The dictionary meaning of misbehavior is “to manage one's actions wrongly or badly.” Most of toddlers' “wrong” and “bad” actions stem from their ignorance or lack of physical skill. It doesn't mean they are bad!
Concepts like the proper timing for eating cake (after lunch or dinner but not before, and not before or after breakfast) and are very complex for a toddler. In addition, getting that cake from the plate to the tummy requires coordinating hundreds of muscles. Learning to do life isn't easy!
The following sections are a sampling of behaviors (not misbehaviors) that, with supervision and patience on your part, can be modified for your child to preserve his safety and your sanity.
Say, “Let me show you how to pet the dog.” Clasp your child's wrist and make stroking motions while saying, “Be gentle with the dog, and pet him this way. Say, ‘Good Fido.’ Yes, that's right. See? He likes to be petted like this.” Supervise tykes carefully until they learn. Be firm in correcting older toddler misbehavior too, so the child isn't bitten or scratched.
Pounding the Piano
Sit your toddler in your lap on the piano bench. Help her make fists and stretch out her index fingers. Clasp a fist in each of your hands. Help her strike the keys with her index fingers. Help her raise her hands high and drop them hard so she can get enough leverage to make a sound. If the pounding resumes when you remove your hands, say, “No, honey, that hurts Mommy's ears.”
Rocking Chair Wildness
Say, “No, baby. You might fall over backward. Let me show you how.”Place your hands on his shoulders and teach the correct motion by controlling the rocking. Hold the chair back and say, “Now you try.” Stop the chair if he rocks too hard and explain, “That's too hard. Let me show you again.” Give positive feedback: “Yes! You've got it! Now I'll let go, and you try it by yourself.” Jazz up the practice session with a stuffed animal that needs to be rocked
Controlled rocking requires subtle flexing movements that are hard for toddlers. Practice sessions are good physical therapy, which help develop coordination and motor control. But if rowdiness persists, make the rocker off-limits and substitute an active game to burn off some high-octane toddler energy.
You need to explain, “That drawer has to stay closed. The clothes will get dirty and wrinkled if you take them out.” Let her open the drawer for a look inside. Then say, “Yes, see all your pretty shirts? Can you say ‘shirts’?” Let her touch the shirts. Say, “No, don't pick them up.” Put her hand in her lap if she grabs them. Say, “Now see if you can close the drawer gently. No, that's too hard. Try again, like this.” Place your hand over hers to help close the drawer. Let her try by herself. Give positive feedback for successes: “Yes! That's the way to close a drawer!”
Younger toddlers won't understand much of what you're saying, so remember to say “yes” while smiling to signal permissible behavior and “no” when they're doing it wrong.
Grabbing in the Store
Remove his hand and say, “Ask if you can touch that first. Can you say ‘Touch, please’?” If it's too fragile, say, “No, that might break.” Find something else to practice on. Extend his index finger and guide it over the object, “Yes, use one finger so you don't break it.”
Maybe tots can't yet say what they do want, but by saying “No!” they can at least exercise a veto. Reverse psychology can sometimes induce them to comply: “I changed my mind,” a mother said in the midst of one losing battle to get her toddler into his coat and out the door. “Forget it. We'll just stay home.” “No!” he screamed, trying to put on the coat he had thrown onto the floor a moment before. His mother replied, “Take your coat off!” as she helped him into it and added, “Whatever you do, do not put on your hat!”
You guessed the rest. He had his hat on and was out the front door and in the car faster than his mother could start the ignition and say, “Now whatever you do, don't buckle that seat belt!” Of course, if he'd said, “Okay,” Mom would have been up the creek without a paddle.
Always in Trouble
There is a saying among psychologists that “negative attention is better than no attention.” This is a hard concept for parents to grasp. “What child in her right mind would want to be yelled at?” they ask. The answer is, “A child who isn't getting enough attention.” How much is “enough” depends on the child. Humans are social animals. Extroverted types with their outgoing dispositions desire constant interaction. They find having to spend time alone stressful. Meanwhile, introverts can happily entertain themselves for extended periods and too much social stimulation makes them cranky.
If pleas for parents to play pat-a-cake, read a story, or sing are ignored, it doesn't take toddlers long to fathom that one guaranteed way to get attention is to stir up a ruckus. When toddlers engage their parents by getting mischievous, they are not conscious of what they are doing. They don't harbor thoughts like “Dad will pay attention to me if I hit the baby.”
Research shows that when adults are rewarded for picking the “right” answers, they soon begin answering correctly — even if no one tells them what the problem is! Their intuition guides them long before they understand the rules of the game. Similarly, intuition guides toddlers toward rewards. If the choice is being ignored or being yelled at, they're likely to opt for the latter. In saying, “Shantal is only doing that to get attention,” her father is acknowledging his daughter's need for attention. The trick is to give it for the right behavior.
Parents may feel too tired to keep little ones entertained. Yet when misbehavior develops, most summon the wherewithal to respond. If they had responded before problems developed, they could have expended less energy. It's hard to offer praise when a child is playing nicely by herself for fear she'll want you to play with her. But by ignoring children when they're entertaining themselves, parents discourage them from engaging in this important parental sanity-saving skill. So, when toddlers are playing quietly, lavish them with praise!