Respect is not some modern, “airy-fairy” concept. It is essential to good relationships. And to get respect . . . you must give respect. Respect does not mean letting your toddler run wild. You will often have to enforce your parental authority. But when you are both firm and respectful, you will be modeling to your child exactly the behavior you want to nurture in them.

One of the most effective way to show your tyke that you respect them is by using the Fast-Food Rule when you communicate: Before telling an upset person your point of view, first repeat

back how he’s feeling (in the same way a drive-through worker will repeat your order before jumping in to ask for payment). The magic of the Fast-Food Rule is that it conveys your sincere respect by acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings. 

Many of us would never make it as order-takers at Busy Burger. That’s because too often, we cut in line in front of our little child to give our message without first acknowledging their feelings. 

Perhaps we feel that our busy schedules—or our wish to make our toddlers feel better fast justify our pushing their feelings aside and taking a turn first. We don’t mean to be rude. But that’s how it feels to a young child when we skip the Fast-Food Rule.

Throughout time, parents have used all sorts of techniques to stop their kids in the middle of what should be their turn.

For example:

  • Threatening: “Stop whining or we’re leaving.”
  • Questioning: “What are you afraid of ?”
  • Shame: “How dare you yell at Grandma!”
  • Ignoring: Turning your back and leaving.
  • Distracting: “Look at the pretty kitty in the window.”
  • Reasoning: “But, honey, there are no more cookies.”

There are the four most frequent bad habits we fall into when we “elbow” our tot’s feelings aside so we can take the first turn. But as you develop your skill with the Fast-Food Rule, you’ll drop these like four hot potatoes!

Hurtful Words

No parent gets up in the morning thinking of ways to crush their child’s confidence with ridicule and sarcasm. That’s why I’m always amazed to see parents assaulting their kids with words like “scaredy cat” and “whiner”—words they’d never allow a stranger to call their child. 

Name-calling becomes increasingly hurtful to kids around 2 years of age because middle toddlers are super-focused on words and they care a lot about what others think. 

Often, angry words slip out on a momentary impulse, perhaps echoing mean names thrown at us long ago. Verbal attacks can scar like knives. Insults can brutalize a child as much as slapping can. A few cruel remarks can wipe out a hundred hugs and trigger burning resentment or feelings of worthlessness. And what’s even more outrageous is that these names are always lies! Calling your child a “meathead” is a lie because it focuses on a momentary screwup but ignores the 15 times they did things well.

Like an ambassador to another country, you are building a long-term relationship with your child. Can you picture a diplomat telling a king, “You’re so stupid!” or “Shut up!”? Diplomats keep a cool head and a respectful tone even when they’re mad, because they know that today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend. 

Unfair Comparisons

How do you feel when someone says, “Everyone else can do it, why can’t you?”

Most of us hate being compared to others, especially when it’s being done as a put-down: Why can’t you act more like your sister? Stop it! None of the other kids are making such a big fuss. 

Besides being unfair, there are two other big reasons why you should avoid using comparisons to make a point: Before you know it, you’ll be trying to stop your child from imitating some of the not-so-great things that other kids do. And goodness knows you’ll hate it when your kiddo starts pointing out how their friend’s parents are nicer than you!

Rude Distraction

Distraction works well with babies, so it’s natural to want to use it with toddlers. But be careful. To an upset toddler distraction may feel like a disrespectful interruption or like you’re saying, “Stop feeling your feelings.”

Imagine that you told your best friend about something that upset you, and she responded

with a silly change of subject: “Hey, look. New shoes!” I bet pretty soon you’d be looking for a new best friend.

Toddlers also get annoyed when we answer their protests and upsets with distractions. But of course, they don’t have the option of switching parents. So, they either accept your distraction, pushing their hurt feelings deep inside, or scream louder, to try to force you to care.

I used to witness this parenting faux pas in my office every day. A toddler cried as I started to examine her ears and her mom instantly started jiggling a doll inches in front of her face, chirping, “Look! Pretty dolly!” 

The response? More times than not, the child’s shrieks jumped an octave, as if to say, “Dolly!? Are you kidding? Don’t you see I’m scared?”

Rushing to “Make It All Better”

We often interrupt our child’s complaints with positive comments like “It’s not so bad” or “You’re okay.”

It’s natural to want to comfort your upset child. You just want to “make everything better.” But when your little one is upset, immediately saying “It’s okay!” can actually make things worse. That’s because repeating “It’s okay” over and over again may inadvertently give your child the message that you want them to stuff their feelings deep down inside and act happy even if they aren’t. And that is absolutely not okay.

Please, save your reassurance for after you respectfully reflect your child’s feelings using the Fast-Food Rule and they start calming down. Saying “It’s okay” only makes sense once the child really is starting to feel okay.

Of course, you should immediately help your little one if they’re in pain or terrified. But toddlers are not delicate flowers who need to be protected from all frustration. Challenging situations strengthen a child’s character and resilience. A child’s struggles have a valuable silver lining—they boost their ability to handle life’s inevitable frustrations.

Don’t misunderstand me: Distraction and reassurance are great—but only when it becomes your turn. Farmers have to plow before they can plant, and parents need to reflect their child’s feelings (and wait for them to start settling) before taking a turn.

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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