(Firstly, don’t panic. Often being a good-enough parent is good enough. The information is indicative of things going really well, if it doesn’t match your children – consider how you might make small changes rather than feeling guilty and doing nothing, or dismissing the information out of hand because it makes you feel uncomfortable.)
Did you know, you can tell if you’re on the right track with your parenting by the time babies are eight months old? It’s true.
An early indicator is empathy. When our Owl was eight months old, both older boys had conjunctivitis. When I was putting eye-drops into the eyes of the Hare, then four years old, he hated it and he screamed to show that he hated it. The Owl would stare at him and cry: he was obviously distressed at his brother’s reaction. He was developmentally incapable of sympathy, which is an intellectual understanding of another’s distress. He was experiencing the same emotional state as his brother, at the same time. That’s empathy.
The second early sign that all is well, is how quickly babies calm when we comfort them. Children who wake screaming, for example, are upsetting to listen to, but if they stop screaming as soon as you pick them up, pat yourself on the back. They know they can rely on you to offer comfort. You’re their safe haven. (No, they’re not having you on – and that discussion is going to need another whole website!)
Toddlers who have had the best parenting have the strongest sense of mimicry. The Butterfly (who has benefitted from our earlier mistakes and learning) demonstrated this beautifully while we were on holiday. Of the ten children present he was, at 16 months, the youngest by two years. Within days he was out of his high chair and eating at a small table with the others. He was eating confidently with a fork within a week and by the end of the holiday, was putting (or at least attempting to put) his finished plate on the bench. The more pre-schoolers want to do what others around them are doing, the better the job their parents have done – thus far. Yes, vacuuming 10 square metres can take 2 hours. Yes, sweeping a floor can take half an hour. Yes, they mess the piles of washing up as quickly as we stack them. But it’s temporary, if you can call 3 years or so temporary! And it means that all is well.
At around 15 months of age, well-parented toddlers are most distressed by enforced separation. That is, separation from their mother that is not led by the child. (Exploring on their own, or going with another adult when they have chosen to is child led separation.) They can scream the house down, and I have heard people call them naughty or treat this behaviour the same as one would a Power Tantrum. This is not about power and control. This is a biological reaction they have no control over: it’s about feeling safe. (Which is why I believe maternity leave should be a minimum of 18 months long.)
Toddlers do have Power Tantrums. It’s age appropriate behaviour, and is as much about not understanding the whole situation as it is about not getting their own way. The key difference between a Power Tantrum and a Distress Tantrum at this age is the circumstance. If it’s not about separation from Mum or pain, it’s probably a Power Tanty. Simply by getting off one’s bottom and removing the toddler from the object or situation will sort these (yes, sorry, every time.) Saying no and then walking away works well in some situations. If you want to, hold them in a Boring Cuddle. Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing.
The other key indicator (I can think of at the moment) for toddlers and pre-schoolers is their level of bravery. The easiest test I have found is with waves. (Tricky if you live in the mid-West, I know.) A 15 or 16 month old, regardless of temperament, who will explore small waves for 15 minutes or longer – be knocked down by them, pick themselves up, splash in them, bounce in them, be covered in water etc and still want more – is brave. The thing I enjoy most about this exercise is that the parents don’t have to do anything or say much. We just have to be there. If they looked distressed or cry, give them a Boring Cuddle. Otherwise let them go for it, at their own pace. They will only go as deep as they feel comfortable. (OK, once they might go a little too deep, and Hare’s will probably almost drown: just pick them up.) They don’t need to be told they are brave – they already feel brave. They will probably want you to join in with the experience, so do – a little up close, a lot through eye-contact and excited noises from afar.
The other key indicator is the emotional state of toddlers when they rejoin Mum after separation, the more excited the better.
If these are the kinds of things your babies and toddler do, well done: so far, so good. If these aren’t the kinds of things your children do, it’s time to consider listening to different advice. Seriously. It’s easy to make changes now, and much harder the later you leave it.
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