Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

small is new big.

In The Discipline Book, Dr. William Sears addresses something that is very important in managing parents’ stress levels: biggies and smallies.  Below is an excerpt from the book:

Divide your children’s “misbehaviors” into smallies (nuisances and annoyances), which are not worth the wear and tear of getting angry about, and biggies (hurting self, others, or property), which demand a response, for your own sake and your child’s. Next, condition yourself so that you won’t let the smallies bother you. Learn to ignore “smallies” and concentrate on “biggies.” A smallie is a behavior that is annoying but doesn’t harm humans, animals, or property, or which even if uncorrected does not lead to a biggie. These childish irresponsibilities will self-correct with time and maturity. Harmless behaviors fade both as your tolerance level widens and as you avoid reactions that reinforce the behavior. Calling your child’s attention to a smallie may intensify the habit or push him into a biggie. Focus on the biggies, and you’ll be amazed how the smallies correct themselves. 

I’ve found it very helpful to think in terms of biggies and smallies. When my first child was a young toddler, I’d get out of sorts over everything, and I see many parents of young ones doing the same; getting upset with food being thrown on the floor, or a child repeating things over and over, or the child refusing to share. While it is certainly appropriate to teach our children what is right, realize that these little annoying behaviors are quickly passing and will end as your child grows.

I like to call it big picture parenting. I ask myself questions like “will this matter in a year, or 5 years?” “will he likely grow out of this if I do nothing?” and “is there a character-building lesson that can be learned from this?” and importantly, “why is this a trigger for me?

If it drives you crazy for your toddler to tell you “no” then it will be helpful to look at your expectations of your toddler, think about why it drives you crazy, and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Many times, fear is at the root of our triggers. You may fear she will never listen to you, will grow to be very defiant if you don’t “nip it in the bud”, or perhaps you were just expected to be very obedient or face harsh consequences as a child, and so you are conditioned in this way.

Granted, some smallies are more annoying than others, like throwing food on the floor, or refusing to use the potty, but these are smallies nonetheless. As Dr. Sears says, smallies are annoying but do not harm anyone or anything, biggies are hurting self, others, or property. Smallies will self-correct with time and maturity.

Some ways to handle smallies are:
1. Ignoring the behavior completely. My child went through a phase where he licked his hands all the time. I thought it was completely gross, but the more I drew attention to it, the more he seemed to do it. I finally had to bite my tongue and let it go. He stopped soon after. I don’t think he even realized he was doing it until I brought it up, and then it became a “thing.” My advice is not to make these little annoyances into “things.”

2. Correct and redirect. If your child is throwing food from his plate, you may say something like, “Food stays on the plate. You must not be hungry since you’re throwing your food. I’ll put the plate away, and we’ll try again in a little while.” Then move on to another activity. If she screams that she is hungry, give her back the plate for a second chance. If she throws again, repeat, then empathize when she cries she is hungry. “I know you say you’re hungry, but you keep throwing it. I’ll give you the plate when you’re ready not to throw the food.”  Don’t pick it up 48 times, nag, threaten, or otherwise engage in a power struggle.

3. Back off. Your 2-1/2 year old refuses to use the potty. The more you try to make him, the more he resists, and you both get frustrated. Let it go and try again in a few months. My son, at age 3, was adamantly against using the potty. He would cry if I even asked him to try underwear. At 3 years and 2 months, he happily put on underwear and used the potty and hasn’t worn a diaper since. Sometimes, they just need some time.

Biggies, remember, are when your child is hurting himself, others, or property. These behaviors should be addressed (keep age and development in mind) and given prompt attention.

Some ways to handle biggies are:
1. Time-in. If your 3 year old hits his brother, you take him into your lap or into your time-in or calm-down spot. You may say, “I understand you’re upset, but no hitting. Hitting hurts. I’ll help you calm down.” Here you may utilize a calm down jar or read a book. Once he is calm, tell him what he MAY do when he is mad at brother.

2. Problem-solving. Let’s say your 6 year old son broke his sister’s toy on purpose. “Your sister is sad that you broke her toy. You’ll need to replace it. What can you do to help buy her a new one?” He may or may not offer ideas. If he doesn’t, brainstorm with him. If it’s not imperative she get a replacement toy, then “What can you do to make it up to your sister?” If he’s too angry or not listening, come back to the issue when he is calm, but he does need to take responsibility for his action.

3.  Natural consequences.  If your 10 year old leaves his skateboard out and it gets stolen, he no longer has a skateboard.

Don’t let the smallies get to you, give attention to the biggies, but most importantly, give top priority to your relationship, which will make correcting the biggies much easier when they do come up.