How to tame the willful toddler: My journey in gentle parenting

Disclaimer: Before you read this please know that I am not here to judge your views on parenting. My goal is to support those who have similar views as I do and not to condemn those who don’t.

Isn’t that so hard to differentiate as mothers? It’s hard not to take another’s choices personally if they are not in line with our own. But I hope to foster a different kind of environment within this blog. I’ve actually been a little afraid to write this post or any “parenting” posts for that matter but it’s time.
Just over the past few months my role as a mother has changed. I no longer have a little baby who listens to every word I say with wide, happy eyes. I have a willful toddler with the same happy yet now very mischievous and independent eyes. It’s been a shock. This new phase has been tough for both of us. Some days it’s a battle to just get pants on Henri and all day I’m constantly asking myself “how should I deal with this?”

Since I’m in the battle and it’s all so fresh I have some approaches I’m taking that seem to be working. Oddly enough it’s more about ME than about him. I’m going to go over one approach today and turn this into a little series called “Taming the Willful Toddler”.

Discipline vs. Education:

Before I had Henri I read the book Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman. It’s an American author writing about her experience raising children in France. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend the book. It’s both entertaining and educational. I don’t agree with many of her approaches but some really resonate with me while offering a fresh new perspective. She talks about how French parents don’t even use the word “discipline” when they talk about their children instead they talk about “education.” This idea has HELPED ME SO MUCH. In the moments where I want to bark at Henri, spank him (we don’t spank) or give him a time out (no time outs just yet and unsure about them) I stop myself. The truth is, Henri is a tiny human who is new to this world. HE DOESN’T KNOW THE RULES and it’s my job to teach him. When he breaks a rule It’s a little hasty to punish him, don’t you think? He’s still trying to learn that I’m the one in charge. Disciple requires an action but education FIRST requires a thorough explanation.

Heres an example: Henri has started running away from me at the park. A common problem a lot of parents with toddlers have. When he does this I retrieve him and it goes like this:

“Running away from Mama is not for Henri. Mama needs you to stay close because you are small and I’m here to protect you. If you run away from me again we are going to have to leave the park because I need to keep you safe.”

This little talk works best at eye level with your child and if your child darts again YOU MUST FOLLOW THROUGH AND LEAVE. No need to scold or shame (more on the topic of shame in another post) your child but just restate what you already told them.

“We need to leave now because you didn’t listen when I asked you not to run away. It’s not safe to have you run away from me.”

What do you think about this approach? Do you think the discipline vs. education idea matters? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!


  1. Rachel

    Thanks for this post! We are just starting to go through the same thing 🙂 unfortunately we are having some issues with biting. Yikes! Peter and I have talked a length many times about discipline and what approach we wanted to tAke, long before Julia was ever conceived even. Now all of a sudden I’m realizing that we are entering that phase after infant hood, where we need to be hands on in guiding and laying boundaries. Even after seven years of teaching preschool and a year nannying 50 hours a week for three kids it terrifies me a little. Or a lot. I think because with Julia everything she learns is from us. She is fresh and new and all my experiences with children were ones who had a foundation laid, good or bad, that had shaped them already. In those moments of pure frustration when Julia has thrown all of her breakfast on the floor or is sticking something in the toilet, I remind myself exactly what you talked about. She is exploring and learning and she has no clue what the rules are. It’s our job to model and teach those rules. I love the idea of calling it education because it is so much more that than discipline at this ago. They are ot acting out of rebellion or rudeness, simply testing the world around them and exploring their independence. I am reminded of how much our behavior in a positive impact when Julia comforts another crying child by patting them o the back or when she carries her babies around and gives them kisses. She is love and knows love and showes love and that by far is most important.

  2. I love everything you have to say Rachel! I love that you can see Julia’s positive behavior shining through!!

  3. Jessica

    Great post. Same game plan here!:)

  4. Rachel Paulus

    Totally agree with this Julia! Thanks for sharing. I think our role is to shepherd and disciple out babes and this should be done with patience and grace for where they are developmentally and what they are going through as they navigate this big new world! The best, most encouraging book I’ve read that you might like is called “Parenting with Grace” by Greg Popcak – it’s actually a catholic book and offers wonderful and gentle suggestions (similar to how you handled the park situation) for this kind of teaching at every age/stage. Also supportive of bedsharing, baby wearing, extended breastfeeding, etc. Hope you’re doing well by the way, never thought I would end up in CA but I’m right down the coast from you it looks like! 🙂

  5. Marisa

    Thanks for this post, Julia, and your willingness to tackle these kinds of sensitive issues. I just ordered “Bringing Up Bebe” and can’t wait to read it! Looking forward to more of your “Gentle Parenting” posts 🙂

  6. Lauren

    My daughter knows (my son is still too small) that “my job is to keep them safe and loved”, and that means safe from each other’s angry actions, safe from drowning, safe from food that doesn’t help them grow… Time outs are brief here and self-regulated – you need to step out of this overstimulating situation until you are in control of yourself again, and not your wildfire driving your actions, and you may come back when that’s done. If you need help being your own fire fighter (we practice tactics in non-stressed times) I will come and help you. With the littlest I do tend to talk as though to a puppy because his bandwidth is so narrow: stop! Gentle! I will help you be safe. Gentle seems to be a better directive than stop, because I can demonstrate what it means, and redirection requires less self-control than cessation does. Defining my job this way also helps me know when I need to say no and when it’s just a cranky mommy no – am I keeping them safe and loved with this no, or am I serving only myself? Dumping the plants out of their pots is a No because I’m keeping the house safe / smearing PB on the floor isn’t safe for walking or my sanity… it’s a very flexible guideline!

  7. Just stumbled upon your site and I just love it! I am a soon-to-be first time mom in May 2014! My husband and I couldn’t be more excited. I am not however new to childcare. I have been working with children for 11 years and have a degree in child development and have raised many babies into awesome children. I agree so much with this approach since this is the way I think of discipline as well. As parents or care givers it is our job to educate children on how they should be have with us an society. I think the MOST IMPORTANT thing parents need to remember is the follow through! So many parents make empty threats and yell and scream and I have found this NEVER works. Staying calm and following through on ALL the rules EVERY TIME is important. Just like you stated if you say, “we are going to leave the park next time you run away” then if it happens again you must leave the park even if you don’t want to and your child doesn’t want to. They will catch on quickly that when mommy says no she means it and when mommy makes a rule I need to follow it. It alleviates all the power struggle, fighting, whining, crying and tantrums if you follow through on your parenting or “educating” ;).

  8. Glynka

    Thanks for the advice. I always appreciate hearing how others are working out this parenting thing. As a mommy of three five-and-under, I would just add a couple of things:
    – There is no one way that works for every child every time. Each of my children responds very differently to education or discipline, to the world around them and to me. And how they interact with all that is constantly in flux as they develop. They aren’t robots that can be guaranteed to respond in the same way every time. So there is no substitute for knowing my own child, being highly engaged and, oh yeah, prayer.
    – I love the idea of being 100% consistent with ALL the rules EVERY time and NEVER losing my cool. I wish I could do that. But I’m a human too. I put a lot of pressure on myself to parent perfectly. But I’m NOT PERFECT. I hope the other mommies and moms-to-be reading this can remember that grace and gentleness is not just for your children. It’s for you too. I think one of the most important things we can do in parenting is ask forgiveness from our children when we mess up. My littles see me apologizing to them, admitting when I don’t know what to do, giving myself time-outs when I’m about to lose it, and admitting when I was wrong. Sometimes they even do those things too. And it’s beautiful.

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