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Picture this - bedtime last night. I'm explaining to my toddler that it's dad's turn to put him to bed and I'm going to put my oldest to bed.He's disappointed and mad so he tells my husband he doesn't want ANYONE to come to bed with him. He's going to bed alone.

My husband and I look at each other.We know that's not true. He loves his bedtime routine, with either parent, and he's never skipped it.BUT we can't just remind him of this or try to hurry things along, completely overruling his request to get to bed alone.We have to validate his feelings, let him know that it's his choice, and try to get the bedtime routine started - suggesting he reads just one book with my husband.He's frustrated at the loss of control and inability to get what he wants.Forcing him to further comply is pretty much guaranteed to result in an escalation of his emotions - crying, delaying bedtime, and more frustration for everyone.Ultimately, he'll want my husband to put him to bed. But by helping him feel some sense of autonomy, he's able to let go of the initial disappointment and loss of control.

Why are Toddlers Like This?

There's a big shift in development between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. This is typically when you’ll see children starting to assert their need to make decisions for themselves.In Montessori, this is referred to as the Crisis of Opposition, more recently updated to the Crisis of Self-Affirmation.Most people call it "the terrible twos".This is simply the deep desire for autonomy (the capacity to decide for oneself).Simply put, a child entering this phase wants and needs more control over themselves.The key to getting through this phase is to give them as much autonomy as possible…within limits.
What this means for us, the parents, is that we need to take time to consider if we need control in any given situation.If it's not an issue of safety, are there more opportunities where we can say yes to their requests? Are there more give opportunities where we can let them decide?Empowering your child to follow through on their requests will:
  • build their confidence and independence
  • develop their sense of self
  • develop critical-thinking skills
’But,’ I can hear you say, ‘shall we leave our children to do as they like? How can they know what is best for them when they have had no experience?.’ …And I would answer, ‘Have you ever given your children a chance even for one day to do what they like without interference?’- Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori Speaks to Parents
Dr. Montessori understands that this might seem risky but she also believes that we often do not give children enough credit. Their requests are driven by a need for independence and autonomy.So while we need to balance safety (and other factors, like time, other children, etc), here's a three-part framework to give your child the independence they crave:

Strategy #1: Question Yourself

Ask yourself why you're saying no AND if was there is something that would turn it into a yes.Why can’t your child do it? Will it hurt them or others?For example, my oldest, age 5, loves wearing skinny jeans. He has 3 favourite pairs and strongly dislikes any other pants.Some days, when my partner and I are behind on laundry, he's run out of jeans.When this happened recently, he wanted to take one of his favourite pairs from the dirty laundry hamper.I initially fought him on it but then we checked them over, and they were clean, dry, and didn't smell. There really was no good reason that he couldn't wear them.Of course, saying yes has to be within reason. This doesn’t mean your child gets to decide they’re having ice cream for dinner every night (they still need guidance on how to develop healthy habits) but it’s also not hurting anyone if they wear the same clean jeans a couple days in a row.

Strategy #2: Could you turn your no into a yes?

Sometimes a no is a no, especially in matters of safety. But in my experience, making changes to the environment can help you to avoid saying no all the time. In the infant and toddler years, creating 'yes spaces' is perfect for this.If you've never heard of a 'yes space' before, it's simply an enclosed area where everything within the space is 100% safe for the child to explore. This includes furniture, surfaces, toys, etc.You can read more about how to do that here: https://themontessoriroom.com/blogs/montessori-tips/the-beauty-of-a-yes-spaceHere are some other examples of how you can turn a 'no' into a 'yes':
  1. Your child wants to pour milk into their cereal but you don’t want them to have the full carton because you're worried it's too heavy and they're going to spill it. You can allow them to do this by pouring some milk into a small pitcher.
  2. Your child insists on putting their shoes on independently but routinely puts them on the wrong feet. Rather than switching their shoes for them, add Left and Right shoe stickers and spend some time guiding them on how to put their shoes on correctly.
  3. Your toddler won’t stop dumping out their new basket of blocks and you’re tired of cleaning it up. Put some of the blocks away to make clean up more manageable.

Strategy #3: Yes - But With a Delay

For example, "Yes, you can have an ice cream but not until after we have dinner."
This strategy tells your child that they still have autonomy, it’s just not the appropriate time to have exactly what they want.For a younger child who may not be asking verbally but is showing you what they want, you could say "I can see you want to help me prepare dinner. I’m going to get some tools that are safe for you to use tomorrow." The key with this strategy is to follow through with what you say will happen later.Initially, your child may be disappointed that they aren’t getting what they want in the moment but following through tells them that you heard them and their wants and needs are important.

This is NOT Going Away

The need for autonomy will continue forever - it doesn’t stop at any point.It’s helpful to know that it actually starts at quite a young age so that you can begin to develop a reasonable approach to your child's requests know.Saying yes when possible, as well as explaining our no's when it's not, builds trust.Eventually this helps our children to realize that we make decisions to keep them safe and healthy, and we don't just say no 'because I said so'.