We do not negotiate with toddlers. Except we do.
The Bearded One and I have always favoured the gentle parenting approach where smacking is frowned upon and locking them in a cupboard is definitely not an option. We’ve always found it easier to listen then explain things to her rather than ignore or distract her from her needs. Now that the Small One has tentatively stepped through the door of toddlerhood, we are experiencing something we have never experienced before: our once pliable, amiable and easily-subdued child is now wanting to make decisions. It all sounds completely fine and a natural part of her growing up, and it is. Except it isn’t. It isn’t fine. It’s far from fine.
When you’re raising a two-foot tall bipolar dictator it really isn’t fine that she wants to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions are just completely mental. The other day we were driving to pick the Bearded One up from work and we passed some road works.
“What’s that Mama?”
“That’s a digger.”
All very well and good. But no. It wasn’t enough to see the digger from the car, as we were driving, the digger needed to be seen from all angles, again and again. While cries of “See digger, see digger, see digger,” rang out from the back seat, I had to circle the same roundabout three times to ensure the digger was seen enough times so the toddler was satiated. When she had drunk her fill of yellow metal and soil, we headed to our destination. It all sounds like I’m being a bit melodramatic, doesn’t it? Why is it such a big deal that she had to see the digger? Just let her see the digger and don’t make a song and dance about it. Yes.
But this could happen anywhere; toddlers don’t care that you’re on the toilet or in the shower, if something is wanted, it is wanted immediately.
“What doing Mama?”
“I’m on the toilet darling.”
“Read Quran Mama.”
“We don’t read Quran on the toilet, or in the bathroom. I’m in the bathroom.”
“It’s a big poo Mama…see Mama. See big poo Mama.” It was a statement rather than a question. She never questions. “Read Quran Mama.”
“Later, I’ll read Quran later.”
“Read Quran. Read Quran Mama. Read Quran.” It’s all looking dangerously close to tears and the cry-dance that all toddlers do is about to ensue. “Read now.”
“Ok, go and get me a Quran and I’ll read it.” I know she can’t reach the Quran and she will be gone long enough for me to finish with whatever little dignity I have left and get out of there.
She can’t reach the Quran, but she can get my Arabic language textbooks from the bottom shelf, and looking at the script, she decides it’s close enough to the Quran so carries it to the bathroom to force me to read it. Not content to let me finishing washing, the book is thrust between me and the lota (a jug-shaped pot we wash ourselves with after engaging in toilet antics) and I have to read Quran. Except this toddler can recognise the difference between spoken Arabic and Quranic Arabic. Cue crying. So now I’m trousers round my ankles, legs akimbo, holding a lota full of water and an Arabic language textbook, trying to placate my tiny, bipolar dictator, all the while wondering if this is really what I signed up for. You know what they say though: families that poo together, stay together. This is obviously a good sign.
There have been many random negotiations ever since my boddler (a phrase I stole from Sarah Ockwell-Smith) became a toddler; and, after visiting various playgroups and play centres, I can say with confidence, mine is definitely not the worst child I have seen (mashaAllah). I sometimes just go to playgroups to remind myself how bad other people’s children are in comparison to my own, and that makes me feel a whole lot better. Other peoples’ kids seem like such a nightmare that mine seems like walking through a garden of roses, albeit prickly, thorny ones. I do often remind myself during toddler negotiation, “At least she’s not like demon-child you saw yesterday/last week/last month,” and I feel much better. Other peoples’ misery is great like that.
I guess because the Small One spoke in sentences before she walked, negotiations can sometimes be more entertaining, though she does still employ the general toddler weapon of choice: repetition. If I ask for something over and over again, parent will give in. Like a serial killer, attacking again and again with the same weapon, a trademark chainsaw, axe, rope or good old-fashioned knives, toddlers will batter you with their truncheon of repetition until you can take no more. “Have that Mama. Have that Mama. Have that Mama. Have that mama have that mama havethatmamahavethatmama.” For the love of nappies and wipes, have it, have it all.
I must say, my favourite negotiation to date has been to agree to flash myself for her in public places. Yes, I’m a Muslim and yes, I cover. So there is an art to this next one, a talent if you will. I’m still breastfeeding her, but not in public anymore; the on-demand element of of our breastfeeding journey has come to an end and feeds are for sleep and nap times only. So she makes do with sometimes touching or looking at the containers. Usually, she’s content to do most of this bizarrely-loving behaviour at home, behind closed doors, but sometimes, the over-whelming urge to look and touch is just too great to resist and thus begins more toddler negotiation.
“Dudu Mama.” (In colloquial Punjaabi/Urdu terms, this translates as “milky”. In this sense it can be used to refer to milk itself or the container in which it comes).
“You know we don’t have Dudu when we’re out.”
“See Dudu Mama.”
“No, not in public, we’re outside, you can’t see Dudu here.”
“See Dudu Mama. I see Dudu. Rahma see Dudu. Bite Dudu. See Dudu.” To The Small One, it’s a proper noun.
She’s starting to draw attention to us in the cafe and I was hoping to come back to this place at some point.
“Ok, wait a second then.”
“Touch Dudu.” Just in case I didn’t hear her the first five hundred times.
If I just adjust my clothes and pull up my scarf, she can get her head under my scarf and have a little peek. Yes, this top isn’t breastfeeding-friendly; I thought I’d wear a nice dress instead of my frumpy maternity clothes, what was I thinking? Ok, I think I’m ready. She ducks under, has a rummage, but she can’t see or touch anything. Ok, change of plan. Crouch down on the floor, put her down, lean forward and show her the goods. There. She saw them. And no one else did.
I feel a tremendous sense of achievement, euphoria, if you will, like I’ve conquered Everest and left a flag up there, making history. Smug and satisfied, I realise I’m winning at this toddler negotiation business. I stand and adjust my clothes. And stop. I see no negotiation happening here. She’s clearly just getting what she wants in crazily-creative ways. That’s not negotiation, that’s just brute force viagra sur le net. She’s been playing me this whole time.
Looking back at all the times I thought I was “negotiating” I was actually just giving her what she wanted – within reason of course. I’d have probably drawn a line somewhere, especially if she asked for something unreasonable or dangerous; if she’d asked to jump out of a moving car or drink some bleach, I’d like to think I’d stop her. But here’s what I’ve learnt: toddlers are cleverer than we give them credit for: not only did she get what she wanted, she made me believe we were negotiating. Genius. I’ve also learnt something much more valuable: choosing when to say “No” is really important. Was it such a big deal to let her see the digger one more time? Is it going to ruin my day if we read the same book over and over, until I want to murder the very hungry caterpillar with his gross over-eating that would clearly turn anyone else morbidly obese, not into a butterfly like the book would have you believe? Was it so bad that I secretly, but publically flashed myself for her edification? That last one required skills, skills I didn’t know I had; she’s really helped me develop as a person since she was born.
What I’m saying is, I’m still the parent. I’m still in control, aren’t I? She understands that, doesn’t she? I don’t need to be a dictator about it, do I? Especially since we already have one in the house. But we both know who is in charge; like I said earlier we do not negotiate with toddlers.