I wrote this piece about 3 years ago, when I was in the thick of it with my firstborn. Now that I’m on the verge of walking through this same jungle with number two, I am scrambling to remember all my toddler management tricks!
I’m using my child’s online pseudonym here. I know that in this day and age there is really no such thing as privacy, but I do try to maintain a little obscurity so we’re not so entirely Google-able! Thanks for helping me maintain that, friends.
Just about everything I do in my day-to-day dealings with Roo is based on what I learned as the Project Manager of the small web marketing and advertising company we were a part of in southern California.**
No, seriously. I mean it. My short-lived professional life equipped me well for this stage of my parenting career. Here are a few examples:
Lesson #1: Managing Expectations: Staying in charge
If you don’t manage expectations with a client before you sign a contract, you get into the middle of a project with them trying to be in charge. The worst thing you can do is actually let your client be in charge of the project. So, you have to prep them early for what is going to happen throughout the whole project.
Likewise, the worst thing you can do as a parent is let your child be in charge. So you manage expectations waaaay in advance. Here’s an example.
“Roo! We are going to the chiropractor today!” [It’s 5am and she’s just woken up; our appointment isn’t for another 8 or so hours.]
“Do you remember what we see at the chiropractor’s office?”
“That’s right! We see a bear at the chiropractor’s office.”
“Oof, oof.” [She mimes adjusting the bear’s back - it’s a special chiropractic bear that has a spine that cracks; yes, a bit creepy, I know.]
“So you’ll have lots of fun seeing the bear at the chiropractor’s office, but when we leave, we’ll say ‘bye-bye bear!’ and you won’t cry, will you?”
For the next 8 hours, we talk about the bear and the not-crying-when-we-leave.
We get to the chiropractor’s office and just before we get in, I remind her: “Now you’re going to see the bear and you’re not going to want to leave that fun bear, but when it’s time to go you won’t cry, will you?”
In we go. We do our thing. She loves it. She plays with the bear. Soon it is time to leave.
“Okay Roo, just like we talked about - it’s time to say goodbye to the bear!”
“Oh! Roo! Why on earth are you crying?! You aren’t going to cry! Remember? We talked about it!” [I act totally flabbergasted, not annoyed.]
And, miraculously, we leave the chiropractor’s office without a meltdown because that was the plan I have been instilling into her psyche since 5am.
We talk about leaving the bear and how hard it was but how brave she was. She “Growl!“s intermittently all the way home. We’ve both left happy. It was definitely worth the effort.
Lesson #2: Give them two choices, both of which are acceptable to you.
Even when they know they’re not the project lead, clients like to think they’re the experts in charge. You should always offer your client two options, so they think they’re actually making a decision. But really, you’ve already made the choice for them: They are “choosing” between, say, “khool khaki” and “toasted wheat;” you’re the one who’s decided that the letterhead will be light brown.
Toddlers like to exert their sense of control and it is developmentally important to honor this impulse in age appropriate ways. This does not mean you have to let them run wild or run the household. It just means you get to think a couple moves ahead and create opportunities for yourself to say “Yes” to the pseudo-choice your child is making.
I am constantly giving Roo “choices” in order to get her to do what I want.
“Roo, would you like to eat your eggs before or after you have your hummus?”
[Non-negotiable: you will eat your eggs. And your hummus, too.]
“Roo, do you want to walk to your room to get your diaper changed, or do you want to crawl?” (I see the beginnings of the Toddler Backbend of Displeasure and I grab ahold of her hands and lift her off her feet to disarm it.) “Oh yes! You can jump to your room if you want! Whee!”
[Non-negotiable: you will go to your room to have your diaper changed. Even if I have to haul you there.]
“Roo, do you want to keep making that awful whiney noise in your room, or do you want to make cheerful sounds out here with me?”
[Non-negotiable: you will stop making Mommy’s ears bleed.]
Too many choices can leave a kid feeling totally out of their depth. They need structure and a plan; they need the big person to be in charge. But they also need to feel necessary and helpful - and in charge of small things.
Lesson #3: Let them help (or at least think they are helping)
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of disrespecting your client because they don’t know as much about design/technology/Teh Internetz as you. When that happens, you tend to shut them out of the creative process, which only makes them more adamant about being involved. And as we learned above, having the client super-involved or (*shudder*) in charge of a project usually means disaster.
The best thing you can do if this situation arises is give your client little tasks to complete. They can collect content for a website (sure, you’ll have to rewrite it anyway), or do research on a particular subject. What the project is doesn’t matter too much; the point is to keep them busy and satisfied that they are contributing to the bigger picture.
Sometimes, they are actually doing something useful to boot!
Toddlers are pretty inept and ignorant when it comes to jiving with the adult world. It’s easy to get frustrated with them when they want to be underfoot and involved in everything you’re trying to get done.
However, there are some things that toddlers are perfectly capable of doing that can even be somewhat helpful - if only because it keeps them out of your hair while you get your chores done.
Here are some of the chores that 16 month-old Roo helps with around the house:
- Handing Daddy the silverware out of the sink to rinse (or put into the silverware basket in the dishwasher)
- Picking up tiny bits of fluff off the carpet and throwing it away
- Ripping open the junk mail and then disposing of it in the trash can
- “Dusting” (I give her a small cloth and she walks around the house carefully touching every single surface with it, even the floors)
- Putting toys away
- Putting wet clothes into the dryer, and dry clothes into the laundry basket
- Making sure the child safety locks are secure (haha)
I’m a big advocate of child labor, and if you start involving your kids in the daily chores when they’re little and still eager to help, they’ll have built the habit of helping long before they lose their interest in being constantly up in your business. This may mean a bit more work (and doing-over of work) right now, but it means a lot less nagging later, which is totally worth the effort.
Lesson #4: “Bad” often means Misunderstood
Sometimes, despite all your best intentions, you find yourself in a project management nightmare. Things are behind schedule, communication is totally off, and everyone is getting frustrated. With client work, you can sometimes just cut your losses and walk away if the situation warrants it.
With your toddler? Not so much (though putting yourself in time-out can really help).
If your client starts wigging out on you, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath and channel the thinking behind those panicky, 3am emails in your inbox and the 5 new logo redesign ideas he hacked together on MS Paint last night.
Is your client’s sense of urgency due to a slight lapse in communication on your part? Did something business-related come up on his end that you aren’t aware of yet? Or maybe there’s something entirely personal going on and you’re just the whipping boy for all his angst.
Remind yourself of the humanity of your client, and have a little compassion.
When your toddler is punishing you with vexing behavior, suppress the urge to think in terms of “Good Kid” vs. “Bad Kid” labels. If you let your mind go there, your actions will follow until you trap yourself and your child in a horrible self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your kid is a person, too. Quell the frustrations and try to get inside her head a bit.
Start here (with a couple deep breaths): “I love my child. I have good intentions toward my child. I want what is best for both of us in this situation.”
Now try to look at things from your child’s perspective:
- Did she even understand what you just said - or did you perhaps accidentally misunderstand her just now?
- Is he capable of success here or have you inadvertently set him up for failure?
- What message about her worth or ability was your tone conveying just now - maybe she’s shutting down as a defense mechanism.
Retraining your mind to be more magnanimous in the middle of extreme toddler-induced annoyance takes practice, but it’s a good habit to form. You’ll be setting a great example for your kid as well as reducing the pressure on your relationship with him. And once everyone’s on the same page, the frustrations are usually alleviated.
Clients, toddlers - what’s not to love? Learn how to properly appreciate and channel their energies and they can be quite enjoyable to have around!
** I owe a great debt of gratitude to Kelly and Emily for their book Web ReDesign 2.0: Workflow that Works. It brought light and hope to our small creative team and helped us scrabble out a plan for doing better business with our clients. Sadly, since we were not the key decision-makers at the firm, it was an uphill battle from which we eventually had to walk away. But the book has a very special place in my heart to this day; I don’t imagine the authors would have thought that their lessons on managing client work would ever inspire a parenting guide!