My toddler, a boy who is nearly 3, doesn’t really care if I tell him off. I know he’s young, but I’m concerned if I can’t even get through to him now that I’m not going to be able to keep any sense of authority as a parent. It makes me feel really rubbish. Help.

Anyone with a toddler will give you an understanding nod as they read this. On paper, you’ve been around a lot longer than the child, and you know best. On paper, you have ultimate control. On paper, it’s your way or the highway (do people say that in real life?) That’s the kind of paper that laughs at you as theory gives way to reality.

Give yourself a break: it’s the first time you and he have ever been at this stage together. You’re not rubbish: this is a process. I think you’ve made a good start in establishing in your own mind what boundaries you’d like him to keep. Some parents haven’t got that far. So, you’ve tried telling him off when he’s being naughty, and you’ve found his personality isn’t much bothered by that. Fine. Next tactic! (Don’t panic if you don’t have one; this is a time for reflection.)

Look at your unhappiness not as a failure, but as the sign that change is imminent

Some thoughts about alternatives: do you think he could be motivated by consequences? I know from personal experience that while one of my children is repentant just at the hint of admonition, the other finds my really cross voice mildly amusing. Words are enough for one; they mean nothing to the other. The latter suddenly cares a lot more if they aren’t allowed to do something – favourite toy removed, step-sitting, sweet amnesty, etc. I suppose taking away what he likes in order to give it back later is a kind of a bribe, but it’s a bribe on your terms. People call those bribes “goals”, I think. And while it sounds like a Supernanny cliché, there’s always a star chart, which is both a goal-orientated method, as well as an appeal to a child’s sense of consequences in a visual way.

Look at your unhappiness about your current state not as a failure, but as the sign that change is imminent. You’re feeling your way in this, like we all are. You’ve discounted one approach, and you’re about to take the next step towards solving this puzzle. Thinking about strategies from afar, as opposed to wildly casting around for authority in the stressful moment, is a good plan. And you’ll find the best one.

Taking away what he likes in order to give it back later is a kind of a bribe, but it’s a bribe on your terms

Important point: he’s not three yet. Pushing boundaries is his job. He’s finding out about the world around him, and he trying all the door-handles to see if he can get out the other side. That’s fine. And I happen to believe that as much as they might protest about boundaries, children actually feel safer within them. I’m not talking about draconian living, but freedom within demarcations. And that’s what you’re wisely in the process of imputing. Remember too that toddlers are sometimes (sometimes! Ha!) irrational. So you need to pick your battles. But at the same time, you don’t want him to rule the roost, so he needs to know you’re in charge. And once you figure out what best makes him take stock, you will be.

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