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Toothbrushing and the Terrific Two-year-old

toothbrush heaven

Daily life with a small child is filled with laughter as well as struggles, as any mom or dad will attest to. The laughter is the most joyful, belly-full and surprising - these young ones are unpredictable with their thoughts and so creative with their language. Lately, every morning has been delightful - I usually wake up early and get to work (play) in my office for a little while and Tristan wakes up a bit later and calls to me. I run to see him - those first few waking minutes are so precious I don't like to miss even a few seconds of them - and he nurses a little, then stops to tell me something out of the blue. Maybe a snippet of a conversation or situation from the day before, sometimes he pulls something out of the depth of his memory and surprises me with all that he remembers. Most of the time though, he tells me a 2-year old joke and we laugh and laugh. He's really pretty hilarious. I was blessed with a boy with a great sense of humor. Thank God. I love to laugh.

The flip-side of that coin is the struggle that comes from our ideas of what he should and shouldn't do coming up against his emerging sense of self. And opinion. And likes and dislikes. Case in point: tooth-brushing. This has of late become an issue I would rather avoid but can't because of the possible consequences. He will take a toothbrush with toothpaste and put it in his mouth and move it around a little. And that is it. It's not enough. I'll tell him I can see the "sugarbugs" on his teeth, and at first this helped and he brushed more, but then it stopped working. It is a frustrating situation. I have remedied it slightly by offering him a toothbrush as often as I can remember during the day. Honestly though, most of the time, he ends up brushing once - just before bath at night.

Yesterday, something interesting happened. I asked him to brush his teeth. "No, no, no," he said, and threw the toothbrush on the floor. "We don't throw things, Tristan," I said, (we are not a family who punishes, but we do use repetition, modeling and correcting behavior, and showing our son - sometimes in an exaggerated way - the natural consequences of his behavior) and told him we wouldn't go outside until after he brushed. Usually, when he throws something I will get upset and that will color any other issue - the toothbrushing issue in this case. At this point it had to be two separate things because I didn't want my anger to color the toothbrushing situation. I let go of my anger about the throwing, telling him how we don't throw things because throwing can hurt and he has the words to say "I'm upset," or even just "no." The difference yesterday, for me, was that I didn't speak to him or treat him out of anger or frustration. He responds well to an exaggerated response to throwing or hitting (saying, "ouch that hurts. I have an owie!" almost always results in him hugging whomever he hurt and saying "I'm sorry.") My fear about cavities is thus far only a fear, not a reality, so why am I frustrated or upset about him not brushing when nothing bad has happened? Don't borrow trouble from the future is what I say.

Well, I didn't engage with him too much over the next hour but instead went about doing chores. The toothbrush remained on the floor. Every 10-15 minutes I would remind him that I was still waiting for him to brush his teeth. We were still talking but I was more serious than usual and he sensed that. This kid has a lot of pride! He will not just do what you want, something has to change and enough time has to pass that he can "save-face." He has always done this, since he was a wee-babe. After about an hour, dishes done, clothes folded, I walked with him toward the bathroom. Knowing about his pride and wanting him to brush his teeth but also not "lose-face," I decided to change the situation so that he could keep his dignity. It wasn't about forcing my will on him or getting in a "pissing contest" with him, as my husband calls it - I just want his teeth to be healthy!! I picked up the toothbrush and said, "Have you seen all the different toothbrushes we have in here Tristan? There are so many to choose from and they are all so neat and colorful! Let's see what we can find." I pulled out every toothbrush I had for him and for us. We ended up with about 10 on the countertop. He was excited to use the little green oval shaped one I bought as one of his first toothbrushes - a baby brush. We put some toothpaste on there and he brushed a little. By that time, it would have been o.k. with me if it had just gone in and out of his little mouth! But he did brush a little more than I had expected. My theory is that by shifting his attention to the different toothbrushes rather than the struggle of trying to make him do something he didn't want to do, he was able to save-face but still do what he knew I wanted him to do.

Today he was much more enthusiastic about brushing, gathering brushes that were still laying on the countertop and putting different ones and sometimes two at a time in his mouth and start brushing. He talked about the colors make comments about them. "What's this one doing?" he'd ask. "It's just sitting there waiting," I'd say. The photo I posted is proof.

It's a start. We'll see if it sticks!


f.m. said...

sounds like you're having fun!
ok, here's something i might try if the new trick turns old:
how about one of those one-minute sand timers and having him brush before the sand runs out. . . it might be fun to brush with mommy too. you both brush as much as you can before the sand runs out. . .

gennysent said...

that's a really good idea! I'm sure I have one of those sand timers in one of our old board games!

jenny woods said...

I am all about a little creative redirection to avoid the whole 'pissing contest' deal-- it is a win win for both mommy and little one. Kaleb & Tristan sound so similar in their personalities. They will be awesome classmates.

Lisa said...

I like your story. You articulate well thoughts I have not put into words regarding watching Larry lately . . . maybe that's mom's influence, too, since I just saw her. Okay, redirecting to help this proud little two year old save face . . . how many times did I do that yesterday? Thanks for putting it into words and reminding me of what's important. Love you, sis!