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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26 Thoughts to “Toddlerhood: Defiance vs. Distraction”

  1. Great thought! I’ll have to try that with my 17-month-old! Our big thing is not really letting any defiance slide, which is hard when you have a cold and don’t want to get off the couch. AND really praising him when he obeys. If he’s standing next to the Christmas tree and looks at it but doesn’t grab a branch and shake it, we are all about the “THANK YOU!” and “YAY!” But good call with the distraction thing…

  2. Since we are only a few months ahead of you, we are still figuring this all out ourselves!

    Right now we are trying to figure out when to start the whole potty training process…

  3. Ashley

    This is a really great way to think about it. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Transitions are very hard for Drew. He does not like ending anything so I have found that singing helps. I sing at the end of bath time and it cues him in that we are finishing up. I sing clean up songs, dinner time songs, bedtime songs, toothbrushing songs. He loves the songs and gets so into them he forgets to fight me over ending something. By the time he realizes that I’ve tricked him yet again we’ve moved on to the next thing.

  5. My little one’s only two months old now, but how good to know about the seven-second thing now and keep it in mind for the future. I imagine you just saved me an inordinate amount of headaches and probably added two or three years back into my life. 🙂

  6. I’ve found that the key is making them think it’s their choice. They don’t get much control over anything so if you can make them feel like they have some control, you’ll win a lot of battles.
    It was time for bed and my husband yanked away my son’s lollipop, and I bet you can imagine how well that ended. He screamed for 15 minutes until finally I asked my husband to go get the lollipop again, and I told the boy he can have 2 more licks and then he needs to say goodnight to the lollipop. He counted 2 licks, said goodnight, and he went peacefully to sleep. Now, if I can just figure out how to give my husband a lobotomy to prevent from giving the boy a lollipop right before bed then we will be good!

  7. Alyssa Astran

    This is a great post and something for parents of toddlers to think about and try : ) On a side note- Bean is going to kill you for posting his bunz on your blog down the line 🙂 🙂

  8. Bonnie B.

    When my 19 year old (also named Katie!) was under 2, I learned that taking something out of a child’s hand is extremely frustrating for that child. So, like you, I started having her do it herself. She also LOVED picking up every single stuffed animal she saw in the store and holding it, so instead of yanking it out of her hands, I asked her to set it down on the shelf and say “bye bye” to it. It worked!! Closure: it’s a wonderful thing.

  9. I’m totally filing this away for when Peanut reaches this age- that is after she’s born.

  10. R

    Bean’s little tush is so frickin cute!! I just laughed out loud at my desk.
    Thanks for that 🙂

  11. Oh Lord. I only wish I could go back to 18 months. I thought he was independent then. Now at 28 months, it’s all “me do it, me do it!” Brushing teeth spells trouble in our house because he wants to do it totally himself with NO help from me. And if I let that happen his teeth would rot off because he only gets the front teeth and not the back.

    Recently, It’s been getting tougher. I was one of those moms who thought I had lucked out and wouldn’t need discipline because he very rarely ever had issues. But after the new baby was born we had to implement Super Nanny’s “naughty spot” because I could not allow him to hit his baby brother and do nothing about it. So if he purposefully hits or hurts his brother (which is rare) he goes in the naughty chair for 2 minutes. I explain to him why he’s in there and most the time he gets it and calms down.

    My mom said 3 is much more challenging of an age than 2. I told her I’m screwed 🙂

  12. So funny you do the whole put up the toothbrush and turn off the light trick- we do it too! It took me a little bit to figure it out- but once I did, it’s worked like a charm! I’m with you- the more they can do themselves, the better. We are currently in a screaming phase. As in, we’ll be out to breakfast and Henry will scream at the top of his lungs (no holding back) and just laugh. We’ve tried everything (walking outside, conversations about screaming indoors/outdoors…) but it’s just not sticking right now. I secretly Bean starts doing this so you’ll write a blog post on it and I can get suggestions on discipline for it (just kidding, just kidding!…sort of…). 🙂 Totally with you on the 10 second thing. I usually always say what I want him to do TWICE. I find that he usually does it when I do that. Sinking in time… 🙂

  13. Jocelyne

    Oh. My. Well, given that mine are 6 and 4 now, you’d think I’d have forgotten? No.
    We got a LOT of mileage out of a bunch of fruit shaped kitchen timers from the dollar store. “When the timer goes, we need to put boots on.” “Can you get all the cars away in the bin before the timer goes?”
    And the marble jar… a glass baby food jar and a bunch of marbles. Every time they do something you like? Plink! Marble in the jar. It makes the most soothing sound, and when the jar is full? Something exciting happens! (ymmv on what is exciting… in our house it often meant baking cookies or extra bike riding or a movie)

  14. Joke

    That picture is so cute! But… you leave the faucet running, aaah!

  15. Lindsey

    LOVE this post – thank you! I’ve noticed this with my 20 month old but I just thought she was ignoring me – and biding her time. This makes so much more sense – because she DOES turn around and do what I asked. How sweet to know that her little brain is processing EVERYTHING! I love being a mom!!

  16. This is great advice for kids at any age! While I don’t have kids of my own yet, I do teach Special Ed, so I’ve learned a thing or two about patiently waiting for kids to accomplish a given task. It’s a fine line between that processing time and distraction, but you learn to deal with it, and I too have found that it makes worlds of difference. Many students, even as they get older, take a little while to think about the directions they have been given. I’m so happy that you decided to post about this!

  17. Will's Mama

    So true… I think one of the biggest challenges to parenthood is giving your children enough independence at all stages. It seems easier to just keep doing for them, but the sooner they learn to do things themselves, the less frustrated you all are- at least that’s what we’ve found with our 3 year old.

  18. Heather Ben

    When appropriate, we have much success with giving our 22 month old choices. She has a thing about getting dressed so we offer her a choice – like poka-dots or stripes, pink or green. If she doesn’t pick then of course I choose but can really divert from a meltdown and I think they feel more in control. . Works good with food as well but limited choices of course and no short order -just peas or corn.

  19. Gale

    It’s been awhile since I’ve time to blog stalk (I mean read blogs!), but this really struck a chord with me. My oldest just hated that feeling of not being in control. Something that really worked for us was to tell her what was going to happen next, so that she could process it and be prepared, instead of just being yanked on to the next thing. If you want them to behave in a certain way, tell them what you expect and then they feel in control. “We’re going to be picking up our toys in a few minutes so we can have lunch.” or whatever. Maybe that would help make transitions easier for you too. It is actually good that he wants to do so much for himself, because once the “new girl” gets here, you will be glad that he doesn’t need you to do everything for him! (And believe me, it’s scary how grown up they suddenly seem when they become the big brother.)

  20. courtney

    I’ve found that the more I rush my son the sloooowwwwweeeeeerrrrrr (sorry – stretched for emphasis) he goes. I try to move him along calmly and steadily without too much rushing.

  21. Tressa

    Dear Lord……Bean Man’s rump is so darn cute!!! He looks so much bigger in that picture for some reason!

  22. Heather M

    You know my parents were great – they allowed me independence and still kept the balance of guiding me along. To the point that I now still have great memories of their guidance and patience. I do remember some of my time as a toddler and routine that you develop together with your parents are so special. I know that when I become a mother – I have my own parents example with how I grew up to guide my way.

  23. I don’t have kiddies yet….but I just have to say that seeing Bean’s little hiney has just made my day. File this one under “Pics to show future girlfriends.”

  24. HeatherN

    I don’t have kiddos yet either, but I’m a peds nurse, so I deal with kids all day long who don’t want to have their blood pressure or temperature taken, or they want to run around when they have to stay in their room. I do a lot of high-fives and positive reinforcement for cooperation, especially when I know it is difficult for them. Also, they want to be a “helper” and to “fix it” with everything at this stage- this is why they love Bob the Builder at this age, because he is so industrious. If I have to re-tape or take out an IV, I say “Can you help me fix it?”

    One thing I would add is that while people talk all the time about baby-proofing your home when they first become mobile, people don’t talk nearly enough about toddler-proofing your home. This means making sure all of the cabinets that need it have secure locks on them, the knives are not accessible, the medicines & cleaning chemicals aren’t, etc. At this age they are now able to push a chair over to the counter, climb from the chair to the counter, and then access the upper cabinets in your home, and they can unlock locks and wander right outside. Every week our unit at work sees a couple kids who climbed up on the counters or got into grandma’s purse to eat “candy” (aka mom’s or grandma’s diabetes or blood pressure or blood thinning medications)- and then they get a nice little visit to the peds ICU while the medicine works its way out of their system. -Nearly all of the kids who do this are in the 18-24 month range, because they are both curious and fearless. Anyway, have fun with your adorable toddler!

  25. Ann G-B

    Yes, those few seconds of waiting can make a huge difference. I don’t worry so much about taking time tooth brushing…. the longer the better! We focus on “all done” – that cue to let him know it is time to move on, or his way of letting us know. We wave bye-bye to things when we are done too!
    And when did turning off the lights become the coolest thing around? I turn them on just so he can turn them off!

  26. Ava will be turning three this month and this whole doing things for yourself is only intensifying. Her very most frequent statement is “I CAN DO IT MYSELF!!!” Nothing brings her to tears like trying to help her. If we are in a public restroom she goes in the stall, locks the door while declaring her independence. I stand there waiting, knowing she will soon discover she DOES need assistance. Patience, lots of it and giving her constant choices is the only thing I have found to help.

    We are also pregnant and the closer we get to our little Norah arriving the more Ava likes to pretend to be a baby. She wants me to feed her and rock her all the time. Quite the switch from her more typical demand for independence…

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