Saturday, 9 November 2013

Reflections on "ToddlerCalm (TM)" by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Note: I have used the word 'Reflections' instead of 'Review' here for two reasons. Firstly, 'review' implies a certain level of objectivity, even if the whole piece is not objective, whereas I read parenting books purely with my own situation in mind and so my write-up will be more heavily subjective than I would be in a review. Secondly, in a 'reflection' piece I can write not only about what I think of the book, but what the book made me think about me.

I discovered Sarah Ockwell-Smith and ToddlerCalmTM through Twitter around the time that the BabyCalmTM book was released. "Great," I thought, "but my daughter's nearly one, babyhood is almost over, what the heck do I do with a toddler?" Then came the announcement that the ToddlerCalmTM book would be published (hurray!) the following October (boo, too long!). I waited rather impatiently for months and months, then when I finally received my pre-ordered copy I couldn't wait to get stuck in.

The whole focus of this book is dealing with common toddler issues – tantrums, sleep problems, picky eating etc – in a way that is compassionate, gentle and in tune with the developmental needs of the child. Much of it runs counter to the prevailing attitude in our society that these issues need to be eliminated through punitive measures such as the naughty step, cry-it-out and the like, and as this is an attitude that I instinctively feel is wrong for my family, I knew that the book would be both affirming and helpful for me. I do have to qualify that, though, by saying I didn't like everything about it – more on that later.

So what did I like about the book? First of all, I love the way it starts out by asking what personality traits you want your child to grow up with. This instantly gets you thinking about the bigger picture, and reminds you that your child won't be a toddler forever and the problems you're having now will one day be a memory. I'd already been thinking along these lines before I started reading; while waiting for the book's release, many problems arose which got me thinking, "I really need that book now!" only for those problems to pass. I love that Ockwell-Smith encourages us to take the long view, rather than focussing on 'fixing' our toddler problems as quickly as possible without regard for the effect these fixes will have on the child's development.

The first part of the book is quite heavy-going in parts, with a lot about psychology and brain development. But, as much as this was a bit of a slog to get through, it is so important and eye-opening. Understanding just how differently Eleanor's brain works to mine has helped me to see things from her point of view, and so focus on helping her instead of punishing her. It's as if I now realise that I need to 'fill in' for the bits of her brain that aren't developed yet – I need to help her regulate her emotions, I need to smooth things over when toddler clashes happen rather than expecting her to say sorry (because she won't be sorry really, and I don't want her to think sorry is a magic word to get her out of trouble). The science of toddlers is the basis for Ockwell-Smith's CRUCIALTM framework, which is a method for dealing with any toddler problem going. I won't go into an explanation of what it is here (for a start, that'd be bordering on plagiarism) but it's a really good framework for thinking about the issue and tailoring a solution to your own circumstances, without being too prescriptive. I have to say here, though, that Chapter 14, where CRUCIALTM is applied to a number of problems, gets a bit repetitive – but then I suppose few people will read the whole thing, choosing instead to focus on the problem that is presenting itself at the time.

What didn't I like then? Well, this probably says more about me than the book, but I was kind of hoping for a magic cure to Eleanor's sleep problems, and this was sadly lacking. While it does deal with toddler sleep, if that's your main concern, this isn't the book for you. The chapter on sleep begins with some stats, showing that around a third of toddlers wake in the night. This is meant to be comforting – look how many other toddlers don't sleep through! But all I took away was – hey, two thirds of toddlers sleep through, and of the remaining, many of them probably aren't waking up every night like mine. So I'm in a minority! Although there are some pointers for trying to improve the situation, the main message is that, if your toddler's having sleep issues now, you'll just have to wait until they're older and it will fix itself. Perhaps I'm being very reductive there, but that's the message I took away. There are suggestions for a bedtime routine, but we've had one of those in place for over a year and it hasn't stopped her fighting sleep, or waking up in the night. (Also, the suggested bedtime routine relies on a few gadgets which – conveniently – can be purchased through the ToddlerCalmTM website. There are very few alternatives suggested to these.) So no magic bullet for getting the decent sleep that we all need. Ho hum.

One other area I struggled with a bit was the discussion of praise. Again, this probably says more about me than the book. Apparently, phrases like, "well done," and, "good girl," are bad, and praise can reduce intrinsic motivation to complete tasks. I get this about rewards, yes – give a kid a chocolate for doing something, and soon they'll only do it to get chocolate. But I struggle with the idea that saying, "well done," when Eleanor has made a particularly impressive Duplo construction, or a quick, "good girl," when she has tidied her toys away will turn her into an approval junkie. Reading this part of the book has made me rather paranoid about what I say to my daughter – maybe that's a good thing, but for the most part I think it's all about balance. While I've started using Ockwell-Smith's 'say what you see' approach a bit more instead of explicitly praising, I think little snippets of praise will always slip out and I don't see that as problem. I'm certainly not going to beat myself up about it!

One other little niggle – and probably me being overly PC – is that the hypothetical toddler in the book is always referred to as a boy. Only a minor thing, I know, but I prefer the modern convention of alternating between boys and girls. Feels more inclusive.


Overall, I enjoyed this book and found it very helpful when it comes to the area of discipline and dealing with problematic behaviour. It confirmed to me that problems are not with the toddler, but with a society that expects toddlers to be little grown ups, and so hurries us through a period of their life which is in fact so rich with wonder, joy and humour. Hopefully, with this approach, I'll be able to replace 'terrible twos' with 'terrific twos' as I help Eleanor to deal with the rough patches in her life, and enjoy watching a little person developing right before my eyes.

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