Toddlerhood: Defiance vs. Distraction

Brushing teeth in our house is non-negotiable.  Every night after his bath, Bean climbs up on his little stool in the bathroom and we brush his teeth.


First, I brush his teeth for him while he goes, “Ahhhhh….” and then “Cheeeeeese…” And then he gets the toothbrush and he brushes his teeth. Which used to mean he sucked the toothpaste off the brush for a couple minutes, but in the past couple weeks has actually become Bean brushing his teeth. His newest fascination in the teeth brushing thing is the faucet and no less than 15 times in the short minute or so he has his toothbrush, he holds it out for me to run it under the water. He loves that part.


For a while, the struggle at this point was getting the brush away from Bean. When you’d take it away, he would flip his little lid and that just ruined the evening. Every single night he was going to bed all worked up because he was still so mad about having his toothbrush taken away. Finally last week, I got smart and I quit taking it away from him. Instead, I now let him put his toothbrush away in the toothbrush holder. Then we dry off his mouth and before we leave the room, Bean gets to turn off the lights (another favorite for him). Finishing that whole process seems to have curbed the crying because he gets to finish the steps, instead of having it just taken away from him.

Sound like a lot of fancy footwork as a parent? You bet. And we’re experiencing this kind of thing more often now. Turns out that 18 months old is all about doing things yourself. Bean is all about the independence these days.

At first, it was really annoying. REALLY annoying. It used to be that when we needed to get something done or we needed to go somewhere or do anything, actually, we could just do it and Bean went along with it. Now, he wants to do it all himself. Which means when we walk to the car in the morning, he doesn’t want to be carried – no matter how late we are running. He wants to walk himself out to the car. Which also means that he will want to stop and pick up a few acorns, check out the trash cans, search for lost golf balls in the garage, etc. And if you try to stop him and pick him up to get him moving again so that you aren’t late to work for the fourth day in a row, a temper tantrum erupts. And now you will be 15 minutes later.

Talk about frustrating. For a few weeks, life was all about hurrying up and waiting while Bean had a temper tantrum and then hurrying along again after he got himself together.

But someone actually posted something in the comments of this blog a couple weeks ago (sorry, I don’t know who it was!) that said toddlers take an average of 7 seconds to process a thought. When I read that, I started paying more attention to Bean and his listening skills. And 7 seconds is just about right! If I tell Bean something, he almost never starts to do it right away, especially if it’s a request that he doesn’t hear often. So, I started waiting a few seconds before I intervened with him. I’d give him the command (ex. “Bean, can you pick up your toys?”) and then sit and wait for about 10 seconds and – lo and behold! – he’d finally start doing what I asked.

Now, does he always do what we ask every time even with the 10 second rule? No way, man. Sometimes I ask Bean to do something and he looks right at me, I wait 10 seconds, I see the thought compute, and then he goes running in the other direction (which would be the BOLT! game I’ve shared with you before). He’s a toddler. Decision making is what they do. But when he chooses to make a different decision than what I’ve asked of him, we always make him stop, turn back around, and do what we’ve asked. Never harshly, but very firmly. There’s no point in punishing him for trying out his independence – that’s part of growing up. But, he still as to learn that sometimes he has to do things he doesn’t want to do and so we make him follow through with whatever our request has been.

But for the most part, giving Bean that extra little time to complete tasks himself has made all the difference in the world. It definitely takes more time to do anything right now, but we just try to build that time into our routine and schedule when at all possible. It gives him a chance to do things on his own (like putting away his toothbrush and turning off the lights) and it also teaches him about following directions and doing as he is asked. So, we move a little slower these days. We stop to pull leaves off of bushes on our way inside the house. We stop to pet Molly as we’re walking to the bath. We stop to pick up a tiny little rock off the sidewalk when we’re taking walks. All because, to Bean, that’s just part of doing a task. And as long as he accomplishes the task at this point, I’m a happy momma.

Before Bean, I thought the Terrible Two’s and toddlerhood were all about defiance. And, don’t get me wrong, that is certainly part of the game right now. But I’m learning that what I sometimes see as defiance is just part of what it takes to get Bean to get things done. Most of the time at this age, he just isn’t going to be able to be told something, walk right over and do it without some kind of distraction or disruption. He’s like a little puppy. Distraction is part of the game. But distraction and defiance are two different things and we handle them differently in our house.

What about you?  How are you (or did you) handling the toddler phase?  Do you have any tricks that have been particularly helpful with your child?  Any suggestions or ideas for the rest of us?

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