Strategies for a Spirited Toddler

Today’s post is brought to you by our guest blogger, The Cooking Mama. Read along as she presents some of her parenting strategies with her daughter, Goose.

I think most, if not all of us have felt subject to the scrutiny of friends, family, and complete strangers when it comes to how we raise our children. The well-intentioned but unsolicited comments, criticism, and advice start while you’re busy minding your own business and gestating and as far as I know, continue right on into toddlerhood and beyond. As a first-time mom trying to find her way, it can be hard to remain confident in your abilities and choices as a parent when everyone and their dog has something to say on the matter. It seems like today more than ever, our methods and philosophies on parenting are a matter of public consumption – everyone gets a say in how we are supposed to raise our kids and few hesitate to tell us when we’re doin’ it wrong. And when your toddler is “spirited”, a common euphemism for the strong-willed, temperamental, or even outright difficult child, it can feel like you never get it right.

Goose loves the goats!

My 17 month old daughter Goose is an intense little spitfire. She has been full of personality since the day she was born, and if I can be braggy for a minute, she’s very bright, and lovable and sweet to boot. But she has never been an easy, or easygoing baby. We have been through hell and back with her sleeping issues. She’s been into everything from the second she learned to locomote. She’s always been extremely vocal about what she wants and when she wants it (hint: NOW!). She’s not deterred by silly things like baby gates or cabinet locks or closed doors with doorknobs too high to reach, and will keep at something she wants with bull-headed determination until we physically remove her from it. She tests limits at every chance she gets. So yes, while we love her intensely, it has been a challenge not just keeping her safe but also staying sane ourselves. And it’s doubly hard to do when everyone wants to offer advice on how to tame our “brat”.

We’ve steadfastly ignored the suggestions to spank, and to bite/pinch her back when she does it to us. Not an option. We briefly tried time-outs but I don’t think she’s yet able to draw a connection between say, hitting the TV and being made to sit in a designated time-out chair. With time I’m sure she would understand, and we will probably revisit the idea in a few months, but right now, she immediately goes back to doing whatever got her put in time-out to begin with, so I think the message is not quite getting to her. Yelling, which I admit to doing in moments of extreme frustration, doesn’t faze her in the least and besides, makes me feel guilty. So what CAN you do with a willful little girl like Goose? Well, as of yet we haven’t found a discipline tool that is 100% effective, but I have gleaned a few ideas from mama friends, toddler-rearing books, and the good old internet, and I think these ideas can be helpful with toddlers of any persuasion.

“Feeding the Meter”

This is a concept outlined by Dr. Harvey Karp, of the Happiest Baby/Happiest Toddler on the Block  fame, and it was explained to me in shorthand by one of my mama role models (you may know her as The Scrivener) at a time when I REALLY needed help. What it boils down to is giving your toddler your full, undivided attention for short periods of time throughout the day, essentially “topping them off” with close interaction from mama to keep them satisfied and secure knowing that mama is there if they need her. I think a common misconception is that stay-at-home-moms play with their kids during every waking moment. Well perhaps some do, but if you’re anything like me, you also need to do chores, go to the bathroom, shovel some food that isn’t your kid’s leftover scraps into your starving face, and yes, even spend some time doing stuff YOU enjoy in order to stay sane, like playing on facebook for a little while or reading a chapter from a novel. Goose has always been pretty good about playing independently while I work around her, and I think that’s an important skill for her to have, so I give her some space. When she gets crabby, though, that’s usually a signal that she is overdue for some one-on-one time, and we cuddle on the floor with her books or find a new toy to play with for a few minutes. This usually does a pretty good job of heading off the more undesirable behaviors. Usually.



Peacock Goose

As I mentioned before, Goose will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and many times, pretty much our only resort is to physically remove her from imminent danger (either to herself or to our belongings). As you can imagine, she doesn’t take kindly to being pulled away from something she wants, so our best bet is to get her excited about something else as quickly as possible. She loves doing big girl things like helping throw laundry into the dryer, carrying socks into her room and putting them in the basket, and stirring an empty pot while I cook, so “putting her to work” is the easiest form of redirection for us. Other kids may respond just as well to being shown a toy or book, but if yours is hell-bent on destruction, appeal to his big boy pride and take advantage of a little child labor.


Some go-with-the-flow parents don’t need to keep to a routine and their kids do fine – I envy those parents! Goose is a creature of habit so we have always had a routine for naps and we find it’s best to stick as closely to that routine as possible to avoid meltdowns. Creating expectations and performing little rituals helps Goose transition from the things she wants to be doing to the thing she needs to do without much fuss. Naptime and bedtime rituals have changed over the months (from nursing to sleep, to saying goodnight to everything in sight to avoid a tantrum, to now collecting her binkies by herself and tossing them in the crib) but one constant we’ve used since birth is the Fisher Price Soothe and Glow Seahorse. We have turned it on for her at every nap and bedtime for the last 17 months and she now associates it with sleeping time and will even turn it on by herself when she wakes in the middle of the night, which often is enough to soothe her back to sleep without our intervention. Creating strong sleep associations has helped us make naptime and bedtime much less stressful events for everyone involved. And more sleep means a much happier little girl and a less-zombiefied mama.

So, to wrap up this epic tome – I don’t have all the answers to raising a spirited toddler (and I welcome any ideas the readers may have). If I did, my husband probably wouldn’t come home to an absolute mess of a house and a hissing, tearful wife quite as often as he does. But you know, we’re not aiming for perfection here and Goose and I are learning together. It’s been quite the journey already and I’m looking forward to seeing her grow as a smart, independent, and headstrong young lady.