At nursery pick-up time, it’s always reassuring to hear your toddler has been playing nicely, eating well, sharing toys and generally being angelic.
You might even allow yourself a little pat on the back for raising such a well-adjusted, well-behaved child, as their key worker sings your offspring’s praises.
But when, after two minutes under your care, your little angel has transformed into the devil-child – and playing nicely has been replaced by playing up – that proud mum moment can soon be replaced with feelings of self-doubt.
Am I not disciplined enough? Am I too disciplined? Am I not giving them enough attention? Does he prefer his key worker to me? Would she rather be at nursery than at home? And most importantly: what do those nursery staff know that I don’t?
It’s fair to say the average nursery worker could probably teach most of us a thing or two when it comes to controlling and entertaining children. After all, they deal with dozens of kids, of every conceivable temperament, on a daily basis.
But this Jekyll-and-Hyde behaviour has less to do with childcare skills – and more to do with environmental factors – than you might think. So perhaps it’s time to give yourself a break...
Following the crowd
It’s great to know your child is “one of the best eaters in the group” and has a “great command of cutlery” at nursery. But when mealtimes at home are a battlefield, with forks strewn on the floor and baked beans adorning the walls, it does beg the question: where are you going wrong?
According to research, a child’s desire to fall in line with his friends has a powerful influence over his behaviour.
A study of two-year-olds (and chimpanzees!) found that toddlers and chimps were more likely to copy actions when they saw them repeated by three of their peers than if they saw the same action done three times by one peer.
In other words, this is less about your parenting tactics and more about your child’s need to fit in with the group at nursery. And this goes for their behaviour throughout the day – not just at mealtimes.
Less time for tantrums
Toddlers love attention and when they’re not getting enough they’ll pull out all the stops to get it.
As a parent, it can be tempting to stop what you’re doing and give in to these demands – either because you feel guilty for not engaging with them or because you’ll do anything for a bit of peace and quiet.
Either way, your child sees their tantrums have the desired effect and turn on the tears as soon as the need arises.
Nursery staff, on the other hand, are likely to have at least two other, equally demanding, children under their care, which means they simply don’t have the capacity to pander to your child’s every whim.
As a result, children quickly learn their behaviour won’t wash and are more likely to tire of trying and move onto something else.
More time for fun
On the flipside, nursery key workers are paid to spend the entire day entertaining and caring for your child.
So while they do have to juggle numerous children (hopefully not literally), they don’t have to keep popping away to do chores, like washing-up or cooking lunch or mopping the floor.
Like professional funsters - and unlike boring mummy and daddy with their grown-up chores - key workers are always up for joining in with the fun and games.
So, don’t be too disheartened if your child won’t stop banging on about his key worker when he gets home – it’s nothing personal.
To help with a smooth key worker-to-parent transition, try to keep chores (and whinging about work!) to a minimum after nursery pick-up and spend as much quality bonding time as possible with your little one before bedtime.
Distraction, distraction, distraction
When you know your child is on the verge of a meltdown, distraction is one of the most effective ways to help them snap out of it.
But there are only so many diversions you can offer a toddler at home – and only so many rice cakes they can stomach.
Nursery, however, is like a magical wonderland of toys, games, activities – and perhaps, most importantly, dozens of other like-minded cheeky, curious, adventure-seeking children.
The slightest quiver of a bottom lip and the child can be immediately whisked away and plonked in the middle of a game with his friends, in front of a table of paints, crayons and modelling clay or taken to the wildlife corner to dig for worms.
And this bountiful supply of props, tools and activities not only offers a handy distraction for nipping tantrums in the bud. It also means your toddler has an endless supply of sensory stimulation, which means no chance of boredom, less chance of frustration and fewer opportunities for hissy fits to arise in the first place.
The witching hour
However, while all this stimulation might make for a happy toddler by day, it’s likely to lead to one of the following conditions by night (just in time for nursery pick-up):
1. Over-stimulated. Collecting a wired toddler is akin to bringing the Tasmanian Devil into your home, charging around the place leaving a trail of detritus in its wake. And sleep? Well, you can forget that.
2. Over-tired. Think a day’s worth of tears and tantrums rolled into one excruciating hour until they finally flop into bed – by which point you’re so exhausted you won’t be far behind them.
To help manage a too-tired toddler, Beverley Hallet, manager of Head Start Nursery and Pre-School in Lewisham, suggests: “Remember that your child will probably feel tired at the end of the day. Playing and exploring a new environment is hard work. They might like some quiet time when they get home so don’t bombard them with too many questions, however tempting.”