Q&A: 21-month-old acting up on purpose

Kate writes:

"My son is 21 months old.

Up to now he has been extremely responsive to correction from us.  If I told him something was a "no-no" and wagged my pointer finger, he would stop what he was doing, wag his own finger, say "no-no" and then applaud.  And we would applaud too.

In the past week or so, this has stopped working. Yesterday, I told him to stop grabbing the lettuce off of my plate and throwing it on the floor.  But he just got a glinty look in his eye, grabbed as much lettuce as he could and threw it on the floor.  Today, I told him I would not buy him a matchbox car from the man selling them on the street.  So he took his hand and swept it along the table pushing 5 or 6 cars onto the sidewalk.

I would like to handle incidents like this calmly and consistently.  Our old method doesn't really work, though, because as our son has matured he's lost interest in doing things like touching fans or outlets that are predictable enough that we are able to put them in the "no-no" category in advance.

He also seems to have started acting badly "on purpose" as opposed to because his overwhelming interest/lack of impulse control got the better of him.  He seems to be doing bad things to see how we will respond.

So my question to you is -- how should we respond? First, how should we respond if he does something bad that we're not 100% sure he knew was bad, like sweeping the cars onto the sidewalk?  Second, how should we respond if he does something he was well aware was bad -- like throwing food on the floor?

Although what I am most interested in is your expert opinion, if there's a book or other resource you think would be helpful, that would be great too."

Well, I'm so not an expert, but I did feel like this was a problem I had half a decent handle on the first time, and may be able to deal with as I head into it again. (In contrast to the myriad problems I have no clue about.)

I think the thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to engage in a battle of wills with your toddler. This shouldn't be about controlling him, but instead guiding him to better behavior. He's testing to see what he can get away with, and it won't serve anyone if he gets away with negative behavior, but if you can guide him without being punitive he'll have less to push back against.

The way I handled that was to remain matter-of-fact as I said "No" and just picked him up and redirected him. I found that my older son needed to be physically guided away from things he shouldn't do (whether that was throwing food on the floor or biting other kids or pulling the cat's fur) and guided toward the new thing I wanted him to do instead. Part of my plan was to have him repair any damage he'd done as much as possible, so if he threw food on the floor, I'd guide his hands while he cleaned it up. We'd talk about how to fix a situation if he'd taken or broken anything. Sometimes things couldn't be fixed. We talked about that, too.

The idea I returned to again and again with him was "We don't do that." That made it just a standard of behavior, not something I was setting up that he could fight me on. (The same way we used "It's time for bed" instead of "I want you to go to bed.") I think if I'd known about Hedra's "safe, respectful, and kind" idea I would have filtered everything through that. "We don't do that because it's not respectful," etc. He knew very clearly what the boundaries were and that he couldn't go past those boundaries, but there was no nastiness or control struggle about it. (Is anyone else testing out Hedra's Big 3? We've been doing it for about a week in our house. If anyone else is trying it we can all discuss it in a few weeks.)

If I could get to him before he misbehaved to move him away from what he was going to do, things worked out better than if I had to play clean-up after he'd done something he wasn't supposed to. I really don't believe in waiting to see what a kid this young will do, and then punishing when they misbehave. It's a toddler's job to test limits, so of course they're going to do what they're not supposed to. Catching him when he opened his mouth and started to lunge, and putting in his biting toy was part of the process of helping him be able to make better choices. Waiting until he'd bitten and then punishing him pulled the focus away from helping him learn the boundaries and to control his behavior.

You may have a child who responds well to verbal cues and doesn't need the physical guidance. In that case, you'll have to stay on top of things by directing him to do what you want him to do before he misbehaves. As an example, if you saw him about to throw the lettuce, you could direct him to put the lettuce on the table. Again, you're helping him make better behavior choices and at the same time not allowing him to do the negative behavior. If he still does the thing you don't want him to do, try using the physical guidance and see how he responds. And, of course, he needs to clean up any mess he makes, whether it's throwing lettuce or brushing cars on the floor.

If you reinforce the boundaries like this, there really isn't a difference in the way you treat something you know he knew not to do and something you don't know he knew not to do. You'll have plenty of time to get angry at him for deliberately disobeying you when he's 3 1/2 (oh, yes), so at this first misbehaving stage try to keep the focus just on reinforcing boundaries without emotion.

There are going to be tantrums. Only you know what your child needs during a tantrum. And it may vary by the situation. Some kids are just letting off steam and need to be left alone to rage. Others need closeness to be helped through the bad feelings. You could always try asking, "Do you need a hug?" and if the answer is "No" (or "No!!!") you can say "I'm sorry you feel so sad. I'll be in the kitchen when you're ready for a hug." That way your child knows you're there to comfort them, but the tantrum doesn't dictate anyone's actions.

That's what worked for me. We entered this phase right after I read Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting, and I know that book helped me focus on what message I was trying to get across during this extremely trying phase.

I know some of you will also have great ideas about how to weather this stage gracefully and productively, and some book recommendations. Lay them on us.