Q&A: "spoiled" 2-year-old?

Carla writes:

"OK, I don't want to overreact since it is my first time at this (my only child is a 2 year old girl).  But there have been some comments from relatives that my daughter is spoiled and that I over-indulge her.  I feel like I am strict where it makes sense to be strict with a 2 year old, that she is just 2 and will act like it at times and there is only so much you can do.  So I'm looking for a sanity check.  Over all, I think she is a happy, cheerful, busy girl, but there are a few things that have come up recently.

1. She is a very picky eater.  This has gotten worse in the last 3-6 months.  Sometimes she barely eats all day.  I don't give her milk with meals but if she asks for milk 30 minutes after a meal, I give it to her.  Am I spoiling her?  Should I provide 3 squares and 3 snacks, and that's it?  (I would feel like a prison guard enforcing such a rule but maybe I should.) Should I make her sit at the table until she has eaten a pre-determined amount?  She seems to young for that to me but maybe I am wrong.  And it seems to me pointless to battle over food (can I really force her to eat?) but again, maybe I am wrong.

2. She is big on the "mine" and "no" these days.  I try to let her have something when it doesn't matter (sure, feed Elmo a cracker) to avoid saying "no" all day long.  But if it is unsafe or means a lot to me, I definitely don't fold.  She has little tantrums and I just ignore it, they seem to me a normal 2 year old thing to do.  But should I act more strict when she has a tantrum?  (E.g., tell her "no tantrums!" in a big voice or something like that, give her a time-out, etc.)  Should I give up the pretense of letting her have her way?  A lot of times I phrase something as a question -- should I cut up that sandwich for you?  Some family members say I am over-catering to her.  But I am going to cut up the sandwich regardless, what does it hurt for her to feel like it was her choice?

3. She is constantly interrupting me when I am talking to other adults. I don't particularly care for this, but I feel my attempts at saying "Mommy is talking to X right now, you need to wait a minute," are like talking to a brick wall.  It even eggs her on more -- she says "Mommy no talk to X!"   I can just feel the person I am talking to disapproving of her as she does this.

4. Lastly -- the big one -- she is not big on hugging/kissing/being sweet to other adults when asked, and I am her clear favorite.  Like "give Grandma a hug" or "give Daddy a kiss."  She usually says "no."  I try to encourage it but really, how do you force anyone, even a 2 year old, to kiss someone they don't want to?  I talk about how much we love Grandma/Daddy (this one especially), and I give hugs/kisses, but I don't like forcing.  But the relatives, obviously, dislike this behavior, and I do wish she was nicer to them.

I spend a lot of time with her but not all the time -- I work 3 days per week so she has a babysitter those days, plus she goes to day care at the gym a few times a week for an hour or two each time.  Am I spoiling her?  Do I give her too much attention?  Should she be less of a mommy's girl at this point?  I don't want to be over-sensitive but when someone says she is "spoiled" it really raises my hackles. 

What do you think?"

I don't think she's spoiled at all. I think she's 2.

When I got this question I knew it would be perfect for the site because it's so universal. Your 2-year-old sounds like almost every 2-year-old I've ever met, and your list is like a Two-Year-Old's Greatest Hits.

Let's just go in order.

1. She may not be hungry, she may be trying to exert control, she may just not want to stop to eat. Whichever one (or combo of all of these) it is, trying to crack down is only going to make you nuts and make a lot more work for you, and it probably won't work anyway. At every meal, make sure you're offering a variety of nutritious options, but let her choose to eat what she wants from within that. Some families only allow what's been made for the meal (my grandmother always said that if we didn't like what she made, "go bump your head") and if you don't eat it, that's it. Other families have one (and only one) alternative meal allowed (I'm one of those, and our alternative is peanut butter and honey on multi-grain bread) that requires virtually no prep and is still nutritious. Decide which way you want to go (bump your head vs. one standard alternative), and then don't worry about it. Just offer dinner and then stick with your plan if she won't eat it. Don't get frustrated or take it personally.

Snacks are a great way to sneak in nutrition. Some kids don't seem to realize that they're eating healthily if it's in a snack and not a meal. They'll eat baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, grapes, cucumber rounds, sliced bell peppers, broccoli dipped in hummus, etc. as long as it's a snack. Figure out if there's something healthy she'll usually eat, and offer that as a snack.

2. It sounds to me like you're doing exactly the right thing with regard to tantrums. If you're solid on the things you won't allow (or require) then let the other things go. As enraging annoying as tantrums are, they're really the only way little people with limited verbal skills can express their emotions. Forbidding a kid to have a tantrum is like saying "You're not allowed to have or express your feelings." That doesn't mean that you give in, just that you allow the child to have her own feelings.

One technique many parents use is helping the kid verbalize the feelings, expressing sympathy, reiterating that the kid can't do what s/he wants, and offering an alternative. For example, "You must feel so angry that we can't go to the park. I'm sorry you feel so angry, sweetie. We can't go to the park now, but would you like to go tomorrow morning?" It's not going to stop every tantrum short, but it sets up a pattern of letting the child know that his or her feelings are heard, but tantrums won't change the outcome, but that there's room to come up with a mutually agreeable alternative.

When a child is really worked up, you can ask "Do you want me to hug you, or do you want to be alone until you feel better?" Some kids need the physical touch of a hug, while others really just need to be left alone to calm down. You know your kid well enough to know what's going to help them process the feelings and feel better. But if you ask the child what s/he wants in that moment, it can give the kid a way to save a little face while also calming down.

Giving choices is a great technique. Just make sure you're equally OK with both answers! "Do you want me to cut your sandwich?" is a good question only if you're OK if the answer is "No." (And I think we've all been bitten in the ass by answers like that.) Otherwise, you might want to reform the question into "Do you want me to cut your sandwich into squares or triangles?" It still maintains the choice, but the sandwich is getting cut either way.

3. I was talking to a friend the other day about the fact that you wrote in about interrupting. I was laughing, saying that mine hadn't stopped interrupting yet at 4, and she started laughing because her son is 5 and still interrupts. Yes, by age 4 or 5 they can back off once they're reminded that interrupting isn't polite, but the urge to interrupt is still there. IMO the only thing to do is just to calmly remind her not to interrupt and that you'll be with her in a minute, every time it happens. It's not going to work, but you have to keep reinforcing it anyway.

4. She may be going through the second clingy/stranger anxiety phase that happens right around 2. Everyone gets all excited about the one at around 9 months, but they forget all about the 2-year-old one. Or they think kids should be "beyond" clinginess and should just be forced to go to other people. I disagree, but you guessed that:). Kids who are forced to go physically to adults when they don't want to could be kids who end up ignoring their own instincts about who's safe and who isn't later on.

She may also just be exerting control over her own body by only going to certain people. If she's going to dig in her heels about controlling her own body, better refusing to kiss Daddy than, say, pooping on the couch, I guess. (I also think rejecting your husband and clinging to you is totally typical, and will probably flip-flop in the next few months and she'll want him all the time and reject you.)

Again, though, it goes with the letting your child trust her own instincts. You know there's nothing wrong with Grandma, but if there's something that strikes your daughter strangely about her at that moment, then your daughter needs to not be forced to kiss her. The challenge then becomes how to create the illusion that your daughter isn't rejecting your relatives. Maybe you could get her to draw some pictures, and then at the time that she'd be expected to kiss, you could give them the pictures instead. Or you could teach her to blow a kiss, and then make a big deal about how cute that is, so your relatives will want to get in on the blowing kisses thing.

My guess is that your family members may be looking at the theme of raising children differently from the way you look at it. It sounds like your core value is raising a child who makes good decisions. With that in mind, you give her enough room to practice making choices in a safe environment, but also reinforce to her that her opinions and feelings matter. If your family members have the core value of raising an obedient child, then they see no value in allowing her to practice making choices or giving her feedback about her feelings. They can't approve of the choices you give her, because the big picture you see just makes no sense to them. (And it's probably hard for you to get where they're coming from because you're not feeling the obedience thing.) There's no right or wrong point of view, but it gets sticky if you all don't see things the same way. Once you can see exactly where the mismatch is you can evaluate their assessments more objectively.

It sounds to me like she's totally normal, and you're in a really good place about the challenges of this age. Don't let anyone tell you she's spoiled, because you sound waaaay more focused at this point than many moms of 2-year-olds are.