How I Sped Up the Nighttime Routine with My 2-1/2 Year Old

Dear Joanna and Julie,

The bedtime routine with Simon, age two-and-a-half, has been dragging out longer and longer. I’m short on patience by that time of the night. I’m writing to share my success with being playful.

I made a getting-ready-for-bed game, complete with laminated pieces. I had my dad do the illustrations: bath, PJs, brush teeth, use potty, find favorite stuffed animal, read books.

Here’s what it looks like, before we start:

We pull all the pictures off and put them in an envelope (not pictured) but they could just be in a pile somewhere, like this:

The one of the monkey in bed is showing his favorite stuffed animal  – bedtime grinds to a halt without the monkey so it must be found and placed in bed. Simon gets to determine the order of events, so long as it all gets done. I love having the pictures – it saves me saying “what do you want to do next, pajamas or brush teeth?” 500 times. He just can go and pick one out of the envelope.

He puts one picture on the board at a time after he’s completed each task. They have velcro on the back.

Simon was really into it and we got bedtime done in record time, giving us time to read a lot more books and sing a ton of lullabies! It felt great. I hope it continues to hold the same thrill for him!

Here are some close-up shots:

PS. (One day later)

It did the trick again tonight! Simon was tired from a birthday party and the battery died in our car so we got home pretty late, but he was downright filthy from being by a campfire so I didn’t want to skip bath. Thank goodness for that chart. We finished everything in 30 min that usually takes 60. I wouldn’t have attempted that two days ago. Even if it stops working eventually, it’s been worth it for the good it did today.

A Clean Resolution for Resistant Bathers

This story comes to us from a reader in India:

The Flood Evacuation Story

My boys, aged 7 & 5, had just returned sweaty and tired from outdoor play and needed to shower. A couple of gentle reminders didn’t help.
Just then , a quirky idea popped into my head and I announced in an official Voice that there was a flood in the bathroom and that ducky ?, froggy ? and turtle ? need help. And the government needs brave firefighters to help.
My boys ran into the bathroom, showered themselves and their bath toys and came out. I gave them a badge (those received as party favours from endless birthday parties they get invited to ) each to honour their efforts.
They love this pretend play and I have used it many times since then.

Too Many Tantrums

Dear Joanna and Julie,

I have just finished reading your book and I think it’s an amazing book! I have a 5-and-a-half-year-old son, “Kevin,” as well as a 2-year-old.  “Kevin,” has always been a difficult child for me. He always has temper tantrums  (like every hour) over tiny matters. He  says he is very angry and he needs love from me. For example, when I don’t answer his question immediately or when I raise my voice  he starts to wind up and say ‘I am angry!’ Sometimes he throws things .  He always says ‘Mummy please give me love’. If I ignore him, it turns into a 30 min temper tantrum disaster.  If I sit him on my lap and give him a kiss or hug and try to do the tools , he is ok.

The thing is, because he does it so often,  I find it impossible to have the patience, and also I don’t think a 5-year-old boy should be having so many tantrums!   I want to know what exactly should I do when he has a meltdown? Telling him I really don’t like to see anyone being angry doesn’t seem to lessen  his tantrum.  And I have been using the tools for a few weeks now. Please help!

Yours truly,

Tired of Tantrums


Hi ToT,

It sounds like your son is feeling very needy of your attention right now, and you are feeling pretty frustrated. A temper tantrum every hour is a lot to take!

From what I understand, Kevin is actually pretty articulate about what he needs – love and attention! And when you sit with him on your lap and give him hugs and acknowledge feelings, it really helps. But you don’t want to have to do that a dozen times a day, and with a five-year-old, it certainly feels like he should be able to function without quite that much attention.

I’m guessing that with a two-year-old brother taking up his mom’s attention, Kevin may be feeling extra needy of some babying, while at the same time you are feeling extra needful of Kevin acting like a big boy. Two-year-olds are so demanding! The problem is, the more you press Kevin to be the big boy and not to need so much attention, the clingier and more desperate he will feel. The more we push away, the more they grab on. I went through this with my middle child, who went through a clingy, fearful stage. I became so frustrated; I was always acting impatient with him. A friend kindly told me that my impatience was making my son more clingy. I was working against myself.

So how can you muster the patience to give Kevin what he needs, and ultimately give him the strength and confidence not to need quite so much babying, while retaining your own sanity?

I am going to suggest that you throw yourself into babying Kevin. Invite him into your lap. Tell him he’s your super baby who can run and jump and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The strongest baby in the world! Acknowledge all his feelings (“Sometimes you like your little brother, but sometimes it’s a pain in the neck to have a two-year-old around. You miss the good old days when you were the only baby!”)

Give him ways to help out.  Maybe he can read a picture book to his little brother, or blow soap bubbles for him to pop, or build blocks towers for him to topple. Then use your praise and appreciation tools to help Kevin feel good about his role as an older brother. “I see a big smile on your brother’s face! He really likes it when you read to him.”

Resist the urge to tell him that you “don’t like to see him being angry.” As you noticed, that doesn’t work. He needs to feel accepted and loved even when he’s angry, just as we all want to be accepted and loved, even when we’re frustrated with our children. We wouldn’t want someone to tell us, “Hey, I don’t like to see parents who are frustrated with their children!” It would make us feel wrong and bad about ourselves.

But what about when you’re at the end of your rope, after the 5th or 6th tantrum of the day? What about those times you just don’t have it in you to be loving and patient?

Tell him how you feel, without making him feel bad about himself:

“Kevin, I can see you need some loving and hugs. Mommy doesn’t have the patience right now for that. My patience is the size of a tiny little pea. You can come sit with me in the kitchen while I make dinner, and I’ll be knowing how sad you are while I cut these carrots. After dinner my patience will be bigger, maybe the size of a watermelon, and we can sit down together and hug and read stories.”

Or maybe you can ask him to show you his feelings in art. “Kevin, I have to diaper your brother right now, so I can’t sit down with you. But I want to know how you feel. Can you show me with the crayons? … Wow, look at those blue and black lines zooming around. That shows me how mad you are! Show me more…”

No doubt there will be plenty of times when you don’t feel the patience to use any skills at all. That’s just because we’re human. We can’t expect 100%. But the more times you are able to accept your son’s feelings, either by cuddles or just in words, the more he will relax. And eventually he will start to have fewer tantrums, and feel more confident and sunny.



Doesn’t punishment prepare kids for real life?

Dear Joanna and Julie,

Firstly, I really love your new book on how to talk to little kids. I think it’s an amazing book and very easy to read with great real life examples.

Secondly, your book mentions not to punish kids for their misbehavior, rather teach them how to fix their mistakes so they know how to solve future conflicts as they grow older. Now how does that prepare them for the real world where people receive tickets for not speeding or passing stop signs. Another example is if an employee repeatedly comes late to work or doesn’t get along with his coworkers, he may be fired. Aren’t these punishments/consequences for an adult’s wrong doings?
Please explain.
Thanks so much,

Real Life Mom


Dear RLM,

You’re asking the important questions! I’m going to start with your last example. If an employee repeatedly comes to work late, (or fails to perform the job adequately in other ways) he may be fired.  Why is the owner of the business firing this guy? Not in order to punish him, but to protect his business. In our book we advocate taking action to protect yourself, other people, and property.

The respectful way to approach this miserable employee would be to tell him how you feel, what you need, and to take action if he is not able to carry out his job. The final blow might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, I need to be able to count on my delivery person to be here at 8am every morning. I hear that you’re having car trouble, and that public transportation is unreliable, and your shoes are pinching your toes too much to walk.  Unfortunately I have to hire someone else who is able to get here on time.”

That is very different from a punishment, which might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, you’ve been late for three mornings in a row. Now I’m going to punish you so that you can learn to behave better. Every time you’re late, I will confiscate your cigarettes and candy bars. Or make you sit on this uncomfortable stool for 20 minutes. Or smack you on the bottom.”

In the first scenario Bud is sad that he lost his job, but perhaps he is able to reflect on the fact that he needs to make more of an effort to get to work on time in his next job, because now he knows that employers won’t put up with that, no matter what his excuses are.

In the second scenario Bud is probably angry, humiliated and contemplating a lawsuit against his employer for physical or mental abuse. He is not reflecting on strategies for arriving on time.

It’s true that Bud was fired as a consequence of his lateness. But the boss’s motivation was not to cause suffering in order to make Bud learn a lesson. He fired Bud to protect his business. Motivations matter. Bud will feel very differently about being fired if it is done respectfully, without intent to cause extra harm in order to “teach a lesson.”

A similar dynamic occurs in our home when we take action to protect ourselves instead of punishing the child. (“I’m very upset! I don’t want the couch drawn on! I’m putting the markers away for now. ” instead of, ‘Bad boy, now you get no dessert because you drew on my couch.”)

But what about the speeding ticket?  Don’t we punish people with fines in order to get them to drive more slowly? Well, studies suggest that while those fines help fund local government, they don’t actually encourage a change of behavior. This study shows that drivers who receive speeding tickets are not deterred from repeating the offense; in fact they are more than twice as likely as other drivers to receive another speeding ticket in the following months.

Drivers will certainly slow down in the presence of a police officer so they won’t get caught. But as soon as that officer is out of the picture, they revert to their previous behavior.

As parents we are not looking to achieve the effect of having our kids behave well only when they are in danger of being caught. We’re trying to raise a person who is internally motivated to drive in a way that doesn’t endanger others, who has a sense of empathy and compassion for other human beings. That will not be achieved by means of punishment.

What’s more, we don’t want our kids to fear and avoid us the way most drivers fear and avoid traffic cops. That’s not the relationship we’re looking for!

If I had a teenager who repeatedly drove dangerously, I would take action by confiscating the car keys. I wouldn’t do it to punish him, but rather to protect him, and to protect other drivers sharing the same road. I might say something like this:

“I can see how tempting it is to drive fast and enjoy the power of speed! I can’t let you use the car until we figure out a way for you to drive safely. I would never forgive myself if someone got hurt.”

That is very different from a punishment, which doesn’t address the problem of how to change behavior.



Overtired Child

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My biggest source of frustration with my child is when he is overtired. On the way to the melt-down, he can’t pay attention to rules or parental suggestions, he bounces off the walls, and moves his attention from thing to thing rapidly. It is hard to watch and hard to deal with. Eventually he melts down into inconsolable tears.

I know that the best way to deal with this is to make sure that he gets enough sleep. So maybe this isn’t a “child” issue so much as a “logistics and household” issue. Preschool starts early in the morning (8:30), our child won’t nap during rest-time or after school (his day ends at 3:30), and we eat dinner as a family around 6 (based on my husband’s work schedule). While feeding my son dinner at 5 in order to get him into bed by 6:00 or 6:30 is something we sometimes do, we do like eating all together and having time together at the end of the day.

Are there any techniques, tricks, or skills for dealing with the bad behavior that comes as the result of overtiredness?

Thanks in advance,

Bedtime Bedlam


Dear Bedlam,

You already know that it’s well near impossible for an overtired child to “behave right” when he doesn’t feel right. It is a logistics issue, which by no means implies that it has a simple solution! It can be incredibly difficult to stick to a sleep schedule that works for a young child while accommodating all the demands of the adult world.

It’s an awkward stage of life, when your kid is too old for naps yet can’t quite last through dinner time without one. Perhaps you can consider feeding your son at 5:00, and then having “special time” when Dad gets home at 6:00 as part of the bedtime routine (bath, stories, songs, heart to heart conversations, etc.).

But of course life tends to throw us off schedule, so when you do end up with an overtired child, you’ll keep in mind that there’s not much you can demand of him in terms of rules and expectations. An adult can dig deep and manage to function in the face of (some) hunger and sleep deprivation, but little kids just….can’t. Once they’ve gone past that natural point of sleepiness it can be very hard for them to settle.* Telling them they are “just overtired and need to calm down” will only be enraging. Nobody likes to be told their feelings are not valid because of some “reason.” (Consider being told, “You’re just upset because you’re having your period!”)

The only thing you can do is handle with care and try to guide your child through the storm. If he’s running around maniacally, you might help him make the transition to sleepiness by:

  • Putting on some music. Start by jumping around to an upbeat song.  Then dance more slowly, to a song with a slower tempo. Then you can lie down together to a lullaby.
  • Helping him blow off steam. “You’ve got some energy left over, even though it’s late. Do you want to take five big jumps or ten before snuggling into the blanket cave?”
  • Getting his pajamas on with playfulness instead of scolding. Make the PJ pants say, “Please stick your leg in me. I feel very flat!”
  • Rolling him up in his blanket, explaining that you’re making a hot dog out of him and the blanket is the bun. Press him down all over while telling him you’re putting on the ketchup. Sing him a soothing lullaby.
  • If he does melt down into “inconsolable tears,” hold him and comfort him without scolding or recrimination. Resist the urge to put in a dig (“I told you you needed to go to bed! See what happens when you don’t listen?”)

You get the idea.  He is not going to be the cooperative, easy-going kid you sometimes enjoy. He is miserable and out of sorts. You’re going to be making no demands of him and working extra hard to help him calm down. It’s not very convenient but that’s life with kids. At one point he will miraculously move on to the next stage and be okay with a 6pm dinner and a little less sleep.

Good luck and let us know what happens,

Joanna and Julie


*Sleep experts explain that once a child is overtired, hormones are released that stimulate the body and keep the child awake. It may feel counter-intuitive, but having an earlier bedtime often results in an easier transition to sleep.

Too Much Hugging

Dear Joanna and Julie,

Our almost 6-year-old is overly physically affectionate with his friends. He can’t seem to restrain himself from kissing and hugging (way too long and too hard), and won’t stop even when the other kid complains.

We’ve had many discussions with him about the importance of respecting other people’s bodies and boundaries, and he seems to understand, but that doesn’t help him control his impulses.

When we’re around, we can usually rein him in with a gentle reminder if we see him going overboard. But we’re at a loss about what to do when we’re not there to address it – at school or camp, for instance.  We’ve even tried taking away screen time as a consequence, but that doesn’t seem to work.

Of course, we don’t want to teach him to NEVER hug or kiss anyone — just to do it appropriately. If it were hitting, it would be simpler: never acceptable, the end. But helping him understand when (and how much) affection is okay, and teaching him to stop even when he doesn’t want to, is proving to be a lot more complicated.

Yours truly, 

“In a Tight Squeeze”


Dear Tight Squeeze,

You’re on the right track! Punishment and restricting privileges will not help your son learn to control himself. It sounds like you are trying to do some problem-solving, but you’re missing the all-important first step.

Step oneAcknowledge the child’s feeling first.  We cannot emphasize this enough!  Spend a generous amount of time talking about how nice it is to hug and squeeze and kiss. How much fun, how much he loves to do it – in the morning, in the afternoon, at bedtimes, with his parents, with his teachers, with his friends, a good squeeze is the best! Once you get started you really don’t want to stop, even when the other person says to stop. It feels too good to stop!

Step two – “The problem is…..”

Then and only then can you talk about other people’s feelings. “The problem is that sometimes other people are not in the mood to be squeezed. They can get upset. What can a person do when he loves to hug but the other person doesn’t want to be hugged so much?”

Step three – “We need ideas…”

Maybe your son can come up with some of his own ideas. Here are a few to start you off:

  1. Would he like to carry a small favorite stuffed animal that he can hug when the mood strikes, instead of hugging the person?
  2. When he feels the urge to hug, can he hug himself, wrapping his arms around his own shoulders and kissing his own inner elbows while doing so?
  3. Could he ask a person if they would like a hug? If they say yes, the hug is on!
  4. Can he come up with a special word for friends or teachers to use that will be a signal for him to stop?
  5. Would he like to shop for, or better yet help make, a big stuffed animal or cushion that he can hug to his heart’s content?
  6. Perhaps the two of you can play a hugging game, so he can practice starting and stopping. You hug him nice and tight and he can say “more” or “stop.” As soon as he says stop, fling your arms away dramatically and say something like “Hug OVER!” (Or “break free!” or “Blast off!” to make it seem like a more fun experience to stop hugging.) Then let him do the same to you. Let him practice on other family members as well, and get some stuffed animals to boot. They can talk to him in their own cute little stuffed animal voices.

Write down all your ideas. Choose the ones you both like. Talk to his teachers and camp counselors about the solutions so that they can help. When he manages to use a solution, notice that with appreciation:

“You felt like hugging, but you knew Amy didn’t want to, so you hugged your own self. You did it!”

If he doesn’t use his solutions, gently extricate the “victim” without scolding your son. Just repeat, “Amy’s not in the mood to be squeezed right now. Let’s find something else to squeeze!”

In addition to problem solving with your son, it may be helpful to find a way to give him the experience he seeks. Some kids (especially those who are on the spectrum or have sensory processing disorder) crave deep pressure. We know one mom who plays the “hotdog game” with her child. She wraps him tightly in a blanket (the bun!) and then puts “condiments” on him. “Ketchup” gets spread on with long firm strokes. “Sauerkraut” is added by chopping up and down his back with the edges of the palms, mustard is pounded on with gentle fists, onions are slapped on, salt and pepper are sprinkled with little fingernail touches, and then the whole thing is eaten up, yumyumyum. A favorite game!

Joanna and Julie

When Choices Don’t Work

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My preschooler can be very stubborn. When he doesn’t get his way he will often react with a tantrum. Just this morning after finishing his cereal, it was time to drive to school. But he wanted more cereal. Unfortunately there was no time. I offered him a choice: cereal in a bag or in a cup. But he only wanted cereal in a bowl with milk.  In these cases I am not sure what else I should do. 

Yours truly,

No Choice Chosen


Dear No Choice Chosen,

What can you do when you offer a child a perfectly reasonable choice and he rejects both?

First, start by accepting feelings. When a child is experiencing strong feelings he may not be ready for a choice.  Since your son is feeling very emotional, you’ll want to put some drama into your voice!

“Ah, you don’t want dry cereal! You want it with milk! That’s the best. Nice wet soupy goopy milky cereal. Not stupid old dry cereal in a cup.”

You can give in fantasy what you can’t give in reality:  

“I wish I had a button to press to stop time for 10 minutes. Then you could have your cereal and milk, and we still wouldn’t be late.”


“I wish I had a giant plastic bubble inside the car for you to sit in, so that it wouldn’t matter if milk spilled. That would be nice!”

Try putting the child in charge. Put him to work coming up with his own choices:

“Well, the problem is I can’t allow milk in the car. What can you eat in the car that has no liquid in it? We need an idea.”

There’s no guarantee that this will work. You are in a rush; your child is in a “mood.” It’s possible that you’ll still have to drag a crying child to the car. But all of these approaches avoid confrontation and invite your child to work with you rather than against you. You’ve got good odds his resistance will melt away once you enlist his help. And if it doesn’t work in the moment, you can always plan for next time with a problem-solving session on “What To Do When There’s Not Enough Time For Seconds.”

Clingy Kid

Dear Joanna and Julie,

My son is 3 years old and he gets really nervous and sad when I leave for work. Once a week he stays with his grandma and it’s okay (not always but nearly).

However when he stays with his nanny (three days a week) he is “traumatized”. He starts crying, shouting, and imploring that I stay home. The nanny says that often when I am not there he asks for me and gets really sad.

I tried explaining that I go to work because we need to have a roof above our heads, because we need to have something in our plates to eat, we want him to be able to go on holidays and discover the world, and furthermore I like working as much as he likes going to school (I don’t want him to grow thinking that working is difficult and boring. I want him to feel that working is cool and rewarding). I tried telling him I’d prefer to stay with him if I could. Nothing works.

The same story starts again every week. I would be pleased to get your advice on this. Thank you very much in advance.

With warm regards,

Working Mom


Hi Working Mom,

I understand your impulse to explain to your son the reasons why you go to work. They are all such good ones!  But I’m sure you have noticed by now that we can’t explain away emotions. A three-year-old is unlikely to say, “Gee, Mother, now that you’ve laid it out so logically, I can see that I need to put my personal feelings aside and take a broader perspective.”

The most helpful thing you can do for your son is to acknowledge his feelings.  Not when you are under pressure right before you have to leave for work of course, but when you can find a peaceful moment to sit down with your son. Set your explanations and logic aside and focus on his feelings.

You might try saying something like:

“Boy you REALLY don’t like it when I leave you with the nanny!”

“It makes you so sad, you feel like holding me tight so I won’t go!”

“You don’t want me to go off to a stupid job.”

“You’d rather have me stay home with you every day.”

Give your son time to reply and encourage him to air all his objections. Show him that you accept all his feelings:

“Oh, so sometimes that nanny makes you mad! You don’t like it when she says you have to finish everything on your plate! You’d rather be the one to say when you’re hungry and when you’re full.”

“Ah, and you don’t like having to take a nap. It’s boring and you don’t feel sleepy. You’d rather watch a show on the television.”

You might want to make a written list of his grievances:

“Wait a minute; let me get a paper and pencil. I want to write down all the things that bother you.”

Your son will appreciate hearing his list read back to him out loud with plenty of emotion! Once he’s feeling thoroughly heard, you can go into problem solving mode:

“I wonder if there’s anything we can do to make the time with the nanny more fun, or at least less awful. Let’s make another list.”

On this new list you can write down ideas for special activities your son might enjoy doing with the nanny – making playdoh, finger-painting, baking cookies – as well as his suggestions for what not to do.  He may want to keep a picture of you in his pocket, or some other special talisman. Be sure to write everything down, including ideas you find completely unacceptable (Lock the nanny in a closet! Quit your job!)

Afterwards you can go through the list together and check the items you both like. Then you can put your new plan into action.

One powerful effect of this approach is that you will hear more from your child. When you stop explaining and start listening and accepting feelings, you will find learn more about what is bothering him. You may find out that there is something upsetting your son which can be resolved by a simple conversation with the nanny. Or you may find out that the problems are deeper and this nanny is not a “good fit” for your child.  It could be that your son is putting up such a protest simply because he misses you, but it’s also possible that there is something more seriously unpleasant going on during his day with this nanny.

Please write back and let me know what happens!


Kids with Kittens

Dear Julie and Joanna,

My six-year-old son loves our kitten. He plays with the kitten appropriately 50% of the time, the other 50% he is playing too rough and carrying the cat around against its will.  I don’t think he means it harm, he just loves it so. 

I am starting to get frustrated with using the phrase, “We expect you to play gently with the cat!” and showing ways to play properly.  We have to tell him multiple times a day and I can see that it is just not working.

Please help!

Mom of a Cat Lover


Dear Mom of a Cat Lover,

I have a few tweaks to make to your basically sound approach. First, I appreciate that you understand that your son is not harassing the poor cat out of meanness, but rather out of an overabundance of enthusiasm. And that you are giving him information rather than scolding. Let’s just make the information a little more specific, and add another step…take action without insult. After you have secured safety for all, you can help redirect your child with choices and point out the positive with descriptive praise. Here’s how it might go…

Instead of reminding him to “play gently” (what does “gently” mean to a six-year-old after all?)  let’s give information:

“I can see the kitty is getting scared. When she lashes her tail like that it means she’s nervous.”

“The kitty is struggling because  she doesn’t like to be held. She likes it when you scratch her head like this!”

If he can’t quite bring himself to back off, you can take action:

“I’m putting the kitty in my bedroom for a while. She needs a break for now.”

And then put her in there and lock the door. A simple hook and eye lock on the door can provide safe haven for a beleaguered cat. You can help move your son on to another activity by offering a choice. It can even be a cat-related activity.

“Do you want to make a toy for the kitty? We have feathers, crumpled paper and string.”

“Let’s give the real cat a rest. We can play with your stuffed animal cat or with your trucks.”

You might also take time out to notice and appreciate those times when he is being gentle with the cat. Be sure to use descriptive praise.

“The kitty likes it when you do that. I can hear her purring.”

“Wow, she’s really enjoying that pipe cleaner on a string toy you made for her. Look at her pounce!”

At six many children are not quite old enough yet to exert self-control consistently around such a delicate creature. In fact many adoption groups refuse to adopt out puppies or kittens to families with children under seven.

With a little more time, and your gentle guidance, your son will get there soon!