At Fluffy’s request, we visited the Air and Space museum last week. That place is a toddler’s paradise of hands-on exhibits. Buttons, handles and knobs. Oh, my! The boys behaved themselves beautifully with nary a whine or complaint even though the trip delayed their usual feeding time by almost an hour.
Three of the latest parenting books and articles I’ve read have recommended role playing good behavior. After the catastrophic trip to the mall (see All Good Things Must Come to an End), we began practicing several scenarios including how to leave preschool, playdates, and other fun activities. Fluffy adores playing the mom, herself, the friend who wants her to stay, etc., as she does all dramatic play.
The results so far have been terrific. Upon leaving the Air and Space Museum, Fluffy started to whine. Somehow, I calmly reminded her how we’ve practiced showing gratitude for fun things so Mommy will want to do more fun things for you another time. “Remember when we leave you need to say, ‘Thank you so much for taking me to the Museum. I had so much fun. I hope we can come again another time.'” The light bulb went on, and her entire countenance and tone changed instantly. She recited her lines, but much more than that, she meant them. She felt happy and grateful and she was proud of herself! She came home and told her Dad, “I started to whine, but then I remembered to be thankful. Then I got nice!”
The books and articles encourage parents to praise specific examples of good behavior and try not to draw attention to bad behavior. While you may be tempted to demonstrate or role play bad behavior so you can draw a contrast with what you’re trying to develop (or so you can release your own aggravation by sermonizing), such modelling may actually increase bad behavior. Young toddler brains don’t appear ready to reason at that level. The studies indicate that reading about bad behavior and especially role playing it, just gives kids naughty ideas.
For instance, kids in one study were read stories about siblings who get into conflicts but then resolve them. Researchers expected to find that the stories of resolution would decrease sibling conflict. Compared to the control group, however, the children who heard these stories actually increased their rates of conflict with siblings. Children look to stories for their social norms, so instead of learning that they should get along with their siblings as the characters do in the end, they seem to have just realized it’s normal for kids to fight.
After reading this, I started skipping all the pages of tantrums in the “Llama, Llama, Red Pajama” books. This makes those particular books very short. At some point, Fluffy will be able to grasp the moral of the story, but for the time being, those books just teach her that children throw tantrums at bedtime and at the grocery store and whenever else they feel unhappy. Forget that! Conflict and resolution make for good story telling, but for toddler moral instruction, F needs a steady diet of stories of good behavior.