Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Sometimes it’s just downright disgusting. Regardless of how you feel about the activity, what’s the best way to respond to a child who insists on picking her nose?

What it looks like:  The above video says it all. No concern for propriety or cleanliness, when there’s something in her nose it has to come out…now. Forget tissues, the best tool for the job is always a handy finger.

Mistaken for: Being rude or impolite.

What child is learning:
The human body – Children are ceaselessly fascinated with the human body, especially it’s nooks and crannies. Early investigations usually involve touch and taste so it’s not surprising that treasures found in the nose usually end up in the mouth.

How to explore the body safely – The body can’t be poked and prodded quite as vigorously as toys. Since some parts carry or are sensitive to germs cleanliness is also a factor.

Appropriate behaviours in public – Children have yet to learn which bodily nooks and crannies are acceptable to explore in public and which are not. The most common approach to learning this lesson is through trial and error.

How to support: It’s important to remember that nose-picking is a learning experience for children. And as always, the way in which adults respond determines how constructive the experience is. A response of disgust and embarrassment is not only confusing but can dampen a child’s sense of curiosity. If this is what happens when I put my finger in my nose, what will happen when I explore other parts of my body? I don’t want to find out! Alternatively, such a response may just encourage more inappropriate exploration. If this is what happens when I put my finger in my nose, what will happen when I explore other parts of my body? Let’s find out!

So how can you respond in a way that helps children to learn? Here are a few ideas:

Be proactive – I’ve been having a great time teaching Primary Ones (5-year-olds) all about noses. It all started with a great book called The Holes in Your Nose by Genichiro Yagyu. This book covers it all: mucus, nose bleeds, bogies and nose hair. It clarifies the mystery surrounding noses with no judgement or drama. And if you want to take it to the next level, you can even make your own fake snot. The kids in my class loved this activity and figured out how to make fake bogies by adding bits of dirt to the mucus (just like it explains in the book). Once you’ve gone through all this learning together it’s much easier for children to see why it’s not a good idea to engage in public nose-picking.

Avoid scolding – Nose-picking in and of itself is not innately wrong and children shouldn’t be made to feel naughty for engaging in it. Adding on moral value will only make the issue more confusing.

Avoid dramatizing it – In our culture, picking one’s nose has somehow become one of the most disgusting things a person can do in public. When I stop to think about it I’m not sure why it’s so dramatized…and children won’t get it either. It helps to be honest when explaining social and cultural expectations to children. Acknowledge the fact that these norms don’t always make sense but that following them can show respect for others.

Teach her how – It’s silly to assume that a child is never going to pick her nose. Of course she is. We all do. What she needs to know is how to do it safely (use a tissue, wash hands after, don’t poke to high up) and when it is appropriate to do so (at home, perhaps in the bathroom). Go ahead and begin teaching her these things as soon as you observe her starting to explore her nose.

I hope you enjoy embracing the reality of nose-picking as much as I have. Just another one of those times when childlike innocence can bring out the fun in life!


I’m working on a post on free-flow play but it’s not quite ready yet. In the meantime I wanted to share something I’ve been learning lately.

Who doesn't love a good whisking?!?

I naturally find it easy to assume the best of children. Something about their newness to the world allows me to remember that they’re not trying to annoy us or wind us up. That may be the result but it’s not their primary intention – they have far too much exploring to do to make time to annoy adults.

enjoying Daddy's birthday breakfast

But for some reason I fail to apply that same thinking to adults. Instead I assume the worst – she must be judging me, he must think I’m stupid. These kinds of assumptions are most often untrue and always unhelpful.


What is helpful? Assuming the best of everyone. There’s surely a reason that co-worker snapped at me and it likely had nothing to do with me at all. It doesn’t excuse her inappropriate behaviour but it certainly changes my response.

Leg? Check. Sock? Check.

It’s not an easy task, being the one to take the first step. And it wouldn’t be unreasonable to respond in kind. But adults deserve the benefit of the doubt just as much as children do. So please, assume the best of me.

We are currently struggling a bit with getting E out the door. She’s desperate to get outside and isn’t purposefully stalling, but she doesn’t yet understand why certain other things have to happen first. ‘No!’ is her response to socks. ‘No, no!’ to trousers. And ‘No, no, no!’ with tears in her eyes to gloves. You can see the frustration in her face – ‘I don’t want to put clothes on…I want to go outside!’

My husband and I both know that she’s not meaning to be difficult. But we still find ourselves getting frustrated in the moment. How can we balance her request for an activity with her firm refusal to prepare for that activity?

Enjoying some mud on the way home

What it looks like: Requesting something (to go out, hold another toy, get down from table), but then firmly refusing to carry out the necessary preparations (putting on clothes, letting go of one toy, washing hands).

Mistaken for: Wanting to have everything her way; being difficult or silly.

What child is learning: She is learning to understand the connections between actions and their preparations. But since these connection are quite complex, and different preparations correspond to different actions, it will be some time before she fully understands. I’m not a child psychologist so I don’t know exactly how long it will take but based on my experience teaching nursery I’d say she’ll be at least 3 before she stops actively protesting preparations and even longer before she fully understands why the must occur. So what can be done in the meantime?

How to support: I’ll be honest…this is where we’re struggling a bit. But so far this is what I’ve learned:

  • Remember her developmental stage – No matter how obvious it seems to you, keep reminding yourself that she’s still trying to work out the connection between getting dressed and going outside.
  • Talk to her – Even though your verbal explanations won’t make it click for her suddenly, your tone, expression and body language will help her see that there’s a reason you’re wrangling her into these fuzzy hand-traps. In time, the words themselves will also add to her understanding.
  • Try to see it from her point of view – I’m sure we’ve all been subject to bureaucratic paperwork that seems entirely unnecessary. How does that make you feel? What could someone do to ease your frustration, even if they couldn’t change the situation?
  • Break the preparations into manageable chunks – When we’re going outside I like to pile all our gear in the hallway, sit us down, and then just work our way through the pile. But it’s occurred to me that this pile might be a daunting sight for an 18-month-old, so I’m trying to start the preparations earlier and put on a few items at a time, giving her some space in between each step.
  • Don’t rush the preparations – Try to leave an extra 5, 10 or 20 minutes if possible. This will allow time for all of the above suggestions.
  • Accept your own frustration – As I write this post I’m becoming more aware of how reasonable it is to feel frustrated in this kind of situation. It’s an awkward but unavoidable problem and it’s not going to pass quickly. Thankfully, no matter how you feel, you get to choose how you respond.

I’ve also found it really helpful to remember that in denying my daughter’s more immediate want (not to get dressed) I’m actually helping her accomplish what she wants most (to go outside). Until she’s able to understand preparations, it’s my job to support her through them.

If you have any more suggestions for us I’d love to hear them!

Hello friends!

Welcome to those of you who’ve recently found your way over here through a Facebook or Pinterest link. Below are a few reading suggestions to help you get a feel for the vision of this blog.

A bit about me

My favourite post so far

Post through which I learned the most

Some of my best teachers

I post on a new topic each week (Sun/Mon depending on your time zone) and am always keen for suggestions. I have a Facebook page (link at the bottom of this page) and am slowly making my way onto Pinterest so I may see you there someday soon.

Thanks for following – I look forward to learning together:) Jenna


My daughter doesn’t hate baths, in fact she toddles around the house saying ‘ba, ba, ba’ when she hears the tub filling up. But she’s never loved being washed (hair or otherwise) and I’m sensing that her aversion may be growing stronger. I’ve heard enough horror stories about bath-time battles from parents (including my own) to know that I want to nip this issue in the bud. But where to start?

photo credit: Nathan Stamper

What it looks like: Responses can vary greatly. Child may simply whine or say ‘no’ when bath time comes around or she may happily enter the bath but cry when water is poured over her head. If the fear and trauma are really deep she may scream, hold her breath and even vomit at the mere suggestion of a bath.

Mistaken for: Irrational fear of a simple and necessary routine. 

What child is learning:
IF a child is forced (fears are either dismissed or not acknowledged) into a bath when she has made it clear that this is NOT something she’s okay with…

  • her fears may deepen
  • she will certainly lose some trust in the adult who is forcing her in
  • she may lose confidence in the validity of her own feelings
  • bath time will be very stressful for everyone

IF a child is not forced into a bath before she is ready (fears are acknowledged and she is supported to work through them)…

  • her fears will likely heal
  • she will develop more trust in the adult who is respecting her fears
  • she will learn that her feelings are valid
  • she will learn how to cope with fearful situations

How to support: One of the first things to do in ANY situation where a child is refusing is to reassess your priorities. There are certain times when you need to stick to your guns (I won’t let you hit. It’s time to sleep now. We need to go and pick up your brother.) but it’s easy to lengthen the list of these times unnecessarily (You must say please. You can’t get your trousers dirty. You need to share that toy.) It does not undermine your authority to change your boundaries, as long as you’re doing it because you think it’s right and not because you want to avoid confrontation. So in this case you must decide how important a daily bath really is. Is it right up there with physical safety or could it perhaps come down a notch?

Now this isn’t to say that bathing is completely unimportant and if a child refuses to bathe you should just give up on baths altogether. Surely that would not help, if only because it would teach her to bow to her fears and that’s clearly not what we’re going for. What’s needed instead is a two-fold approach:

  1. Acknowledge the child’s fear – In my daughter’s case, this means stopping and listening when she says ‘no’. I need to slow down and speak to her about what is happening. I would like you to have a bath now but I hear you saying no. Perhaps I’ve interrupted her focused play? I can see that you’re very focused. I’ll come back in a few minutes and see if you’re ready then. Perhaps she’s upset about the idea of taking off her clothes and being cold? I know that you don’t like it when I take your clothes off and you’re cold. Let’s go to the bathroom where it’s warm and we’ll change you slowly. Perhaps she’s anticipating me pouring water over her head and it getting in her eyes? I think you might be worried about getting water in your eyes. I promise that I won’t pour any water on you without checking with you first. If you’d like, you can pour the water and wash your hair. Will she wash her hair as thoroughly and quickly as I would? No. But what’s more important here, dispelling her fears or perfectly clean hair? Acknowledging fears does not mean indulging them. It doesn’t mean that I take her away from whatever it is she fears but instead support her as she faces it. There are all sorts of reasons children may fear the bath – some suggest it’s an important instinct to keep them from drowning while others have figured out that their child is afraid of going down the drain with the water! Your child’s developmental stage and level of communication will determine how much you’ll be able to understand about his fear. Go ahead and talk to your child to try and find out what is behind the fear but don’t pressure her to come up with an explanation. She may not understand it any better than you but it doesn’t make the fear any less real.
  2. Support the child to work through her fear – If you’re looking for a way to heal deep trauma I suggest this article. But if, like me, you’re at the prevention stage you’re mostly looking to…
    • Slow things down – I’m guilty of trying to solve these problems by moving quickly in an effort to ‘just get it over with’. This backfires. Every time. It’s motivated entirely by my own impatience. Instead, move slowly, explain what you’d like to do before you do it AND THEN WAIT. Allow her time to process what you’ve said and give you permission.
    • Rethink your priorities – Is a daily hair wash really necessary? What about a daily bath? Could a sponge bath do the trick until he is feeling more comfortable with the tub?
    • Try to give over as much control as possible – Invite him to wash his own hair and body. Bring in a baby doll that he can wash. Carefully explain everything that you do (I’m going to put a wet wash cloth on the back of your head.) and wait for his permission (Is that okay or would you like to do it?) If all else fails, climb into the tub with him and have him wash your hair!
    • Don’t put her into the bath until she indicates she’s ready – Choose your battles. I’ve come to realize that regular baths in the tub are not battles I’m willing to fight to the death.

So that’s what I’ve learned about children and baths. Hopefully you find some of it useful. If you have any insights to share I’d love to hear them!

Right now my daughter is really into transporting. I don’t mean that she likes to play with trucks and cars (although she does). I’m talking about a schema called transporting that she is learning by systematically moving items from one part of our home to another. I’ve written before about schemas in general, but after watching E explore this particular schema I thought I’d write a bit more about it in detail.

photo credit: Jenna Westerholm

What it looks like: Systematically transporting items (or water) from one place to another using hands, bags, trucks, cups, etc.. 

Mistaken for: Random and purposeless behaviour and/or making a mess.

What child is learning: Schemas are patterns of behaviour through which children learn about the world around them. Repeating the behaviour over and over (and over and over and over!) allows children to understand the concept about which they’re learning more deeply. Which is why it’s ideal to let them repeat it until they feel ready to move on.
When working through the transporting schema, a child is not only learning about transporting she is experiencing it. What does it look like, feel like and sound like to transport different objects? What about heavy objects? What about awkwardly shaped ones? How do you transport liquids? What about something like lentils? Where can you take them? How many different ways can they travel? The possibilities are endless but the more that can be experienced the more fully a child will understand the concept of transporting.
This experience will be the foundation upon which she builds all other practical and theoretical understanding of transporting throughout her life so the more experience she can get now, the better her foundation. This isn’t to say that if she doesn’t get to experience transporting as a child she’ll never understand the concept as an adult. But if she’s able to lay the foundation well in childhood (and that’s precisely what play does – lays experiential foundations for larger abstract concepts) she’ll be better equipped to understand the more abstract aspects of transporting as she grows.

How to support: There are SO many ways to support transporting so I’ll just name a few that we’ve found helpful. If you have any other ideas please do share them in the comments section!

  • Make time for larger blocks of uninterrupted play – It can take time to get into the rhythm of transporting. If a child is always coming and going or is being bombarded with adult-led activities she won’t find the rhythm. Feel free to observe her and narrate her play (You’ve moved all the cups from the cupboard to the table) but try not to ‘help’ her unless she specifically asks for it.
  • Provide resources for transporting
    • Materials to transport – any items that are small and light enough for a child to manipulate; also water, lentils, pasta, sand
    • Containers in which to transport them –  bags, trucks, baskets, bowls, wheelbarrows, strollers, cups, buckets, etc.
  • Provide ‘depots’ – The lowest shelf in our kitchen pantry is now a designated E shelf and she loves transporting items from this shelf to various locations about the house.
  • Offer other activities that will develop the concept of transporting further, such as:
    • role playing supermarket or postman
    • using a pulley with bucket
    • watering plants
    • bringing items to the dinner table
    • delivering items to other people

Here are a couple of websites I’ve found helpful in understanding transporting:

Happy transporting!

So the story goes that every afternoon when I came home from Grade One I would engage in a period of weeping and moaning before being able to move on to my evening. My parents were concerned and asked my teacher how I was getting on at school. She could only reply that I was a complete angel. A bit quiet, but always did what I was asked, worked hard and was kind to others.

Thankfully my mother had enough experience to see what was happening. It wasn’t that I hated school, or that something was happening there that my teacher hadn’t picked up on. I was simply putting so much effort and energy into being ‘good’ all day at school that, once I entered the comfort of my own home and saw those I loved most, I had to let out any frustration I’d experienced during the day . . . in a flurry of hot tears. And who got the privilege of sopping up those tears and helping me move forward? That’s right: Mom and Dad.

Don't bug me.

What it looks like: Child reserves severest grumpiness for close family, usually mom and/or dad. May seem entirely pleasant out and about or with other adults but when alone with mom/dad the grumpies seriously set in.

Mistaken for: Illness, teething, upset with circumstances, tired. Certainly these are all possibilities that should be explored but if they all come up negative perhaps we need not conclude that the child simply doesn’t like mom and dad or is trying to be cruel to them.

What child is learning: She is learning how and where it is appropriate to express her deepest emotions. Children are often extremely aware of their surroundings. I’m sure you’ve noticed that a child’s grumpiness can disappear the instant she enters a bustling play space. Adults do the same thing by turning on the smile at work. Sure, you may have had a bad night’s sleep and be fighting the beginnings of a cold but you don’t share that with everyone you meet. If a child doesn’t feel comfortable expressing deep emotions in her current environment, she may end up holding any frustrations inside until she gets to a place where she feels more comfortable being herself. And what’s the most emotionally safe place for children? You guessed it…with Mom and Dad.

How to support: Don’t take it personally. In fact, take it as a compliment. When you’re on the receiving end of grumpies that your child has saved just for you, remind yourself that it’s precisely because of your love and care that she’s able to express these feelings to you at all. Every child needs someone to absorb their most overwhelming and unpleasant emotions. To stay with them and weather the storm. To be there when they get to the other side and not think any less of them.

Don’t feel that you must always distract your child from her misery. She may just be looking for acknowledgement and sympathy. Describe what is happening and why. You’re crying a lot because you don’t feel well. Aim to acknowledge her valid emotions. I know it must be hard to have to sit in the car when you’re feeling so unwell. Don’t expect a change in behaviour but recognize and appreciate it if one happens. You’ve played by yourself even though you still don’t feel well. Thank you. That was really helpful to me.

I know it’s hard to think of grumpiness as a compliment but maybe if we can see it that way, no matter who it’s coming from, perhaps we can all weather the storms a bit more dignity and hope.

My mom always knows just when I need a kick in the pants. I have a clear memory of standing as a child in the kitchen, looking into the cupboards and uttering the inevitable phrase, ‘I don’t know what to eat.’ After listing pretty much every available option in the house and being met with my dissatisfied ‘no’ every time my mom finally said, with only a hint of frustration ‘Well, I guess you’ll just have to find something yourself then, Jenna.’ Yeah, I needed that.

My mom was happy to help but was also able to see when her help was not needed. She didn’t take it personally and she didn’t take responsibility for fixing my problem. She saw when I needed to take responsibility and passed it over to me.

So often we interpret what children say as pleas for our intervention. And then we find ourselves frustrated when they need our intervention again. But perhaps if we were to focus in on what they’ve actually said, we might hear something different.

photo credit:

What it sounds like:
“I’m bored.”
“I’m hungry.”
“I can’t do it.”

Mistaken for:
“Find me something to do.”
“Find me something to eat.”
“Do it for me.”

What child is learning: Children often process their thoughts verbally just as adults do. They also like to share their experiences with others. But when busy adults, who are used to solving problems and getting things done, encounter such verbalizations, they naturally assume that the child is requesting their intervention. “You’re bored? Well, let’s find you something to do!” Children will rarely refuse an offer of help from an adult, whether or not it is what they were looking for in the first place. And if these offers become more regular, children not only begin to depend on them, but may also start believing that they need them. 

How to support: Pause. Rewind. What did he actually say? Has he actually asked you to fix the problem?

No? Maybe that’s not what he’s looking for? What is he looking for? Acknowledgement and sympathy?

Yes? Could this be because he’s used to having his problems solved for him? Could he benefit from some support in solving the problem on his own?

It doesn’t mean that you should never offer intervention, it just means that maybe that’s not the best place to start. Start by responding to the actual statement. Especially if your mind is occupied elsewhere try to take a minute and see things from the child’s perspective. Explore the statement a bit and try to figure out how you can best be of help. Here’s an example:

Child: “I’m bored.”

Adult: “You’re bored.” “I can see why you might be bored, we’ve been inside most of the day and I’ve been busy with my own jobs.”

Child: “Yeah, I’ve played with all my toys and there’s nothing left to do.”

Adult: “I hate it when I feel like I’ve got nothing fun to do. That always makes me feel frustrated. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Child: “Do you have any new toys for me?”

Adult: “No, I’m sorry I don’t.”

Child: “Can you come play with me?”

Adult: “I can’t right now but I can in about half an hour. What could you do until then?”

Child: “I guess I could play with my trucks for a bit.”

Adult: “That sounds like a good place to start. If you’re done with that before I’m ready to play you can come back and we can figure something else out.”

Child: “Okay.”

Adult: “Thanks for working that out. It can be hard to find something to do.”

That wasn’t too exciting or revolutionary but that’s kind of the point. You don’t need to have magical powers to support a child in problem solving, just some patience and trust. You’ll note that the adult tried to avoid offering specific suggestions and focused on acknowledging and clarifying the child’s thoughts. This does require more time, energy and patience initially but over time the child will begin to internalize this discussion, allowing him to problem solve independently.

This discipline applies equally well to babies: It can be harder to interpret what they’re actually saying because they can only communicate through crying, and cries are obviously more difficult to understand than words. But it is no less likely that a baby simply needs acknowledgement and sympathy instead of intervention. A lot of those whiny, frustrated cries that we interpret as pleas for help may just be baby saying, “Wow, this rolling over thing is really hard!” Does she need to be rescued from this experience or perhaps merely hear her frustrations verbalized by a sympathetic adult?

And it also applies to adults: When I’m tempted to tell my co-workers, friends and family members to “stop complaining” I go back over their “complaints” in my head only to realize that they haven’t in fact “complained” at all. They’ve simply shared something that they’re finding hard. They haven’t requested a solution. They haven’t accused the world of being out to get them. They may simply be searching for a bit of acknowledgement and sympathy. Couldn’t we all use a bit more of that? So I can pause. I can catch their eye. And I can honestly say, “Yeah, what you’re doing is hard.”

My family always liked to quote a line from the film The Addams Family. Mrs Addams knows there’s something wrong with her daughter, Wednesday, when Wednesday sits quietly at the table. ‘Wednesday,’ she says, ‘play with your food.

Somehow we’ve developed the opposite mindset. We think that there must be something wrong with our children if they insist on playing with the food we’ve prepared so lovingly for them. But is that really how they see it?

What it looks like: Baby spends a significant portion of mealtime ‘playing’ with her food. She spreads it on the table, drops it to the floor, smears it in her hair, and tries feeding it to others. At points during this process she might even put food in her mouth, but there’s no promising it’ll stay there for long!

Mistaken for: Being silly with her food or simply not being hungry.

What baby is learning: A day is one big sensory experience for baby. From licking the wall to squeezing a banana to watching the cars go by. As adults, we are so used to being surrounded by such a rich sensory environment that we forget how new and exciting it is to baby. And few things are more exciting than being presented with a plateful of items rich in smell, taste, texture, sound, and appearance. By exploring her food (i.e. spreading it on the table, dropping it to the floor, smearing it in her hair, and watching others eat it) baby is learning pretty much everything she can about this food: how it tastes, smells, sounds and feels, how it responds to gravity, what adults do with it…the list is endless.

How to support: Allow her to play with her food. It sounds simple enough but it takes a bit of an adjustment for any adult.

What does it take to create successful food explorations?

  • Time – be prepared for meals to last longer. It may take her a good 20 minutes of exploration before she even begins to eat.
  • Trust – sit back and trust that baby knows what to do with her food and how much of it to eat. As long as you regularly provide her with a variety of healthy foods, trust that she’ll eat what she needs. Feel free to narrate what she is doing and model conventional eating but try to avoid telling her what she’s supposed to do with her food.
  • Knowing when to set limits – Do intervene if she is hurting people (including herself) or property. Do intervene if her exploration is causing significant inconvenience to others (including yourself). There are certainly going to be times when free exploration is inappropriate and it is up to you to decide when that is. But make sure you explain your altered expectations to baby.
  • Preparation – Large bibs. Wipe-clean mat on the floor. Highchair with a large tray or plenty of table space. Cloths nearby. Not wearing her Sunday best.
  • Patience – She may not eat as much as you’d like her to. She may not eat anything. It may take you longer to clean up than it took her to make the mess. A fair amount of food may end up in the bin (or, if you’re as undiscriminating as me, on your own plate).

But what is gained?

  • Time to observe baby – This is a great time to sit back and watch baby. Which foods does she eat first? Which foods does she avoid? Which hand does she prefer? What kinds of motions does she make with her hands? What is she most focused on? How could you provide similar experiences in her play?
  • Time to enjoy your own meal – Baby’s complete focus on her sensory experience gives you time to connect with your spouse, other children, guests, or simply to savour your own meal.
  • Acceptance of new foods – Baby may need some time to get to know new foods before she is ready to put them in her mouth. There’s no rule on how long this will take but you may find that she warms up to foods she previously refused.
  • Rich sensory play – Baby gets a top notch sensory experience without a fancy sensory basket.
  • Nourishment -Thankfully, food that has been thoroughly squished, smeared, poked and prodded still provides the same nutrients as food that hasn’t. Although the nourishing properties of her food will remain a mystery to baby for some time, she’ll still get all the benefits it has to offer.

It may take a while before you’re fully comfortable with food play. Ease into it – there’s no rush. The idea is for everyone to be able to relax and enjoy their meal in a developmentally appropriate way.

If you’re looking for other sensory experiences hidden within your daily routine check out this post on sensory play in nature by My Nearest and Dearest.

I probably spent about 2 months unsuccessfully imploring my primary pupils to ‘Listen!’. Then it dawned on me: perhaps they didn’t know (or had forgotten) exactly what I meant when I asked them to ‘listen’. I had forgotten that it was my responsibility to ensure that they understood my instructions.

The same holds true outside the classroom. So often we simply tell children what we want them to do (Be gentle. Listen. Sit still.) without actually teaching them how to do it.

What it looks like: No matter how many times you ask baby to ‘be gentle’ with the dog, he still insists on hitting it or pulling the dog’s fur.

Mistaken for: Willful disobedience – choosing to be rough when he knows how to be gentle.

What baby is learning: When we simply tell baby what to do and don’t teach him how he isn’t able to learn a whole lot. He learns that a certain word (e.g. gentle) carries specific expectations, but if he isn’t shown what those expectations are (and he might need to be shown many more times than we think) then every situation in which this word applies is a guessing game. Such a process of trial and error will certainly take a fair bit of time before baby gets it right. It will also likely result in frustration for both adult and baby, particularly if baby is scolded when he guesses wrong.

But…when we teach baby how to meet our expectations, everyone can enjoy the learning process instead of being frustrated that the learning has not already taken place.

How to support: In most cases, teaching baby how to meet your expectations means showing him what it looks like, feels like and perhaps even sounds like as well as modeling the behaviour yourself. Let’s look at an example.

You want baby to be gentle with the dog. You have modeled gentle petting yourself and baby has seen several others pet the dog gently, but baby continues to hit the dog and pull its fur. This shows that baby hasn’t quite got it yet and needs more help. Take baby’s hand and together try petting the dog gently. If baby tries to be rough you can firmly say, ‘That’s rough, I want you to be gentle,’ and again show him what gentle feels like. Go ahead and describe what you’re doing in words but keep it simple and repetitive. Depending on baby’s stage of development, words may still be quite abstract so you’ll want to focus more on tangible aspects. If baby refuses to be gentle and insists on being rough with the dog clearly tell baby that you ‘won’t let him hit the dog’ and then follow through by holding baby’s hands or removing him or the dog from the situation.

You may have to show baby how to be gentle several times. But know that your patience and support, however difficult they may be to muster, are allowing baby to engage in deep, meaningful learning as well as showing him that you are there to support him as he enjoys the process of learning. Also be patient with yourself. If you find that you’re getting frustrated, take a break from the lesson or ask someone else to do some teaching.

Once baby seems to understand your expectations, you can begin to withdraw your support. Eventually you will be able to say ‘be gentle’ and baby will, in fact, be gentle because you have shown him what this phrase means. Obviously he will need refresher lessons whenever any aspect of the situation changes: How should I be gentle…with a different dog? on a different day? when I’m at the park? when I’m with Grandma? But having already learned the foundational concept these refreshers shouldn’t be too strenuous.

I won’t lie, this method does take a little extra time and patience in the beginning. But the result – an adult who knows how to communicate her expectations and a child who understands what is expected of him – is worth it!