There are so many parenting myths in circulation in society. Many are obviously myths and therefore easy to ignore. Others however seem far more ingrained and sound far more plausible. The plausibility and popularity of some of the top parenting myths cause a great deal of misunderstanding, and often stress, for parents of toddlers.
These are my top toddler parenting myths:
1. Toddlers should all be sleeping through the night.
You had a year of caring for a sleepless baby 24/7 surely, surely toddlers sleep all night? Wrong. Actually, nobody sleeps all night, even the soundest of sleepers. Sleep isn't composed of one long sleep cycle, instead there are many. Toddlers have many more sleep cycles than adults, meaning - you guessed it - they have the propensity to wake up a lot more than adults.
In addition to differing sleep cycles, a toddler's sleep is dramatically different to that of an adult, composed of far more REM and less NREM sleep. What does this mean? It means your toddler will have more dream time than you and what accompanies dreams? Welcome to the world of nightmares. Monsters under the bed, scary shadows moving across the wall, a dream of being lost or separated from mum and dad. It's not only nightmares that are an issue, night terrors are too. Night terrors occur in a different phase of sleep than nightmares and actually happen when the child is very much asleep. While this means they will have no recollection of the night terror in the morning it doesn't make it any less traumatic for a parent to cope with.
So if night terrors, nightmares, different sleep cycle and REM lengths are not enough to contend with, our toddler is also commonly coping with issues of increased autonomy ("me do it"), testing boundaries, dealing with parental separation (starting nursery or moving to their own bedroom) and often becoming a big sibling too (a hugely common time of sleep regression). Some may also be dealing with potty training. Why on earth do we expect their sleep to be better than a baby's? There is much more on toddler sleep (and ways to gently improve it) in my sleep book HERE.
2. Toddlers need to spend time at nursery in order to learn to socialise.
No, no they don't. Children learn to socialise from predominantly one or two people, any guesses who they are? They don't need to spend time playing with other children, or in an environment full of art equipment, ride on toys, sand and water tables or small world play. They need us. In fact toddler's don't need anything more than being part of our every day lives. Going shopping with us, helping us to prepare dinner, tidying the house, tending to plants in the garden, visiting the ducks, going for forest walks. That really is all they need. Toddlers are hard-wired to be sociable - with us. We teach them almost everything they need to know about social skills without even knowing we're teaching it. Some toddlers thrive in a nursery or preschool setting, some don't. For those who love it, great. For those who don't, rest safe in the knowledge that they absolutely need never attend. You are enough. They won't be missing out on anything.
3. Toddlers should be educated, to give them a head start
Educational toys, flashcards, learning to read apps and websites, foreign language DVDs. None of these are necessary, in fact sometimes these things can carry more risks than benefits. The primary role of the toddler is to play. Play and play some more. Everything they need to learn can be achieved through the love and attention of their parents and play. Toddlers don't need to know how to read or write, they don't need to be able to recite the alphabet or count to as high a number as possible. They should know how it feels to jump in puddles, squelch their fingers through mud, roll down a hill, make snow angels, lick cake mix off of a spoon (caveat - raw egg allowing before somebody comments!), collect a treasure trove of sticks, stones, shells and feathers, climb, jump, run, play hide and seek and bang saucepans as drums. This is how they learn. The hot housing really needs to stop.
4. Toddlers need to be independent.
Society is barely tolerating of an attached baby, but a toddler who's attached? well - surely there's a recipe for a clingy, un-confident, shy and strange child? Therefore most toddler parenting advice centres on fostering independence in the toddler. This independence is supposed to come when they are encouraged to be away from parents, on play dates, in groups they are left in and in their own rooms at night. Only this isn't how independence happens. You cannot teach anybody to be independent if they are not ready to be so. Independence implies that the child is done with being dependent. It implies that they are ready to leave the safe 'hold' of their parents. That they have the confidence and understanding of the world to no longer have any fear of what the big wide world may hold. No toddler is truly independent, even the most seemingly independent ones. It is normal and necessary for toddlers to still be dependent upon us. The best thing we can do is to allow this dependence and equally allow their growing independence (when they are ready), by neither refusing or preventing a connection with ourself we encourage true independence - and only then.
5. Toddlers who tantrum are naughty
All toddlers tantrum. Every single one of them. Tantruming is indeed a normal part of childhood that neither indicates naughtiness or 'goodness'. Nor do tantrums indicate the successfulness of an individual's parenting style. Toddlers tantrum quite simply because the emotional regulation centre of their brain is too immature to keep a lid on their big emotions. When you and I are angry we know it is not appropriate to scream at the top of our lungs in the street (toddler's don't incidentally, social rules pass them by). In addition to following societal rules, as adults we are able to 'self talk' ourselves into a calmer state. Toddler's can't. Think of a toddler brain like a steaming kettle, exposed to stimulation (heat) they are completely powerless to stop the feelings bubbling and whistling out of them at full volume. Tantrums are not a sign of naughtiness, they are a sign of being a toddler.
6. Toddlers can, and should, share
Again, a huge myth. Toddlers do not understand the concept of sharing and they like it even less. To understand sharing they need to understand several complex ideas that are years beyond them. The first concept they need to understand is that when sharing sometimes this involves getting the item back (e.g: one of their toys) and other times this means they say 'bye bye' to the object forever (half of their banana). Imagine how confusing this must be for them?
Secondly sharing requires the toddler to understand and care about the feelings of others, only they don't - not really. This is a great experiment explaining why. They aren't selfish if they don't want to share, they're just toddlers.
Lastly, put yourself in your toddler's place. Imagine somebody knocked at the door and said "go and get me your most favourite, treasured possession", "Now, you must share it with your next door neighbour". What would you say? While your most prized possession may be a piece of jewellery, an antique, an instrument, a mulberry handbag or a car it is no more valuable than your toddler's bouncy ball, teddy bear or book. At least not to them.
7. Toddlers should be disciplined by praising the good and ignoring the bad behaviour
Oh where to start on this one. It is so messed up. Toddlers don't misbehave for no reason. There is ALWAYS an underpinning reason. Sometimes (often) a toddler will misbehave because they are desperate for our attention (especially if we have spent time away from them, are very busy or they have a new sibling). Their behaviour is a cry saying "I miss you, please see me, I need more of you". Whether that behaviour may be kicking you, hitting their sister or screaming at the childminder. Now, on what planet does it make sense to withdraw even more of your attention? What the toddler needs is categorically NOT to be placed on the naughty step or time out, they need you. Withdrawing your attention at best will create temporary compliance, but it won't fix the real issue which will appear again, but worse, or perhaps in another behaviour, until it is fixed.
Which brings me on to the second point. That of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As parents we all want our children to behave well intrinsically - that is to be internally motivated to behave 'well'. However most common behaviour control methods focus only on extrinsic motivation. That is externally controlling the child's behaviour by way of either a punishment (time out, naughty step, consequences etc...) or a reward (sticker chart, a special treat, or a lot of praise). Much research has proven that extrinsic motivation lasts only for as long as the reward or punishment is on offer (compliance), remove them and you are not left with any real change. Which is why parents who use them have to keep using them! Now, can you imagine putting a teenager on the naughty step, or being happy with a lollipop for completing their homework? No, if this is what you rely on in the toddler years you are in big trouble when the children are older!
Praise is part of the same problem. It's all about extrinsic motivation. Not only that, the risk of creating a 'praise junky' is huge and in addition the constant use of praise may actually de-motivate, particularly if it is results and not effort based in focus. There is lots more on this topic (including alternative behaviour control methods and how to use praise effectively) in my toddler book.
8. Toddlers should be made to apologise, say please and thank you and hug elderly relatives.
If a toddler hurts another child or snatches a toy from them of course they should be made to apologise, shouldn't they? No, they shouldn't. I refer you back to point 8. Why? because in most cases they are not sorry. So all you are teaching them is to lie to get out of trouble. Of course the parent should always apologise, "I'm so sorry he hit, is your daughter OK?". Asking a toddler to apologise however is pointless and misguided. As is, on a similar vein making them say please and thank you. This one however is a little less damaging. Toddlers don't understand social niceties. What is the point in making them perform a bizarre adult ritual? In time they will understand the concept of gratitude and social rules, until then. Don't sweat - say please and thank you for them if they don't mimic you.
Last up - should we force little Johnny to give Great Aunt Ethel a kiss goodbye? Only if he wants to (which is almost always never). I'm sure most people have memories of being forced to kiss and hug elderly relatives, I certainly do - they aren't pleasant, cold, clammy, wrinkly skin, slightly slobbery lips on mine, overpowering scent and a shaky hold. I was told to be good and do it anyway despite my protests. What about if we as adults were forced to be hugged and kissed against our wishes? What would we call that? "sexual assault"? "improper conduct"? "rape"? What are we really teaching when we force our children to kiss and hug against their wishes? That their consent does not matter. If your child's consent matters to you allow them to say "no" next time Great Aunt Ethel wants a goodbye hug and kiss, she is the adult, she has the brain development to understand why, even if she is a little offended. You however will have taught your toddler a valuable lesson in bodily consent.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four and parenting author, her books include the bestselling 'The Gentle Sleep Book' and the recent release 'The Gentle Parenting Book'. She blogs at www.sarahockwell-smith.com
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