count. Save those battles of wills for the times that your son does get away from you to yell "freeze." He will stop at that voice that he doesn't hear often.

There may be times that you just have to get home and he will not be happy. This did happen to me, and I tried to get my son to calm down and waited as long as I could. I just realized that we needed to get home, and my son would just have to scream. So I put him into his car seat (fighting all the way), watched him closely, and just drove home. It was the best I could do at the moment.

Just try to remember to pick your battles, look at the great things your son does, and realize that there may be times that you just have to do what you need to do for safety reasons. Your son will learn that you have his best interest at heart, even though he may not understand that right away. Good luck!

Roberta Barreda
Lincoln NE USA


I appreciate your desire to not force your will on your child, but in the long run, I think you'll find that, at times, imposing your will is necessary for the healthy growth of that child. The key is to get your child prepared to obey whenever you want them to. I feel this is your social and parental obligation to your child. My wife, Carolyn, and I are in the process of raising eight children, ranging in age from 22 to one-year-old. Each of them has a different personality, some strong willed and others more compliant. Your toddler was not born with more wisdom and experience than you currently possess. His will should not be the primary determinant in decision making. It is true that the spirit of a child shouldn't be broken, that their uniqueness should be celebrated and encouraged. But that doesn't mean they live in a world without boundaries. Children need boundaries, lovingly set and consistently enforced by parents.

Steve Branch
Roscoe IL USA


Using force to get children to obey is a tough topic. I'm sure most of us can remember an incident in our childhood where force was used inappropriately.

Parents sometimes force their children to do things when it isn't necessary. But as you have experienced, there are times when there is no choice. Young children don't see the whole picture. They also, naturally, begin to defy their parents as a way to learn about their individual self and where their limits are. This is healthy and nothing to be alarmed about.

As a parent of a child with developmental disabilities who does not have the capacity to be reasoned with, I have wrestled with the issue of using force quite a bit. The book, The Explosive Child, by Ross W. Greene, PhD, has helped me tremendously. While the book is written for parents of older children with behavioral issues, his concept of the basket system makes sense for parenting all children.

You have three baskets for all situations that arise. In the first basket, you place situations that you are unwilling to compromise with. This would include all safety and health issues. Riding in the car seat and holding your hand near traffic would fit this basket. The child does not comprehend the safety issues involved and it is your job as parent to keep him safe. These are times when force may be needed.

The second basket is for situations where you would like the child to comply, but you are unwilling to endure tantrums and use force for them. Different methods of persuasion would be used for things in this basket.

The third basket is for small annoyance situations that aren't worth much effort on your part. By placing them in the third basket, you're telling yourself that this isn't worth getting upset over. By realizing in advance that there are situations when compliance is necessary, and what types of situations those are, you'll be able to remain calm and avoid becoming emotionally charged by the situation. By remaining calm, you'll enable your child to return to his happy self more easily. Your child is fortunate to have a mother dedicated to raising him in a gentle way.

Caroline Chan
Louisville KY USA


Once children are both curious and mobile, it's impossible to avoid frayed nerves for both mother and child in some situations. My suggestion is to manage the situation better than the child does. Shopping situations are very stimulating to children. Stores are carefully set up to stimulate adults to buy more than they intended. Imagine how much more intense the merchandising stimulation is to a child who wants to explore everything around him. Mothers can avoid putting themselves in a squeeze by shopping alone when possible, perhaps making a special trip to stock up on frozen foods and staples. Children can go along for shorter trips. It can be helpful to patronize a store that offers a well-supervised child care area when a child is ready to enjoy playing in such an environment. Also, try to shop with children when stores are less crowded, typically mid-morning on a weekday. If the weather is blistering hot or a snowstorm is moving in, it is better to make do with whatever is in the pantry than to take a toddler to the store.

If a toddler doesn't want to hold his mother's hand during walks, it may be time to try another outdoor activity. Perhaps some energy could be burned off at a nearby playground or park. Then it may be possible to enjoy a walk together. If not, mother may have to get her exercise by climbing on the play equipment with her child!

Linda Worden
Boise ID USA


We also have a very determined little toddler with a mind of his own (thank goodness!). This, however, can also pose certain challenges. He's usually okay with things, as long as it's his idea.

When it comes to safety situations, he doesn't get much of a choice. He knows that in situations where safety is an issue, if he doesn't want to hold my hand while we cross the street, for example, I scoop him up and carry him across the street (usually while he's kicking and screaming!). My husband often tells our children that it is a parent's job to make sure that his child is "safe, then happy." He stresses to them that we want them to be happy little boys, but that safety always comes first. It hasn't taken our little one long to realize that we don't budge on these issues. Now, he usually cooperates quite happily.

If his safety is not at stake, then we always try to give him a choice. For instance, "Would you like to look at a book or play with your musical instruments while you are in the car seat?" If this doesn't seem to be working, then we ask him "Can you sit down in your car seat by yourself, or does mommy need to help you?" If he is still not cooperating, then we (as calmly as possible) place him in his car seat and buckle him in.

I think that what has helped the most is that whenever he is cooperating and making wise choices, we give him lots of positive feedback. I also try to keep in mind that his strong-willed determination is a very good thing that will serve him well later in life. My husband and I just try our best to help him learn to use that determination in positive, productive ways.

Lara Statile
Raleigh NC USA



When my son was 18 months old, I also found myself in these same situations and uncertain about how to manage them without being overly forceful. The few times he refused to be buckled into his car seat (and it was almost physically impossible for me to force him because of his strength!), I took a deep breath and reminded myself that there was a reason for his behavior, even if I didn't know what it was. I assumed he was either overly tired or not feeling well. However, the more I tried to "talk" him into a situation, the more resistant he became. So I tried hugging him and just holding him with some reassuring talk that he could understand. When he let go, he was much more amenable to being buckled in, although he was still somewhat upset. Now, at 26 months old, he is more capable of understanding the "rules" for our car.

I don't like to use force, either, but when there are serious safety issues, it is the only alternative. In such cases as carseats, roads, and parking lots, we have always used the words "dangerous" and "non-negotiable" in regards to holding hands or being carried. Now, when he hears those words, he knows to relinquish his well-being to one of us.

Lora Mae Murrow
Belmont NC USA


I do not like forcing my child, either. A great book to read on this is The Discipline Book, by Dr. William Sears. I have found that you have to pick your battles. You can tell your child that there are times that Mommy knows best only because Mommy has been around longer and he has to listen. When my son fights me, I try to "seek to understand" (ask him why) what he is really wanting. Often, the issue is not about the current struggle.

For example, if you are having a hard time getting him into the car seat, he may really be mad about something that happened in the store. You will be surprised by the number of times you will get an answer. Your child is young, but when you get into the "trying to understand through his eyes" mode, your intuition tends to kick in.

Another idea is to say, "In three minutes we will have to get into the car seat." Often, children just need a couple of minutes of adjustment so that they have some sense of control. An LLL Leader suggested that I think of how I would feel if someone else treated me the way I was trying to treat my child. That helped me to realize that I need to remember what works for adults as a guide to help me.

Ariane Roland
Sevierville TN USA


There are times when a child needs to follow directions quickly. Many parents have a special "danger voice" that their children don't hear very often and when they do hear it, they act quickly because they know it really means something.

For this to work, parents have to be careful to use others ways of helping a child cooperate with what the family needs most of the time. Thinking ahead and trying to see each situation through your child's eyes can make a huge difference. I have found that preparing a child for what's coming next can be really helpful. Toddlers don't think about the future, even the immediate future, but you can help them by saying things such as, "After we pay for our groceries, we're going to get in the car, go home, and you can help me put the frozen things away so they won't melt."

If there's still resistance, I've found that it saves me more time in the long run to give my children a little time for what they want-playing with the car seat buckles, perhaps-and gradually trying to turn their attention toward the future. It's especially helpful if I can help them to think about something that's appealing to them that will happen when we move on to the next activity.

Direct orders, especially to children under five, almost always invite a power struggle. Being positive makes for a much better relationship. Saying, "Yes, we'll go outside just as soon as we get your shoes on," instead of "No, you don't have any shoes on," may seem like a small difference, but it sets a good tone and doesn't make the child feel as though he's always getting something wrong.

Many times, humor can be a big help in tough situations. You could try picking up your child before you get to the street and giving him a big kiss so that he's laughing while you look both ways and cross. Singing songs, telling stories, having fun while you're doing what needs to get done might be a little slower, but it's more joyful, memorable, and probably faster in the long run than a full blown tantrum.

If there's still resistance-sometimes there is just going to be some-it's probably a sign that something's out of whack. Is your child hungry, thirsty, or tired? Has your child been moving at an adult pace without enough time to take in the world in his or her own way? The times when my children just can't cope with what we're trying to do often signal to me that we need to slow down and get our lives back in balance.

Pam Tellew
Albany CA USA


Your sensitivity to your son's feelings is wonderful. Children thrive when they are taught and nurtured in ways that respect their individuality and their developmental stage.

Your child is growing from babyhood, where his needs and wants are one and the same, into toddlerhood, where he starts to become aware of other people's wants. As THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING states, "In the case of a really dangerous situation...mother should allow herself the full emotional expression of her fears; the child will gradually adopt these justifiable fears of real dangers and avoid them."

You have established a very close and loving bond with your child. He will trust you to set limits for him. He may not like it. He may throw a fit. But if you handle these times gently yet firmly, he will learn to respect the wants and needs of others. It builds character and compassion in him. The vast majority of your day will be calm and loving and he will respond to the sensitive approaches you have wisely chosen. But when a conflict arises and you find yourself drawing the line, as long as it is done with respect and self-control, relax and do not worry. This, too, is part of parenting.

K. S.
Independence MO USA

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