Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers: Create a Life That You and Your Child Both Love

“Very small changes can make a very large difference,” veteran preschool teacher Faith Collins writes. It’s a sentence that epitomizes this calm, unassuming parenting book packed with helpful strategies that can stand alone or be knit into a comprehensive approach to raising connected, competent, and considerate kids.

Joyful

Some edicts will be familiar to those who read Harvey Karp or follow Parents magazine on Facebook: give choices with firm boundaries, provide “scaffolding” so children are challenged without being overwhelmed, create intentional routines, use positive language, etc. But Collins isn’t afraid to break from the crowd—poo-pooing, for example, giving warnings and labeling emotions when kids are upset. Ultimately, she offers an uncommon take-home message: find reciprocity, with both parent and child responding to each other’s requests quickly and positively.

In her variation, “turning no into yes” isn’t just about parents digging deep to embrace messy milk pouring: it’s turning the tables and getting children in the habit of saying “yes” and, barring that, “coming up with a response that’s still positive.” The key is assuming that good intent lurks behind kids’ actions. “Most of the times children say no, what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t feel as connected to you right now as I wish I did,’” Collins says. This shift in thinking can improve our lives, she asserts, and it starts with treating lack of connection like hunger: a need parents must address before turning to the problematic behavior that stems from it.

To increase connection—and the compliance it inspires—Collins supplies the acronym SMILE for “Singing, Movement, Imagination, Love, and Exaggeration.” SMILE doesn’t just work with toddlers. My eight-year-old can throw some serious shade when reminded that dirty clothes are expected to find their way to the hamper, but when I make like Demi Lovato and sing, “Baby, put your so-cks … in the laun-dry,” the eye roll I get comes with a grin and a clean floor. Collins packs the SMILE chapter with revelations (toddlers who laugh while they’re hitting, running away, or touching stuff that’s off-limits, for example, “are almost always [asking] for movement”). She follows them up with practical tips (e.g., “When cleaning up, pretend you’re squirrels scurrying around to put nuts away for the winter”) and helpful caveats (“If you use humor and a child responds with anger … she’s longing to connect in a different way”).

Subsequent sections of the book adeptly address topics like managing anger (that of both parents and kids) and promoting impulse control. I especially appreciated her advice on when to back off, reducing a request or retracting it entirely, and how to recognize when children need an adult-led activity (spoiler alert: when siblings start bickering). Also included are homegrown tips such as “don’t get mad, get sad” (where you say “oh, poor spoon” when a kid throws their silverware onto the floor, instead of hollering), launching a “pouring in the love campaign” by lavishing a child with displays of affection to help them reset, and offering “hand-over-hand help” which seems to mean gently forcing your kid to do the thing you’ve asked, like putting on a shoe.

Collins’ background in the Waldorf-inspired LifeWays model comes to the foreground in the chapters on promoting independent play and a pleasant home life. “Very young children are often capable of much more than we give them credit for,” she writes, teaching readers how to “transform household tasks into enrichment activities” and “be busy but available.” Here, too, reciprocity is essential: “If we want children to be able to ignore us, diving into their own experiences,” and not get sidetracked when putting on their shoes, how can we expect them to drop what they’re doing whenever it’s convenient for us?

There’s no magic to it all, Collins assures, in both content and tone, just years of interacting with children and keeping an eye on the research. To save you a few decades, she created this cheat-sheet of a book, complete with two-page chapter summaries for the sleep- and time-deprived, to prove we can “have it all” (meaning young kids and a life that’s enjoyable). While I found her a bit dismissive of the burdens young children impose on even the most creative and upbeat of parents—and would have appreciated a more focused approach, particularly when dealing with the concept of strengths—there’s no question Joyful Toddlers & Preschoolers is one of the very best books on parenting kids who aren’t babies anymore but haven’t yet hit the tween years.

This review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.

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