Question: My 27-month old son’s general disposition is calm, happy and secure. I know form speaking with other parents that I have it pretty easy and that he is about as good as it gets. My husband & I have one problem with him that may have been developing over the past year. When it comes time to change his diaper, he kicks (for fun). He doesn’t dislike having his diaper changed, or anything like that. He just thinks it’s great fun to kick. He also hits now and has landing some pretty good punches. He doesn’t seem to be hitting or kicking out of anger, he usually has a huge smile on his face. Our latest tactic (as prescribed by his pediatrician) is to hold him firmly by the shoulders, make close eye-contact and say “No hitting! That’s not nice!” or “That hurts mommy!” or something to that effect. His response is to look away, laugh, repeat those words with great exuberance, all the while smiling. It’s as if he thinks it’s all a fun game. Does he just not get it? Or does he “get it” but is somehow manipulating us! We have never spanked him and I don’t think we could do this, as some friends have suggested. We are trying to be very firm and consistent, but his responses are equally as firm and consistent. Nothing seems to help. We need more suggestions.
Answer: One of the greatest ironies of parenthood is when parents “do the right thing” and children continue with the problematic behavior. In this situation, your pediatrician’s recommendation is a good one. It just takes time. You are stating your expectations clearly and your son is old enough to understand your words.
The problem is that it is a game to your son. Your priority is to change the diaper. His priority is to extend the “game” as long as he can – to engage you in a struggle by kicking, turning away, and laughing. Why would a lovable, easy going, happy child try to drive his parents crazy? Because he’s 2! He is discovering that he holds social power, that he can get an emotional response from mom and dad. That he can dictate how long something takes. His payoff is huge and he likes what he can do. But, of course, he will soon learn there are more appropriate ways to use his new found power. He will have many other opportunities to invent games for mom and dad to play using his mind, his social skills, and his strength.
Somehow, you have to take yourselves out of the game. You cannot laugh or smile no matter how cute he is. Keep a stern face to let him know you are serious and not enjoying his kicking. You cannot even show too much anger because negative emotions reinforce behaviors as strongly as positive emotions. Whichever phrase you choose to use, try to say the same thing each time he begins the kicking. When he looks away, laughs, and repeats your words, wait. Give him the “I’m serious” look. You might even ask “are you ready now” as soon as see him calming down. Try to encourage any positive behavior you see. If the kicking behavior escalates, take a deep breath and stay calm. Continue with changing the diaper. When you are finished changing the diaper, get busy doing something unrelated to his needs. Use your body language to reinforce your words. Let your lack of attention give him the message that you do not like this behavior.
Stay with it! He’s been having a good time for a while. It will take time for him to realize that you will not tolerate kicking. Your success is guaranteed because he wants to please you more than anything else in the world. At the same time, give him lots of other opportunities to make choices (what to wear, what to play with, and where to go for a walk), to be responsible (get out the diaper, open the wipes and take one, help feed the dog, and take the napkins to the table), and to show his independence (to buckle the belt in his car seat, to get a juice box from the frig, and to pour his own cereal). It’s a great age, just a very exhausting one for parents!
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.