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  1. hi! i loved reading through this and felt tears welling up in my eyes a couple times! i’m wondering if you have advise for me. ‘My 2yo is generally very gentle and kind to her friends. She pushes her younger cousin every so often and i usually pull her aside and tell her that’s not nice to push him. What words should i say instead? I tell her it’s good to be gentle with your friends but she still pushes him on accession and looks at me with a smile when she does it! Yesterday she came home and my husband told me she hit her good friend. i’ve never seen her hit before. She was with our nanny at the time. I said to her, Did you hit M? She had a coy smile and said, ‘yes i did.’ i asked, what did M say when you hit him? She said, he said no Ruby. No hitting.’ I said that was very good of M to tell you no. I’m sure he didn’t like you hitting him and that’s not very nice. I asked her why she pushed M but she didn’t have an answer. I’m realizing maybe i use the word nice too much. Well, not nice actually:) Should i have just left it alone? I said that wasn’t very nice to hit M and he’s your friend. He won’t want to play with you if you hit him. I think i took it too far now
    that i’m writing it out! Any advise is appreciated on what i should say if this happens again. Thanks!

    1. Stefanie, oh boy have I been there! I’m definitely not the expert on toddler hitting, but I came across this awesome post recently, and it’s been so helpful to me lately. Hope that helps!

    2. I have seen this situation happen with my 2 year old who tried to bite me… and what I did is I tried to show her how to be empathetic. I explained that when you hit people, (or biting in my case) it hurts and then the other person is sad and they cry (I add drama for her to understand better…sometimes I even pretended to cry…). I asked her how she would feel if someone hit her or bite her… she would normally reply that she would cry. Crying is no fun huh? Then I ask how we can make it better…that’s when she would give me a hug or say sorry. I find that just saying that something is good or bad doesn’t stop the action or prevent it next time… explaining the consequences of their action is what they need to grasp so they don’t do it again. It works for my daughter usually.

      Another example is when she fights for toys. I tell her that the other kid will be sad, he won’t have anything to play with… I ask her what we can do. After some practice, she eventually suggest sharing it, or will negotiate with the other kid (Do you want this toy instead?) which I find is appropriate.

      Just my point of view. :)

  2. What a powerful post! I love how you share honestly with us your own parenting experiences, helping your readers learn and come to terms as well. We’ve all been in those moments, the wrong words come out, but you learned from it and nailed the follow up. I hope I can handle it so well the next time I find myself there!

    1. Emma, you are so right! We’ve all had these moments, right? Sometimes I feel silly when it takes me years to realize something like this, but there’s one thing we’re all perfect at: Being imperfect. :-)

  3. Thank you for adding empathy to the discipline equation. When we ‘pause’ before reacting we are not only giving our kids a gift of a more positive reaction, we are also teaching them that a thoughtful pause is a better option than regretful behavior.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Kelly! I need this reminder today. My two year old son bowed his head and slumped in the car seat after I said “you’re being destructive again” while he pulled on the curtains as we tried to walk out the door to the car. I felt so bad but didn’t realize it was what I said more than what we were doing. I tried to console him as I buckled him up saying that I understood that he didn’t want to leave the house yet. I was totally wrong. I’m trying again, and will be keeping in mind IRA tomorrow.

  5. When my son is in need of discipline I always start with, “what am I thinking right now?” Usually he says he doesn’t know. But it gives me a moment to check myself before I respond. I totally agree about NOT labeling. I had a teacher tell me I was “disgusting” in 2nd grade because I was biting my nails. (I have always had anxiety.) That word – disgusting- has affected me my entire life.

    1. Love that idea for checking yourself before you reply, Liz!

      I’m so sorry that happened to you in second grade. Words are so powerful, and not everyone realizes the power they carry. <3

  6. I really needed this, so thank you so much for sharing this imperfect mom moment that we all find ourselves in eventually. You sure seemed to recover well. My husband and I have tried to differentiate between a label for the action and for our 2yo daughter, as in, “That’s not nice, and you’re a nice girl so you shouldn’t do that.”. Still not great. Your suggestions for asking how they would feel & involving them in the fix is a winner! Thank you for the much-needed kick in the caboose!

  7. Wow, thank you so much for writing this post. Grandma IRA? GENIUS idea. I am all about visualizations like that to help be in the moment and make the most of our time and that is something I’m going to remember to picture. Thank you for explaining this concept. Last week was a difficult week for my two year old girl and I said, “you’re acting like brat” and even though she didn’t know what that meant… it hurt me as soon as I said it, and I have felt terrible about it ever since even though it has never come up again. I knew there had to be a better way and that I didn’t want my mouth to run away like that in the heat of the moment. So thank you. I always always always maintain a positive discipline approach and really appreciate your take on this.

    1. Lizzie, I’m so glad to hear this resonated with you and gave you a visualization that will help in those moments. <3 Don't beat yourself up about that slip of the tongue. We all make mistakes — it's how we repair the relationship afterwards that matters. You are a *good mama*!

  8. Wow! I loved reading this. Your ideas and insight are wonderful examples. Thank you!

  9. IN, REPORT and ASK! I will start using this technique on my three years old daughter from now on. I am starting to experience some fits and tantrums from her and sometimes I tend to let my mouth loose to the point that I am not able to think before I speak. Now I would know how to calm myself during those frustrating times. I also would not want to “label” my child negatively and if I unintentionally do it, I would also use your approach. Hopefully I would have the same outcome as you did with your kids.

  10. This is a big load of crap. If a child is being mean it’s OK to tell them that they are being mean. This is exactly what is wrong with children today. We have created a mess. Please don’t hurt a child’s feelings. They might learn something.

    1. I was thinking this same exact thing. There’s a difference between teaching and reacting (i.e. yelling but not explaining), but it’s absolutely OK to tell a child that they ARE being mean by doing something mean- you just have to take the time to explain it. “You’re a good person, right? Well, when you hit your sister, you’re being mean to her, and you don’t want to be a mean person, do you?”

  11. I’m in tears and grateful to hear and learn strategies to improve and that I’m not alone. Being a single mom with no family of good friends close by causes stress on both of us and we take it out on each other. I’m going to make myself 5 elastic bracelets today!!!

  12. Thank you so much for being honest about yourself! Wonder Woman you are! You have inspired me to pause and reflect towards my own kids! Excellent article! Mommyhood isn’t all hearts and flowers. It takes an incredible amount of strength, love and courage to brave the complicated and unpleasant issues with raising healthy, confident and positive kids! And, you are inspiring me and other great moms along the way! Thank you, Sweetie! You are a fantastic mom!

  13. Such a POWERFUL read, and so inspiring that you were able to take a step back and assess your parenting choices, and how you could make a better one next time. My 2-year-old is in very physical stage right now- hitting, kicking, and biting when things don’t go his way. More than I’d like to admit, the words “Why are you being mean” have escaped my lips, and I never really thought twice about it. I like the idea of reporting what you see – it really gives kids the opportunity to recognize the events going on at the time. Some awesome things to think about, thanks for sharing! <3

  14. Cookie Holland says:

    I’m 70 years old and I have a couple of things to say. First, you probably aren’t going to be the Perfect Parent because, as someone once told me, “there ain’t no such animal as that!”
    Second, I made a habit of remembering when I went into labor and how much I wanted my child. I’d think about that at times when I wasn’t engaged with her. Nights, early mornings, when I took a coffee break, etc. I remembered to do it because I taped a note to the bathroom mirror, put one on the fridge under a magnet, taped one to the stove (away from the burners).
    Also, use the hairband trick when you go to work or when you drive in heavy traffic or any time you think that you even might have an angry or frustrated response to a situation. Your kids will grow up but people who irk you always will be around!
    Last, as well as the negative reinforcement of having to take a hairband off your wrist because you’ve been bad, do something like giving yourself a flower when you’ve been good. It can be a virtual flower that you just think of or even better, buy some small artificial flowers and use two little vases or juice glasses. Put all the flowers into one of them and when you do something good–not fussing at your kids, doing a chore that you’ve wanted to put off, being nice in traffic without mentally chewing out the driver that cut you off, etc.–put a flower into the other glass to reward yourself. And whenever you get the chance to sit down and put your feet up, do it! It helps the blood flow back to your big, warm, loving heart.

  15. This is great, thank you! My 3-year old is having an extremely hard time listening. We have a second daughter on the way but she’s on her own right now. The battle we deal with day in and day out is her expressing her will and not doing what we ask of her (brushing teeth, getting dressed, eating dinner). We try offering rewards if she does all she is supposed to before or after school, but we deal with the same problem every day. I have a friend who said even a label of “good girl” can be damaging and you shouldn’t label no matter what because later on in life they can feel like they can’t live up to the positive labels and are afraid to make mistakes. Now I’m at a total loss! How do I positively reinforce good behavior or encourage it? I try to use rewards/consequences instead of labels but it’s SO hard and engrained to say “you were a really good listener today!” Any ideas? Thanks :)

  16. Kaylee Blake says:

    I REALLY love your advice and desperately need it. I catch myself yelling shut up to my 10 year old WAY too much. I really need your book lol thx

  17. This was all so real. Children do not have the luxury of non linear thought and without realizing we can hurt them. You are so right those words can stick around a long time.

  18. This is a great article. I am currently struggling with my 8 year old son, being a handful more often then not! He is not beginning to be disrupting in school, not only at home. I’ve been searching your site in hopes to find something to help with discipline and how to address the situation, instead of saying…why are you being such a brat?! Labeling…just as you say not to…help!

  19. Holy cow! You just reached in and touched the depths of my soul! I do this and you are right, it crushes my daughter. And it made me think of when I was labeled as a brat and selfish. I’ve had to overcome my people pleasing ways and dimming my light in my adult life because of these fears of being a these things. I do not want this for my children, so THANK YOU! This is so valuable!

  20. I’m constantly trying to find what works with my 4.5 yr old. I find myself labeling her then backtracking. I like the IRA technique but in some instances I wonder if she’ll solve her problem then think- “next time I write on the table I’ll just clean it up.”
    What do you think?

  21. Such a great article!!

  22. Oh, Gramma IRA – I love you! This resonates so deeply. And yet, I am at a loss. My 2 year old is a little wild spitfire of a kid who has almost never been described as gentle. Backbone for dayyyys!!! His amazing energy gives me so much pause when I think of what he brings to this world…..but right now he’s bringing me to my knees.
    He responds to reporting and asking what to do about things with answers like “I WANT you to cry! I WANT to hurt you!”. He laughs when shoving and being rough, and natural consequences of other children not playing with him are not connecting. I am currently writing this with scratches across my face where he clawed me while I was separating him and his 7month old brother. I get scratched, despite blocking his hands, on a near daily basis.
    We frequently co-sleep, I work as much positive commentary in as I can throughout the day (including reworking the wording of songs to convey what I love about him). I’m on a mat leave and at home, so we get lots of 1:1 time. I practice Attachment Parenting to the best of my ability. And I’m so sad, frustrated, and at a loss. I feel empty and crushed and like my child is sucking every bit of gentleness from me. What else can I do?

    1. I’m not an expert and I don’t know what – if anything – is missing from your parenting. But I’ll offer 2 ideas:
      1. When you ask him to stop doing something or if he did something undesirable, you shouldn’t expect remorse. Say why it was wrong by all means, insist on an apology if you want to, but it’s as simple as this: Stop doing that. Not stopping? I take your hand and I make you stop because I’m in charge. Now you stop, and if you don’t then I’ll help you to stop by removing you from the situation or removing the object from you. This requires a bit more imagination in different circumstances.
      2. When you ask him to do something, he will do it. Don’t skirt around the issue – you can be assertive and kind. “Time to put your toys away. By yourself or with help?” Maybe a second time just in case he didn’t hear. If you have to say it a third time, you get on his level and hold his hand. “I asked you to do this. Now you’re going to do it with help.” Then you lead him over and physically ensure he does it. Anything else will teach him that your requests are optional. One thing I’ve learned from my toddler is that some kids react super well to what’s said in this article. And some kids react well to it SOME of the time. But not every kid, and not all the time. It requires us to be not lazy and have a lot of stamina, but you gotta start teaching your kid that you mean what you say and you don’t require his agreement. And when he learns to communicate, he can certainly question what you say and you can change your mind if that’s appropriate, but set that foundation of cooperation first.

  23. I absolutley love your post and agree with it.
    I have applied it some times now and it works wonders.
    Our challenge now is when my 4 year old hits my 1 year old.
    I have to inhale many times because of course that hitting is harder for me than throwing food or other things…
    Do you have extra advice on this?

  24. My Mother will give me wisdom WHEN I ask her for it, and something wwhich has stuck in my heart the most is to use the positive encouragements and/or suggestions rather than having the children focusing on the failing side and making them feel like they’ll never conquer the enemy! And I MUST say that in using this approach, my three children (3, 5, and 7) have been MUCH more encouraged and it’s NO LONGER such a sheer battle to teach them to be kind to other people!!! I THANK GOD for wisdom and wise parents!!!???

  25. Hi! I loved this post, and have been there many times. Thanks for posting- I also have made many similar discoveries! It is so much harder to parent than anyone knows before they get there!

  26. Lauren C. says:

    This was a really useful and wonderful piece.

    I love the acronym IRA and will think of your grandma when I try remember to apply the wisdom of peace. ;-)

  27. Its Ray from This is a great article!
    Thank you for sharing this Kelly!

  28. I’m now a single parent of two young children (3 and 7) as very sadly my wife passed away unexpectedly last Christmas. I’m finding it really hard to control my emotions with my kids especially when they start playing up. My 3 yr old daughter is definitely in the defiant stage, so refusing to do basic things etc, even my son is pushing back and it’s driving me crazy. How can support them and myself in a calm and guiding way? I’ve found myself calling them names like “uncaring”, “stroppy”, “mean” but I think some of that is my emotion coming out.