From the time my son was a baby and learned how to lean towards someone he wanted to go and see, we began teaching him that he has choices and his choices matter. I know this may seem crazy to some, but it was as simple as not making him go to someone if he didn't lean towards them. This was at a very young age too, I want to say somewhere around four months old.
It never made sense to me when I saw a parent ask their baby, "do you want to go see Grandma?" and then just hand the baby over anyway even if they didn't lean or reach. At that young of an age, they may not be able to communicate very well, but reaching or not reaching, to me, is communication and shouldn't be ignored. I always assumed he knew what I was saying and asking and I wanted him to know I am always listening to his feelings and I am his safe place.
This required both me and husband speaking up at times as some family would just look to take him out of our arms when we asked our son If he wanted to go see them. Several times we had to stop them and say, "No, if he wants to go, he will let us know." There was one time when he was taken out of my arms before reaching and I'll never forget the look on his face, it absolutely broke my heart and I promised myself from then on that it didn't matter who it was, I would always speak up for my son.
I truly feel like a lot of tantrums or misbehavior at our current age (21 months) comes from frustration and I think by laying the ground work early on of letting him know that he has choices and I'm listening, has definitely helped us.
His choices at this point might be where would he rather eat breakfast? Lately, most of the time he wants to sit at his little art table and color while he eats, but this morning he chose his highchair and then let me know he wanted me to turn off the music and turn on cartoons for him to watch while he ate. It's little choices like this that I personally know of many parents who would say, "Well I'm the parent, I tell them where they will eat. They need to understand I'm the parent and what I say goes."
But, I think to myself, "Why not let them decide? Sure, I'm the parent and there are certainly rules we have in place and my son understands that. Plus, there are plenty of ways to establish the necessary level of respect in a parent/child relationship while still allowing them to make these little choices and learn."
In doing this, in teaching him that he has choices, they matter and I'm listening, I've noticed two very significant things.
1) Many people including my husband, my mom and pediatrician have commented on how advanced my son is in so many ways and how extraordinary it is that I understand so much of what he is trying to communicate and vise versa, he understands me. My mother in particular comments a lot on how she's amazed at the level of understanding he has that is far above what is typical for his age.
2) When the frustration comes out as a temper or other misbehavior, often times all I have to do is get down to his level, I put my face very close to his and I explain to him. This is another thing that I hear other parents think is crazy, explaining. But again, he's a person and just because he might not speak an abundant amount of words doesn't mean he that he won't understand me. If he doesn't understand everything right now, he most likely understands some of it and the rest he will eventually because he will learn. So why not give him that opportunity to learn and grow?
The other night I laid him down to change his diaper and put his pajamas on. He had an absolute fit, fighting to roll over and crying. My husband picked him and Isaac was fighting to be put down and still crying. He tried getting his attention a few times by saying his name, but it was not working. I took him and laid him back down on the blanket, I put my hands and arms underneath his head and upper back to lift him slightly and I put my face super close to his and in a very quiet voice I said, "You want to get up and dance, right?" my son responded with, "yeah" in a voice that shook with his tears. I responded to him, "and I will let you get up and dance in just a moment, we have to change your diaper and your clothes first. Okay?" he again said, "yeah" and that was the end of the tears and the fighting.
He wanted to dance to the music and he thought we didn't understand what he wanted inducing a large amount of frustration until I acknowledged specifically to him that I knew what he was looking for, waited for him to let me know that I was correct and then told him when he'd be able to.
I'm not saying it is always this easy. If he's tired, it might not go as smoothly, but most of the time if I just acknowledge specifically what he wants and I wait for him to respond then we avoid a lot of frustration and temper. If he is tired, I might have to do that plus give him something to help me with as a distraction.
Our little ones are people, no matter how young or small.
I always try to ask myself, "If I were in his shoes at this very moment, how would I feel?" and I think that helps to keep things in perspective and know what might be the best way to handle a situation.
Parenting is hard, I will never have it down pat and there is never a right answer for everyone, but I wanted to share this because I truly believe it has helped us and maybe it can help some other parents out there as well.