How to make a yes-space and teach independent play
When the baby of our family was born, two years ago, I became the mother of four children three-years-old and under. My oldest had just turned three two weeks before. My middle children, a set of twins, would turn two in nine days. I repeat this fact often in conversation, because it still astonishes me.
Said another way, I had four children, and the oldest was three! I've learned a lot about toddlers over the past 5 years, because I've lived with 4 of them. It is not often that parents get the opportunity to parent three toddlers and a baby at the same time.
After my first was born, I read a lot of Janet Lansbury. She has been a parent educator for decades and is an advocate of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE). In a nutshell, RIE is respectful parenting. It holds that we must respect infants as people too, and that even as infants they are capable of understanding far more than we give them credit for. I highly recommend her book if you'd like to learn more: No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (affiliate link).
One of the main tenets is creating yes-spaces: a place where your kid can be free to do whatever they are inspired to do. This space must not have anything in it that you don't want them to get into. I am so thankful that I came across this piece of wisdom, because it has helped us turn an impossible situation into a merely nearly-impossible situation.
First, understand the toddler's psychology
Toddlers are impulsive and curious. When they get into things they are not trying to make more work for us. They are just exploring, and in many cases, practicing being little adults. My kids love to play with adults things: the dishes, the clothes, the refrigerator. When they take things out of drawers and move them around, they are imitating me. From their point of view, I take the dishes out and move them around! They don't understand the bigger picture, that I'm trying to cook, or wash the dishes and put them away in a certain spot. When my boys take clothes out of the dressers, they're doing what they see me do everyday. I take clothes out of the dresser. They don't yet connect that it's part of a bigger process: getting them dressed. When I see how hard they're trying to be human, it helps me to have compassion (on a good day.)
Second, identify your triggers
Next, be aware of your bad moments. We all have them. I have many many bad moments nearly every day, if I'm perfectly honest. I became aware of which things were "driving me nuts". (I use this phrase around here a lot, lest anyone reading thinks I've already got this figured out).
Your kid is not going to stop being impulsive, so it's much better to make it so that he can't be impulsive with the things you don't want him getting into. For some, that might mean locks on every cabinet. For us, it meant keeping the kids out of the kitchen entirely. We have a door to our kitchen, and we simply keep it locked, all the time. This keeps the boys from climbing onto the counter to get the sugar jar. It keeps them out of the fridge. It keeps them away from the knives.
Another one of my triggers that infuriated me every time it happened, was when my boys would take the clothes out of the dresser and throw them on the floor. So I started locking the bedroom door as well. And my biggest trigger was when my kids climbed the fence or opened the gate and went out in the street. We put a child-proof lock on the gate and made a taller fence. Problem solved. Now my boys have an outdoor space, totally enclosed, and totally free of anything they shouldn't get into. Problem areas, the kitchen and bedroom, are locked off and inaccessible without an adult.
Trust the human instinct to imitate
When confronted with these problems, I can punish my kids, or I can trust that they will grow up to be acceptable humans, as long as I model acceptable human behavior. Remember, our kids imitate everything we do. That means that they truly will learn to not climb on the counter and eat sugar straight out of the jar. With me as their example, they'll learn to put the sugar into a bowl, add some flour, and make cookies instead.
Over the years, I've tried to get my kids to feed themselves, to dress themselves, to potty-train, to color and practice writing. And it's often a struggle. I have to be there, hand-holding them, keeping them focused. Cleaning up massive amounts of food off the floor and off the children. If I drop the lesson in independence, and let them be dependent on me for a bit longer, say four to six months, when I give them an opportunity to feed themselves again, or to color with crayons, it goes much better!
Sometimes they don't need more training in a particular activity. They simply need to not do that activity for a little while longer. Then, when you try again, they can do it, with little to no coaching on your part. They need to be developmentally-ready. When I let go of my need to teach them to be independent right now, they are able to learn at their own pace. How much better! What is the rush to get our children to grow-up? They have their whole lives to be adults and to be independent. Trust that they will get there, and allow them to take the journey at their own pace.
Supporting your child
Every time you notice an aspect of your family life with toddlers that is bothering you, look for an environmental solution. Toddlers really do want to be good, but they have different needs and abilities. Everyone will be much happier if you just respect their needs and help them to be good.
We've been struggling with dinner-time lately. Our boys move around, get up and down during the meal, and play with each other's food. We use a picnic table as our table, and those benches are awfully fun to slide around on. They're also a little low for the boys, so the poor kids have to eat on their knees. It's no wonder they're not able to stay still; they're incredibly uncomfortable!
I could yell at them everyday until they grow big enough to be able to sit still, but I did some brainstorming instead. I got them these lovely booster seats (affiliate link) which allow them to sit and reach the table, but also provide a very clear boundary. Toddlers love clear limits. The picnic bench was so open; they were all over the place. The booster seats (in addition to having straps that we can tie them down with) provide a clear framework for where we want their bodies to be.