Meeting a childcare expert is a double-edged sword. You’re desperate for guidance, but there’s also that sickening feeling that both you and your offspring are on trial. You find yourself hoping and praying that your little toe-rag will, for once, be the perfect specimen – not only because you’re afraid of what the expert will think of Demon Damian as he wails and bangs his head on the floor – but also because you’re worried you may not deal with it appropriately.
That’s precisely how I feel when my daughter and I meet Rachel Waddilove, author of The Toddler Book: How To Enjoy Your Growing Child. Rachel, a grandmother of five and with three decades of childcare experience under her belt was also, gulp, Gwyneth Paltrow’s maternity nurse. Little wonder I’m nervous, but Rachel puts us at ease straight away, drawing cats and dogs on my daughter’s etch-a-sketch while my little one sits nicely and makes relevant accompanying animal noises.
Our coffee arrives, and with it the first test. I usually share the goodie on the side and let my daughter slurp the frothy milk. But will overloading her on sugar and caffeine put a big, black mark against me from the start? Again, Rachel steps to the rescue, offering her biscuit, so I escape the possible humiliation of doing the wrong thing and get to scoff my own biccie – hooray!
This, I discover, is Rachel’s philosophy. Yes, she’s a firm believer in setting boundaries but she’s also not afraid to break the rules once in a while. ‘My approach is very common sense,’ she says. ‘Babies and toddlers thrive on routine but not being so strict that you haven’t got any flexibility.’
We all want to raise children who are kind, fun-loving and well-behaved, who will grow into adults who can make friends easily and still act properly. But in the case of toddlers it’s often the small stuff – tantrums, fussy eating, not sleeping – that gets in the way of this big picture.
‘Yes dear, I know. From 12 months to two years they’re lovely, but they’re exhausting,’ says Rachel. ‘Toddlers are incredibly challenging. They’ll suddenly start to find their own way, their own will and they’ll start pushing the boundaries. A lot of parents think, “Oh help, what’s happened?” but actually it’s completely normal.’
The key, says Rachel, is positive parenting and encouragement combined with consistent and loving but firm discipline. What? Was that the D-word? It may not be the ‘in’ thing with today’s parenting gurus, but who wants to raise a child who thinks their can behave in any way that takes their fancy?
‘I’m a great believer in children not thinking they’re the centre of the universe,’ says Rachel. ‘Love and nurture them, yes, but they mustn’t think that there’s nobody else apart from them.’
Don’t drop everything the minute your child calls, don’t let them interrupt, and, as Rachel says in The Baby Book: How To Enjoy Year One, don’t be afraid to let them cry for a little while. ‘If you’ve got a child who’s been spoiled from the word go, when he gets into toddlerhood he’ll expect his parents to give him everything he wants right when he wants it, and he’ll scream and shout and be obnoxious. Nobody likes children like that.’
So, how does Rachel suggest we cope with tantrums – the bane of most parents’ lives? ‘The secret of disciplining is to ignore them. If they can’t hurt themselves, just walk away and say, “Mummy doesn’t like that silly behaviour”. If you can change the subject, quite often they completely forget what they were doing. Diffusing the situation before they go into complete meltdown really does help, although I know that they often they go into meltdown very quickly. That’s perfectly normal.’
And if this ‘perfectly normal’ meltdown ensues in the supermarket, Rachel has some refreshingly realistic advice. ‘If you have to buy them a sweetie or some chocolate, do it and don’t worry about it. It is best to avoid punishing your child in front of other people as it can be embarrassing for you, and everyone seems to have an opinion on whether you’re doing it right or not.’
At last, a parenting theory that bears some semblance to reality. Rachel is full of advice you’ll want to read. As someone who gave up on childcare manuals (the yawning gap between the recommended routines and our chaotic life was far too depressing), I find her advice to be neither bossy nor patronising. Rather, it soothes much of that omnipresent guilt that comes with having kids.
Take her thoughts on nutrition: ‘It’s nice for your child to have occasional ice creams, biscuits or cakes. It’s easy to get hung up on not allowing your children to have sweet things, but as part of a healthy, balanced diet I believe that it’s enjoyable for children to have some treats.’
Rachel delights in morning cuddles – ‘but not until you are ready. I don’t mean 5am!’ – and warns parents not to panic if their toddler suddenly starts waking in the night. ‘Things will come along to upset toddlers – a new baby, illness, teething, dreams – so sleep patterns can go.’ Getting into good habits requires a firm approach, but, as always, be flexible and listen to your child’s needs, she says.
Don’t worry if your child jumps off the potty and wees all over the floor, and don’t beat yourself up if you occasionally plonk them in front of the television. ‘If you are at home with your child it is good for her to have half an hour or so of being quiet, either in her room or sitting watching a video or DVD with you. It is good training for her to know how to be quiet and rest.’
Rachel’s line is sensible moderation. There’s no need for activities all the time, and don’t forget that mums and dads need time for themselves too. ‘It is perfectly all right for your child to be quietly at home with you playing with his toys while you have a sit-down with a coffee and the newspaper.’
Finally, some sound advice on, er, advice: ‘It is best not to listen to all you are told, but to decide on a particular pattern or plan to follow, otherwise you may get in a muddle with many different pieces of advice. Parents should not worry if they think they are not doing things the right way.’
Rachel’s books, both Dhs60, are available from bookstores across Dubai. Read more at www.rachelsbabies.com