What I Wish I'd Known When I was Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers

As I write this my boys are staying up a little late to read. Elijah (7.5) is reading a LEGO Ideas book and Ezra (9) is Charley and the Chocolate Factory. There's a soft glow peeking under their doorway, and as I reflect on this day I can't help but think of what bedtime looked like a few years ago, anyhow desperately I longed for them to go to sleep so I could...just breathe. 

I'm filled with gratitude for the years of hard work David and I put into learning to parent with gentleness, grace, and peace. The toddler and early preschool years were especially difficult for me (hello postpartum anxiety), and there were plenty of times I said "I can't do this anymore!"

But here we are years later, and our entire family has affectionately started referring to this summer as "The Summer of Peace." Our home is filled with peace, even as we navigate big changes for our family and while David and I finish the manuscript for our book. These are the days I longed for, hoped for, and prayed for when our boys were young. And as I reflect on those early years, there are a few things I wish I'd known. 

What I Wish I'd Known When I was Parenting Toddlers and Preschoolers
  1. I wish I had known that the fruit of my labor would show up sooner than I thought, and in the most unexpected ways. I saw little glimmers of it every now and then, like when our then three-year-old told his two- year-old brother, "You're in my space, please play somewhere else." and the two-year-old replied, "Oh okay!" and moved to the other side of the train table. But many times it felt like my efforts were in vain because I didn't see that much fruit as soon as I wanted. Looking back, the peace, honor, emotional intelligence, assertiveness, and teamwork that we cultivated actually did reap a bountiful harvest! But not always, and not perfectly. And I wish I hadn't expected it to be always or perfect.

  2. I wish I had known that I would never regret choosing to parent with gentleness and peace. When my children were younger I had a lot of fear of messing them up. We started out spanking and parenting pretty traditionally, and were very quickly convicted that treating children as less worthy of honor, respect, and protection than adults was not aligned with the way of Jesus. But even with strong convictions, I still feared it wouldn't "work". I wish I had known then that I would never regret treating my young children with honor and dignity. Watching them grow in honor and respect, not out of fear but out of love for others, has been a beautiful journey.

  3. I wish I had known that laying a foundation of trust creates a safeharbor for complex conversations. As our children get older, conversations become more challenging. Because we worked so hard to become safe for our children no matter what, they know that tricky and complex conversations are inherently safe to have with us. It doesn't necessarily make those talks easier or less uncomfortable, but it does create safety and vulnerability. Trust really is the key that unlocks healthy, flourishing relationships.

  4. I wish I had known that I would enjoy collaborating with my kids. There is so much pressure on parents to control their child's behavior, and when they were small I felt that pressure heavily. Looking back, I wish I had known how truly delightful it is to problem-solve and collaborate with kids. They're naturally creative and curious, and they come up with some of the most out-of- the-box solutions to problems. Letting go of my desire to control them and their actions freed me to enjoy them for who they are, and it allowed me to genuinely appreciate their problem-solving skills.

  5. I wish I had known that connection is correction. We've heard it many times from many places: connect before you correct. And there's wisdom in that for sure. But it took me a long to recognize that connection is a form of correction because it models for our children what we expect from them. It models conflict resolution, reconciliation, emotional regulation, and kindness in the face of adversity. Is it the only form of correction? No. But it is probably one of the most under-appreciated ways of correcting a child's behavior, and I wish I had realized its power long before I did.
If I had to do it over again, here's why |would: 
In general I don't like using my children as examples of why Peacemaker Parenting "works" They are not my report card, they're not my trophies to show off. They are their own people, and ultimately they do and will get to make their own choices. So I hesitate to share their stories too publicly. Yes, we enjoy a beautiful, trust-based relationship. Yes, they are generally well-behaved kids. Yes, they know how to bring peace to their own conflicts and rarely need us to coach them through fights or disagreements. But none of that is why I'd choose Peacemaker Parenting again. Rather - it is because parenting with peace and gentleness forced me to confront my own emotional immaturity and surrender it to Jesus. It tested how deeply I trusted Jesus to be my source of peace, my identity, and my strength, and it helped me realize just how truly gracious He is to me.

If you're in the thick of it with toddlers, I want to invite you to join our next workshop: Peacemaker Parenting Toddlers. It's specifically geared at providing a model of Jesus-Centered parenting for parents of 15-36 month old children, but the truths and tools will be applicable for preschoolers and early childhood as well.

​To the Cycle-Breaking Toddler Mom:

To the cycle-breaking toddler mom,

Yikes, huh?

These days are tough– you are learning to navigate a whole new set of obstacles. Your child who was mostly eating, sleeping, and pooping for a while is moving into their own personality in a whole new way. You are excited and terrified at the same time. If you're like me, you find yourself in two groups of people – the first group is made up of parents who lament the dreadful toddler moods and wild-and-free ways, and the second group is parents who seem to have their toddlers sitting quietly through a church service with no fuss or discussion. And here you are just trying to maintain your dignity and confidence in front of these people while accidentally wearing the shirt with spaghetti stains and wondering if maybe you’re wrong for making the decisions you’ve made for your family about being a peacemaker parent instead of a punishing one. 

I’m here to remind you– you are doing the right thing. 

Sure, the toddler days are accompanied by some rough and tumble days. It comes with the turf.

These little people follow you like a shadow.

They nearly fall asleep sitting up but will suddenly muster all of the energy in the universe to fight bedtime with much gusto. 

They cry when their lunch is cut into the wrong shape, when the green cup is dirty, and when you mispronounce the word they made up.

They know exactly what they’re asking for when they say “ahh bubfhryskaya” but you wonder if a high-ranking military interpreter might be able to spare a few minutes to translate for you.

Sometimes it feels like no one sees the countless hours you invest in caring for their physical, emotional, and yes, even spiritual needs. Many days your hard work goes unnoticed and unappreciated. And while it feels like no one sees - your precious little ones are watching you ever so closely. Because they adore you. Because they trust you. Because you are their safe place when everything in their little world feels too big - your love feels bigger.

This is the real reason they act spectacularly "difficult" just for you - you are their safe place.

You are the mom who is growing and learning all about them. You see their physical and emotional needs and you show up in ways no one else does to meet them.

You are the mom who refuses to punish them for lack of development. You refuse to use fear or shame to manage their behavior, and that means they're also not learning how to repress deep emotions - those emotions are being felt, as God intended them to be, sometimes without reservation or inhibition.

You take seriously your responsibility to show the heart and character of Jesus to your child. You know that spiritual and character formation begins not with managing behavior, but with introducing your tiniest disciples to Jesus, and you imitate Him as you disciple your children.

You are the mom who is doing your best and even though it might not seem like it, your child knows it and they love you for it. Your best on Thursday night might look different than your best on Saturday morning, and that's okay. Because even when you mess up and struggle, you're teaching your children how to do that well. 

Cycle-breaking mama, you are empowering your little ones in ways you won't even know for years to come. You are loving them. You are modeling the heart of God to your children in a tangible way. 

If you were raised in a circle of people who don’t align with treating toddlers as whole persons deserving of honor and respect, let me tell you right now–just because a whole bunch of generations taught one thing, doesn’t make it true. This feeling of “What are people thinking of me as a mother”  can be a really strong emotion to conquer. I feel you on that, I've been there–so many times, actually. They’re tough feelings to sit with, but take the time to work through them. It will be worth it. 

If you haven’t heard it lately – frequent meltdowns, unpredictable outbursts, yelling, saying no, and not following instructions are all normal for a child who isn’t afraid of punishment. It is part of their learning process. These things are not cause for shame or “What is wrong with me” conversations in your head. They are doors for you to walk through and teach your child through love. They're opportunities to celebrate the way God designed your child. And yeah, they're a chance for you to grow too.

I know it’s hard. The ups and downs of toddler emotions can make a mama want to lock herself in the bathroom with a pair of headphones a handful of peanut M&Ms and never come out. Ask me how I know. 

Hear me when I say you’re going to get through this. 

You probably won’t “nail it” every day–no one does!

But every day you learn a little more and you practice a little more, and you make a little more progress. Soon enough, the cycle of fear, shame, or abuse is broken. And guess what? It started with you. 

So reheat your coffee however many times is necessary today. Take a breath. Say a prayer. And remind yourself that you were made for this. 


Scripture Affirmations for Moms + Free Download

Anyone else just want to sit down and color like you used to when you were 5?! 

I always loved to color but sometimes now I feel like if I have to tear out or look at one more page from a paw patrol coloring book I just might lose it. 

Moms aren’t exempt from needing a creative outlet and sometimes it just helps our brains so much to be able to sit down and relax with some markers, crayons, or watercolors. 

Another need we moms have is to have the truths of God’s word spoken over us and meditated on in our hearts. Cue the mama scriptures coloring download. 

Sometimes we can’t walk away entirely but we need a minute. 

Sometimes we can’t find our own words, but we need some words. 

Sometimes we can’t do everything, but we can claim a promise…

We can speak a scripture we have hidden in our heart. 

We can breathe a prayer to our good father. 

We can remind our own thoughts of what Jesus says about us and how loved and precious we are. 

And sometimes, in those moments, that is enough. 

A prayer for the mama who desires to live sacrificially, but who also needs rest

Dear God, I don't know how to do this: how to live sacrificially for my children while also taking care of myself so I am healthy and whole. I don't know how to live in a way that is willing to lay down my life for others, but that also honors the priceless treasure that I am. I know when I take care of myself it is easier for me to be gentle with my children. But being gentle with myself is a struggle.

I don't know what to do with the "I'm supposed to be able to do it all" thoughts that sneak in when I think about asking for help. I know asking for help is okay, but trusting someone else with my children is hard for me. God, you lead gently lead those who have young. Gently lead me towards love and wisdom, and away from fear and control.

Help me remember that sometimes laying down my life looks like missing sleep and holding babies when I'm touched out. And sometimes it looks like giving up control and trusting someone else with my precious child so I can sleep in peace.
Thank you for sustaining me thus far. Sometimes I look back on the week and wonder how in the world I made it through. You are the how. You are the one who equipped me, even when I felt like I didn't know what I was doing. You are the one who empowered me, even when I felt weak and unable. You are the one who comforted me, even when I didn't know why I was crying. You are the one who was gentle with me, even when I wasn't gentle with myself. And I am so grateful for You. Amen.

When your kids bring out the worst in you

This one's for the mamas, for the ones who sometimes think, “These kids bring out the worst in me?!” 

Imagine with me that your impulsive, irrational, exhausted little one is on the verge of pushing your last button. You can feel yourself about to lose your cool, and that’s when the thought crosses your mind: “Arghhhh this kid brings out the worst in me!” We’ve all been there, right? Cue the mom guilt.

This is the exact moment to practice the power of the pause. I totally get that that sounds a little whimsical and a lot cliche, neither of which are all that helpful when you’re patrolling the streets of Meltdown City. But stick with me.

See, that pause is powerful. It gives the Holy Spirit space to nudge your heart, and it gives you space to hear it. That inner voice that quietly counters your own exasperation, whispers, “Or you can choose to let him bring out the BEST in you. Patience. Kindness. Self-control. Empathy. Inner strength that he doesn’t have. You can choose to let him bring out CHRIST in you.”

Talk about powerful! In that split second, we get to choose to let our little ones bring out the worst in us or to let him bring out the BEST in us. And we get the glorious responsibility, and holy work, of choosing!

I want to encourage you today, as a mama who is in that split second of choosing way too often, to be sensitive to those tiny moments when you get to pause and choose. The most effective way our little ones will learn respect and self-control is by seeing respect and self-control in action! I’m preaching to myself here because motherhood is such an opportunity to become more like Christ, and I know I’m not alone in needing the reminder to choose well! 

I also want to acknowledge the mamas who feel like they can't choose. When I was deep in postpartum anxiety I experienced rage unlike anything I've ever known. And the hardest thing was that I knew it was wrong, I wanted to change, and in some of the most triggering moments, I couldn't stop the intense reaction and anger coming out of my body. And yes, it landed all over my kids. 

I completely understand that reading "You have the power to choose!" can feel disempowering because, in some of those more irrational moments, you would choose to do differently if you could. First, when you can choose, do. Practice it and start over in the middle of an outburst if you catch yourself reverting to old habits. (Neuroscience shows us that even when we start off down an old, unhelpful reaction, stopping and changing in the middle of it helps rewire our neural pathways for future growth and change!)

Secondly, consider getting help. We've shared lots of resources here and on social media. But if you're still experiencing frequent moments where you can't control yourself, please consider talking to your doctor or healthcare provider. I personally benefited greatly from talk therapy and nutritional adjustments.  Sometime's Christ's work in us comes from medical and mental health professionals. 

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