IMG_1547My 20 month old son is in a tough nap phase.  He can climb out of his crib easily, and he’s ready to transition to a bed.  Our family will be moving soon, so I am choosing to keep him in his crib for the next few weeks in order to minimize the number of changes in our lives.

I remember how overwhelmed I felt when my oldest daughter (now five) went through the same phase.  Without the perspective from having parented a child before, I had no idea that one day, she would fall asleep alone in her bedroom – willingly – and wouldn’t wake up again until the morning.  I assumed as much, but lacked confidence for the tough in-between time.  I read books about helping children sleep.  I scoured the internet for articles by brilliant writers about how to help children sleep in a toddler bed.  I consulted my friends with older children.  Everyone smiled, remembering when their own child was in that phase.

Then one day, it just wasn’t an issue anymore.  She still balks at bedtime here and there, but for the most part, the nightly struggle to help her stay in bed is gone.  Some of the advice I happened upon in my feverish search was helpful.  But most of all, she needed my consistent response over time to help her navigate her own changing experience.

I have a whole list of behaviors that just aren’t an issue anymore:

  • My son no longer eats dirt while exploring outside (see above picture – dirt on the face, not *in* the mouth!).
  • My daughter puts her shoes on with little prodding.
  • My oldest children can shampoo their own hair (and brush it in the morning).
  • My son is no longer a source of heart-attack-inducing panic around stairs.
  • My kids don’t drop food (on purpose) from the table anymore.
  • My kids don’t scream in the car.
  • My daughter doesn’t bite when she’s angry.

And this is why behavior is not as important as we make it out to be: behavior will change, guaranteed.  What will remain constant is our response to challenging behavior.  And if we don’t develop a response that is flexible to accommodate a growing and changing child, we will have to continue to transform our repertoire of responses.

IMG_1564The key is this: if we spend our time as carers, less focused on correcting individual behaviors, and more focused on responding consistently to those strong behaviors, our children will be free to learn.

Behaviors will transform over time.  A child who regularly tantrums while getting into a car seat won’t respond this way forever – no matter how much it feels like the car-seat-tantruming will never end.  Most importantly, when an adult listens to the car-seat-tantrum with respect and empathy (while still holding the expectation of getting into the car seat), then the child will grow skills of self-regulation and emotional integrity that will inform later struggles with peers in school, a heavy academic load in college, or the emotion of moving across country.

When we do our job of responding with empathy and consistent limits, our children can do their job of developing a strong sense of self.

  • Today’s tantrum over bedtime can become tomorrow’s integrated response in the face of disappointment.
  • Today’s full-body sobbing over a friend’s unkind words can become tomorrow’s resiliency.
  • Today’s unsuccessful attempt on the monkey bars can become tomorrow’s willingness to apply for a difficult job.

So breathe easy!  You don’t have to master each individual behavior.  By developing a consistent response to challenging behavior, you are paving the way for lifelong success.