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I Don’t Argue with Toddlers

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I have been parenting toddlers constantly for about a decade now. And I am still of sound mind and body. It’s kind of a minor miracle.

There’s a lot I’ve learned in interacting with the 2-4 year-old crowd that has made my life easier and less stressful than it used to be. There were hard lines I used to draw with my first toddler that now seem so much less important with my sixth. Schedules have had to become more flexible, the list of fun/educational/goofy songs I have memorized has increased exponentially. I have learned to let go of some things and hold fast to others. And through it all, there is one phrase that has become my mantra:

I don’t argue with toddlers.

I have seen way too many adults get trapped in this kind of frustrating interaction with their toddlers:

Child: Mommy, that horse green!

Mom: The horse we saw yesterday? No, Sweetie. That horse was white. Remember?

Child: It GREEN. That horse GREEN! 

Mom: NO. IT. WAS. WHITE. Horses can’t be green so it wasn’t green!

And then much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensues.

I’m just over it. I do not have to be the fact police for my toddler. And frustratingly enough, there are many times when I’ve picked a fight with a toddler only to realize I didn’t understand them clearly and they WERE right in the first place (“Oh! You mean his LEGS were green from the wet grass. . . “). That is a humbling experience I have come to dread. So I just don’t argue with toddlers. I’ve developed lots of go-to phrases to help me avoid arguments:

“A green horse? That would be funny!”

“I didn’t see a green horse! Did you see one? The one I saw was white.”

“Have you seen a green horse before or was this your first one?”

“You saw a green one? I want to see a purple one!” 

I’m just not going to waste my breath trying to “win” an argument with someone who has nothing better to do today than start arguments about nonsense. When I do that, I’ve just dropped down to the toddler level and that makes me feel like a crazy person. My frustration will ultimately do more damage to our relationship than it’s worth to try and win that argument.

I absolutely pick my battles. There are times to make sure your kids know you mean business and when you’ve started down that road, you need to be consistent. If my child says, “You ugly, Mommy.” I’m not going to respond with, “Aren’t you adorable! That’s so funny.” I’m going to let them know that’s an unkind way to talk to someone.

But even in situations where I’ve decided it’s a battle worth picking, I am still VERY conscious not to argue with a toddler. If I’ve said that word is inappropriate or I’ve told them not to throw that rock or I said nap time will be in five minutes, I’m not going to get sucked into debating any of those things with them. I will repeat the same few words again if they want to argue: “I know you’d like to stay up longer, but nap time is in five minutes. (more attempts to argue) It’s a bummer when we have to quit playing and go to sleep, but nap time is still in five minutes. (more attempts to argue) I’m not going to argue with you, I’m just reminding you nap time is now in FOUR minutes. I’m not going to talk about this anymore.”

I’ve also had to teach this strategy to my older kids. They are often roped into toddler arguments and it’s tough to teach them how to back out of this gracefully. The big kids want to be right and will take any chance to prove their rightness to the little ones. It’s been tough, but I think reminding them we don’t argue with toddlers is a good conflict management strategy to empower them to not have to address every area of disagreement with anyone who wants to disagree with them. When we’re all on the same page about this, it makes life much more peaceful.

Talk to your toddlers. Engage with them. Educate them. Laugh with them (And at them sometimes. They are hilarious.). Give them boundaries and structure. But don’t argue with them. They will always win because their version of winning is often just to engage you in an argument. Let them say weird things without always having to correct them. If it’s 100 degrees outside and they promise you they are COLD and need their winter hat, what do you win if you demand they acknowledge it’s actually hot outside? It’s just not worth it. When we focus our energy on the battles worth winning that have to do with their heart, we’ll feel more stable and less irritated. And then our kids know when we can be, we are agreeable and friendly with them. This makes our strong responses and boundaries easier for them to accept.

So repeat after me:  I don’t argue with toddlers.

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