Avoiding Bad Habits
Most parents think of their children as perfect, particularly two-year-olds, who are relatively new to the world. So how is it that children grow up to become adults with bad habits? When you stop to consider all the behaviors adults do that they wish they didn't — smoking and drinking, eating too much, not exercising enough, being lazy about work, watching too much TV — two realizations arise. First, usually your child will not behave in such self-destructive ways unless an adult in his life gives him the opportunity to do so. Second, with your help and guidance, your child has a good chance of growing up without developing any of these bad habits. Granted, you're not worried about him smoking and drinking at the age of two, but watching too much television, eating poorly, and other harmful habits can develop early in a child.
Children pick up most bad habits from the adults around them. Children of smokers are more likely to smoke; children of overeaters to overeat. If you want to help your child, you would do well to break your own bad habits. That's not easy, of course, but often parents find they can break an unhealthy habit simply because they are inspired to set a good example for their children.
It is wise to create good habits to begin with. As best as you can, strive to teach your two-year-old habits that will benefit him over a lifetime, such as eating well, being active and not sedentary, and taking care of himself. As a general rule, it is far easier to develop a good habit than it is to break a bad habit.
If you have created a situation in which your two-year-old insists on eating unhealthy foods or does not go to bed willingly, there is a process to follow that can help you break the bad habit. First, don't blame your child for indulging in the habit. In fact, don't make him aware that he even has a bad habit. Don't say, for instance, “The food you eat is terrible!” or “You never go to bed on time!” At the age of two your child doesn't even know what a habit is, so bringing it to his attention only makes him think you are declaring an unalterable fact. He will assume that what you are saying about him is a fixed reality. Worse, he will sense by the negative tone of your voice that something is wrong with him.
After taking responsibility for your two-year-old's habit — since, after all, he is under your control — you are the one who needs to break it. If your child has been eating unhealthy food, you need to provide him with healthy food. If he isn't going to bed easily, you need to create a bedtime routine that works.
Rather than being angry at your child for poor behavior, rejoice in the fact that you have control of the situation. When you have control, you possess the ability to solve the problem.
Think positively by concentrating on creating good habits. First focus on which good habit you want your two-year-old to follow. Does he need to eat more fruit? Does he need to be in bed a half-hour earlier? In that case, create a plan to make this happen. Perhaps his morning snack could be a banana. Or maybe you need to shut the TV off earlier in the evening and start reading a book to him instead. You don't have to point out the change to your child. Instead, simply start enacting it.
Finally, be consistent and stay calm. If your child doesn't eat the banana, offer him an apple the next day. If he gets upset that the TV is being shut off, let him cry it out and then show him some books to read. Don't get upset, and don't give up. After a few days — at most, a week or two — the new routine will be the new reality and your child will have completely forgotten about having insisted on the cookies or the TV. Two-year-olds have short memories. The less you make an issue of the situation, the more confident he'll be that the food you've provided him or the bedtime you set for him is the way life should be.
Two-year-olds often behave in ways that put them in control, even if that isn't their intention. For example, when they yell, scream, refuse to eat, or run away from your grasp, they aren't consciously trying to make you give your attention over to them, although that is the effect. Suddenly it seems they are the sun in the center of the universe, and you are orbiting around them.
It's important to recognize that you are firmly in control of your two-year-old. Don't let his behavior become the epicenter of your attention. Your child eats what you give him; he sleeps when you put him to bed or won't go to sleep if you don't. If you don't put TV on, your child will not watch it; he will go for a walk if you take him for one.
There are moments when you forget you are in control, of course, just as there are moments when your two-year-old rightly should be the center of attention. It is perfectly natural for him to be the focus of certain activities during part of the day. However, it is helpful neither to you nor your child if his emotional behavior begins to run the show.
Even if your child throws a tantrum about the food he is offered or the TV shows he isn't allowed to watch, it is important you make decisions based on what is right for his health and development rather than what suits his mood and emotions. Although it takes time and energy to make sure that your child eats well or to shut off the TV at appropriate times, remember that the habits you create today will stay with him throughout his life.
Knowing that you're in control is different from being controlling. Although you should take comfort in the fact that you are raising a child, you should also understand that your child needs to grow up feeling in charge of himself. Offering choices to your child and asking his opinion will give him a vital sense of power.
However, even good intentions sometimes go awry. If following the day you buy your two-year-old a fast-food hamburger, he refuses to eat the food you normally cook for him, or after watching hours of Disney movies he screams until you turn on the DVD player again, you're familiar with how quickly a child can find ways to get what he wants.
First, you need to steel yourself, promising yourself you're going to wait your child out. If he's refusing to eat, know that eventually he will eat what you give him; if he's screaming, eventually he will stop yelling. Second, even as you explain to your child why he can't have what he's insisting on, you need to offer alternatives.
It's very important that you offer your two-year-old background information on why it's not good to eat too much candy (it makes you overweight; it gives you cavities), watch too much TV (it makes you overweight; it puts you in a bad mood), or not clean up (you won't be able to find your toys when you want them).
Eventually your child will have to make decisions for himself about candy, TV, and other potentially bad habits. The more you entrust him with information in advance, the more likely he'll make the right decisions for himself.
In just a few years he really will be able to listen and understand what you are telling him. He'll remember the instruction you've been giving him and be more likely to remind himself of what's good for him.