Thwarting an emerging toddler dictatorship

Stella screamed, at the top of her incredibly powerful 16-month-old lungs, several times at Gymboree today. Because she wanted the almighty red-headed puppet Gymbo, but he was a crowd of toddlers away and busy hanging out with someone else. Because a smiley classmate found a stray bubble next to her on the slide, and she seemed to feel boxed in or threatened by his positioning across the bottom of the slide just below her (she kicked her feet at him, but didn’t actually make contact before I swooped in and took her away). Because I tried to pick her up and bring her to the singing circle. And just because. (There seemed to be absolutely no reason for a couple of the angry shrieks.)

For a while now, we’ve had a strong, rock-solid philosophy, though hard-earned, when it comes to eating. Good. And while Stella’s sleep isn’t perfect, it’s pretty darn good, due to a consistent approach to napping and bedtime that really works for all of us. So, with shut-eye and food, we have a “way of doing things.” We know what’s effective, what we believe and makes sense to us, and how to respond when things go haywire. The next frontier, it seems, is figuring out how to help Stella manage her emotions (and volume!).

I’m overwhelmed and often quite nervous, though I strive to prevent that from showing. I’m in charge. I’m in charge. I’m in charge.

One evening not too long ago, Stella and I cut a rug like you read about, to the tunes of our current favorite album: Here Comes Science. We had so much fun, and it was totally organic and breathless and joyful. Well, she now wants to repeat this magic on the hour. Here’s what I mean: She’s playing with her whimsical number flash cards and I’m sitting on the floor nearby, watching, calling out numbers, and relaxing, when a fast-paced danceable number pipes up on the stereo. She perks up and bounces twice because, well, she just can’t resist, then with brow-furrowing purpose marches over to me, and grips the shoulders of my sweater, attempting to forcefully yank me to my feet while shouting something unintelligible. (When Daddy’s around, his attendance is also 100% mandatory–she hunts him down in the kitchen with a forceful pointing gesture.) Mini-dictator wants to dance! What fun! But heaven forbid you slow down or take a break. That is strictly forbidden! I must keep my feet moving and my face cheerful lest I incur Stella’s wrath, which is swift and punishing to eardrums and souls. (Of course, this is all incredibly amusing and, in a way, truly wonderful, to me until I’ve danced a few songs and truly need a break.)

Stella’s been an increasingly take-charge baby from day one. She nearly wailed her head off during her first full night of life here on earth. The sound echoed through the silent hospital ward, and I imagined it drifting over the heads of the more content and sleepy newborns. The nurse was genuinely baffled. At five weeks old, she started to tell me more and more clearly that she’d really rather not eat. “No really, you’re quite kind and thank you very much, but I’m not at all hungry. Tummy’s a bit sour to be honest. Just reeling from all the excitement of my new life, I suppose.” I’d be all, “That’s bull crap! Really, you should eat! It’s been five freakin’ hours and the books say you must be starving, darn-it!” She’d indulge me by having a tiny one-minute snack and say, “Oh thank you that was divine but I really must be going now. Can you please be a dear and fetch my bumbershoot?” And I’d insist, “Oh but you hardly ate anything! Don’t be rude! I can’t let you leave hungry! Let me boil you another hot dog. (pause) What’s a bumbershoot? (angry pause) You know I don’t like fancy talk!” That’s when she’d put her foot down, “NO THANK YOU MOTHER! I’VE HAD QUITE ENOUGH NOW GOOD DAY!” Me: “Are you sure?” Stella: “F OFF!”

She has also consistently let me know that she does not like being in car seats or strollers. Frankly, I think it’s because in those scenarios, she isn’t involved enough. Not able to see all the action. Not in control, where she clearly belongs. After all is said and done, I respect her more than just about anyone I know. She’s weathered a good storm in her day. She knows what she wants and declares it. Most of the time, I do neither. But I’m working on it.

My current project is to continue to build confidence in myself as a mother, and to decide with Cody how to handle Stella’s outbursts. To be consistent in setting proper limits without limiting her rightful expression. I want her to keep speaking up. I just want her to know when it’s necessary, and when a simple “please” or “help” or, oh, two seconds’ patience will do. She’s already taught me about that particular virtue, but I suppose we both need a bit more. And possibly, ear plugs.


  1. Jen · January 16, 2010

    Here is my unsolicited advice: Choose. Your. Battles.

    If safety is involved, go ahead and battle (i.e. kicking on the Gymboree slide or, heaven forbid, some day, biting mommy). If not, remember that these maniacs go through phases. It can be a lot more effective to ignore hysteria then to get all time-out-y and rigid so soon.

    • amberhj · January 18, 2010

      Jen, when I read your comment I had a gut reaction of, “Yes!” So thanks for the excellent input. We are totally on the same page. I want to keep battles at a minimum fo SHO!

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