Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Driven to Distraction

Q: I have twin one-year-olds. I'm constantly telling Becky, my four-year-old, not to pick up the twins because I'm worried about her dropping them and seriously hurting them. (She has dropped them before and they've been badly bruised.) I try to focus on how nicely she plays with them, but I feel like a broken record saying "don't pick up the babies" over and over again. I understand why she does it and I can't blame her for wanting to, but I can't allow it because I'm really worried that they'll get hurt. I'm afraid to leave her alone with them for a minute, even just to go to the bathroom. An "I listen the first time" sticker chart has worked with other issues but not with this one. Any suggestions?

A: I have two tips for dealing with this issue, which I'm going to place in the general category of "following directions."

1. Turn the negativity around. This will accomplish several things. You won't sound like a broken record. You won't feel like a nag. Becky won't feel nagged and she won't feel like she's being picked on. (I know she plays nicely most of the time, but for every negative interaction you have with your child she needs at least five positive ones. Can you really say you compliment your kids on their behavior five times as often as you find something negative to say? I know I can't.

Think about it: Your boss says you did a good job on something. You feel good for a few minutes, maybe even an hour, and then you move on. Your boss criticizes you. You hold onto that for the rest of the day - at least. How much more so with a child? At the end of the day you want your child to remember how much you showed her that you love her and forget about anything negative you might have said.)

Besides, there's an important rule I've learned about kids. When you say "Don't do XYZ," all they hear is "XYZ." The "don't" falls by the wayside. I remember so clearly when I was a teenager, playing outside with some kids I was babysitting for. I said "Please don't break my sunglasses." Fifteen seconds later, CRACK.

Obviously those kids didn't hear "break my sunglasses," but you get the picture. It would have been much better if I'd said "Please give me my sunglasses" or "put the sunglasses down."

Believe me, "Don't pick up the babies" is going in one of Becky's ears and out the other. And the more you say it, the more she tunes it out. I admit, this will require some effort on your part. You may have to make a list of alternative things to say when you see Becky wants to pick up one of the twins. Here are a few ideas:

- If you go sit on the couch I'll put the baby on your lap.
- Please cook the babies some soup in your play kitchen.
- Why don't you go get a book to read to the twins/for me to read to you?
- Should we get out some play-dough/crayons/something else Becky enjoys doing?

Keep your list handy so you don't get flustered.

Which leads me to my second point.

2. Distraction. When a child is doing something you don't want her to do, one of your best options is to distract her with something else. Don't even deal with telling them what not to do. Just find them something else to do instead. The younger they are, the easier this is. "Hey, look at this toy." "I think I hear an airplane." "Want a snack?"

In this particular case, switching negativity to positivity and using the distraction method end up on your end as one and the same. This is not always true. I'm sorry that I'm not giving you two different practical actions you can take to change Becky's behavior. These are two general parenting tips that can be applied in all sorts of situations. But unfortunately in your situation the practical application of both tips is the same.


Finally, here's a note that you can feel free to take or leave at your discretion:

I gave you the above answers a couple of days ago. But rereading your question now, it strikes me that perhaps (and I hesitate to say this to any parent) you're being a bit overprotective. Kids fall. The twins are going to have their share of spills, whether Becky drops them, they trip over a toy, or fall down the stairs. Kids are resilient. I always say that's why babies are so short. They fall all the time but because they're so close to the ground, they're usually OK.

Becky is not that much taller than the twins - she's only four. She's not holding them way up high off the ground like you do when you hold them. And they're not newborns. They're not THAT fragile. They can hold their heads up, they can catch themselves when they fall. I know they've gotten hurt in the past and it scares you. I'm not promising that nothing's ever going to happen to them - I wish I could. And I'm not saying don't TRY to prevent Becky from picking them up most of the time. But I am saying you shouldn't freak out if you have to run to the bathroom and leave Becky alone with them for a minute. Give her a little space. She might just surprise you.


  1. Excellent ideas to ask your daughter to do something distracting. My 2-year-old loves to 'hold' the baby on the couch. Another great idea is to set up a pack n play next to your bathroom so when you do go, you can leave them in there (unless she can reach in...). Thank G-d kids are for the most part resilient but I still wouldn't let a four-year-old carry around a baby. The fontanelle isn't completely closed by then so a fall on the head could be very dangerous. My almost 8-year-old DD carries around the 7-month-old but she knows that stairs or outside is off the limits.

    That being said, if your DD does pick up a baby, try to be calm so you don't scare her. my four-year-old picked up his baby brother (at 3 months!) and came over to show me. I very calmly went over to him, took the baby and then had a very serious talk (time-out too..). If I had yelled, I think he would have been so shocked he would have dropped the baby.

  2. This is suberb, TRULY superb, and excellent advice! I enjoy reading your posts so VERY much, please keep up the brilliant writing, and the great advice!!!