Why I Let My Toddlers Think They’re in Charge (*Sometimes)

At some point, every sweet angel baby becomes a wee little barbarian, throwing toys and tantrums, insisting on doing everything himself, and screaming his new favorite word, "Nooooooooooo!" so often, you're wondering if he's getting royalties. It's the terribles –twos, threes, fours–and no parent can escape them.

Of course, many of us new parents naively think it can be different for us. When I saw the first signs of defiance around 21-months-old, I went into battle mode, ready to get tough, and show these hooligans who was boss. Thing was, the more I tried to hold the line, the more they lost their minds. I was so proud of myself for sticking to my guns, but it didn't seem to be working. My tiny terrorists were winning.


Then, at their two-year checkup, my pediatrician offered some solid advice. He told us, "Pick your battles, but if you say no, mean it." Whaaa?! For months, I had been playing the enforcer, and now, I was being given permission, by a doctor nonetheless, to let a lot of things go. Obviously I wasn't going to let them stick Sriracha-smeared steak knives in their mouths, but maybe it wasn't such a big deal to let them eat yogurt with a fork. Did it really matter if they didn't finish their broccoli at lunch or didn't want to take a bath every night? So what if they pulled all of their toys off the shelves? Ran around naked until they ultimately, probably deliberately, peed all over the rug? Well, uh, I guess I could get okay with all of that. So I did.

I have to say, pulling back has definitely made life with toddlers a lot easier. It's not that I don't still have some "rules," because I do, and I enforce them. They have to hold my hand when we're on the street or in a parking lot. If they throw food or plates, the meal is over. If they hit each other, the dog, or another kid, they get a cool-down. What I realized though is that letting them get away with some stuff won't turn them into entitled brats. They don't seem to think that they can just walk all over me, or any adults for that matter. Instead, the freedom gives them a sense of confidence, independence, and control. We give them respect, and then they listen to us when it does matter…well, not always, but often enough.

So, sometimes, I let them think that they're the boss. I let them "do myself" and I give them choices, all within my own comfort zone. Oh yeah, they think they're in charge, but I'm really the one calling the shots. Here's how we do it at my house…

I let them pick their own clothes. Unless we're going to some family function or a party, my kids get to choose their own ensembles every day. Yes, that means that sometimes my little boy goes to school in a Christmas sweater or a sleeveless, neon green muscle shirt that says, "Lobo Estas?" The other guy might wear maroon USC sweatpants with a Yankees T-shirt. And they'll both wear their Mickey Mouse shirts every single damn time they're clean, and keep wearing them until their bellies start hanging out of the bottom. I mean, is it a little embarrassing? I guess, except that any mother of a toddler has got to know that I didn't choose that outfit, right? Although, I did buy the questionable pieces…and my yoga pants don't exactly make me a style icon.

I always give them two choices. In my house, an open-ended question like, "Hey, what do you want for dinner?" usually results in one kid going, "Ummmmm, avocado sandwich. No, macaroni and cheese. No, ummmmmm, chicken and carrots and ravioli. No, ummm…." Meanwhile, the other guy is simultaneously chiming in with, "No, my no want mac-n-cheese! No, no, no, my no want chicken! No, no, no, my no want that!" and then he ultimately throws himself on the floor very dramatically. I'm not running a Vegas buffet, so it's much easier if I just give them two choices like, "Do you want meatballs or chicken for dinner?" or "Do you want carrots or zucchini?" Nine times out of ten, they'll each pick one without complaint. If they reject the options I've presented though, I simply tell them that it's all we have and usually they get on board.

I make deals with them. I don't know what the parenting "experts" would say, but sometimes I've got to bargain with my kids. If my boy wants to read more books instead of going to the store, then I try to work it out with him. We each want something–why can't we both get it? So I'll agree to read him one more book if he agrees he will put his shoes on once I'm done. After I propose a solution, I'll say, "Is that a deal?" and if he says yes, then it's pretty much like a binding blood contract.

I give them some responsibility. My kids take a toddler class where, at snacktime, they're given real glass cups and ceramic plates. Crazy, right? The first time I watched them using this breakable dinnerware, I spent the whole time flinching. The funny thing is that as much as my destruct-o guys love throwing stuff, they're super careful with these fragile things. In fact, I think they actually enjoy being civilized little humans. So, at home, I've been giving them stuff to do. They can put their own plates and cups in the sink, they can get food out of the freezer, they can drag the bag of groceries into the kitchen. I ask them to help me put their clean clothes away or feed the dog. They love it, and I can tell it gives them a confidence boost.

I hold them accountable. Around the time that my little boys crawled out of their cribs, I started to accept the things that I have no control over. I really can't force them to eat or sleep or…sleep. Yeah, naptime became a mess once those boys discovered the freedom of beds. It got better after the novelty wore off (like, three months later), but it's kind of a crap shoot now. Anyway, I've just sort of accepted it, but I will say to them before naptime, "So listen, this is quiet time. You don't have to nap, but you have to be quiet and if your brother wants to sleep, just read a book and let him sleep." The time becomes their own and it's unsupervised, so whatever they choose to do in that hour or two is up to them. Most days, they will fall asleep anyway, I think partially because it feels like their choice. Just like grownups, I think sometimes toddlers want to feel like it was their idea all along.

Do you let your child think he or she is in charge?