I have two children, one being 7 months old and the other on the verge of turning 3 years old. My question is about my way of interacting with the 3-year-old one, but I hope to learn something I can apply to future interactions with the baby too.

My older child is loving, tidy, playful, well-mannered, smart, and generally everything a parent could dream of. We as parents made a point of stimulating our children, not keeping information away (though simpler words have to be used sometimes), showing not just telling, etc. and so far I think we're doing fine.

I've recently noticed that my child gets really distressed whenever I do something in a way I'm not supposed to. Let me explain:

  • Sometimes I'd be singing a song they know, and I would change the lyrics a bit. Either to fit the current situation (some adults hate that too, I know), or because I learned a new verse, or found nicer words, or just feel like it. This really bothered my child at first: they'd say that the song was not like that and would get very distressed if I tried to go on (sometimes with anger, sometimes with tears, always shouting "no, no, it's not like that!"). This also happened when it was other people singing it "wrong", but with a milder reaction (likely whispering to me "but the song is not like that!").
  • Yesterday we were playing with a jigsaw puzzle of some TV series, and I picked two pieces with the face of the characters on them, and used the pieces like puppets, faking their voices and the like. My child quickly grabbed the pieces out of my hand and said "no, no, don't do that, they are not puppets, they are jigsaw pieces". When asked "but they have a face, why can't I use the pieces like puppets?" my child just said that the pieces were not for that. I dropped it there because we were having a good time and I didn't want to spoil it.

So I remember reading somewhere that, to correctly develop, children this age have the need to feel some things are "set in stone", that some things are the way they are and cannot change, so they feel secure enough to develop their cognitive and social skills. Else they would feel too insecure about everything. Is that right?
So my "being creative", to them might be like shaking their system of beliefs, like suddenly realizing that maybe nothing is like they think it is. Too much for a 2 year old?

I guess the question is:
Am I straining the intellectual and emotional development of my child by doing things that I see as imaginative, but maybe they see as crushing the foundations of their reality?

PS: About the lyrics issue, I've managed to make them understand that songs can have many different lyrics and that it is OK to change the lyrics of a song if you like to; and that it is called "a new version" of the song. So now when I change the lyrics they are used to, they usually (not always) just ask me if that's a new version, I say yes, and we carry on.

PPS: English not my first language, please forgive any mistakes. I've purposely tried to make the post gender-neutral, though -- hence so many "my child"s instead of just a pronoun or a name.

  • 4
    Not quite a full answer so I'll just leave this as a comment, but at 2 years old, children are trying to exercise control over their world (hence the exclamations of "NO" all the time and the moniker of "Terrible Twos"). It may just be them trying to control their world and what they want to do with that song, toy, etc. I've been told I've been playing a made-up-as-we-go game wrong on multiple occasions. It's a good opportunity to practice some conflict resolution skills for when people want to do different things.
    – Becuzz
    Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 13:58

3 Answers 3


I can't site any studies or anything, but this is an extremely familiar situation for me, and I thought I would share my experience in case it helps you.

My older son was (and still is) a rule-follower. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and woe be to anyone who tried to convince him that it was okay to do something the "wrong way" according to his definition. He expected to drink milk out of a certain type of sippy cup, and water went in a different type. I have numerous pictures of him from about 2 years old to about 4 years old lining up cars in straight lines, and heaven help me if I tried to suggest that a car be aligned slightly differently. However, that didn't stop me from suggesting something different, but I never insisted on keeping it the way I suggested; I would always respect his desire to put it back the way he wanted to

I also did a lot of the same type of verbal play that you are doing with the songs with both of my boys; they would also get upset with my changes. They argued with me, and so I would push it until it became obviously silly. For example, I might sing "Twinkle twinkle little car."
"No Mom, it is Little Star." "Are you sure, I thought it was little bar?" "Noooo Mom." "Is it little smar?" "Little flar?" They would usually get exasperated with me after a while, but I think by making it clear that I knew I wasn't singing the correct words they were willing to go with it without getting too upset.

Later, when they got a bit older, they were more willing to play along with me and we could take turns coming up with silly rhymes.

The one thing I always did, however, is if either of them became upset with my changes, I would always finish the game by singing the song correctly, or lining the cars up in the "right" way. I feel like this allowed them to understand that there were other options that they could consider, but I was still validating their favored way of seeing (or singing) by ending with the version that made them comfortable.

My older son is now a senior in college--and he is majoring in, of all things--sculpture. My younger son, now a college sophomore, is working towards a degree in Creative Writing. So, at least in my case, there seem to be no long-lasting impacts on their ability to be creative.

  • I identify so much with all of that! Hard rule-follower, playing silly with the last word of a song or a tale... I would always finish the game by (doing it) the "right" way. I feel like this allowed them to understand that there were other options that they could consider, but I was still validating their favored way I feel this part is really important. I think I already do that but I'll keep it in my mind while playing. Thanks for sharing your experience and congrats on raising your kids so well!
    – walen
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 11:21

I don't think you are harming your child by doing what you are currently doing, and I think you are handling it correctly. It is an important lesson to learn that unexpected things happen, people have different ideas, and things can change and be changed.

I believe the very solid "set in stone" concepts children need are more rooted in security. That you will always love them, that you will keep them safe, that they can rely on the adults who care for them to provide all of their needs. That there are parts of an ongoing routine that is familiar and constant. This sense of stability should not be shaken, but playtime can still contain the unexpected.

My suggestion would be to continue as you have been, feel free to change things creatively when the mood strikes you during playtime. If it upsets your little one simply stop at that time, take a moment to explain to them that there are many ways to do things, and that is OK for different people to have different ideas, and ask about their ideas. Don't force them to do it your way or continue if it is upsetting them.

Some time or days later, do the same thing (or offer to do the same thing) again, in the same way. Try the puzzle pieces again, or change the song but in a similar way. Repeated exposure to these "new" ideas will probably lead to them being less disturbed by the change, and perhaps to start to look at things differently themselves or look forward to the "excitement" a surprise causes.

Somewhat of an example, although not the same situation, with my child (2.5) is around things they find "scary". It used to be that when a book, song, or other media had a part which was "scary", such as a character in some trouble, my child would refuse that particular thing. "No! Scary!". We would assure them this was not real, and that they were safe, but we did not force them to continue with these things or bring them up over and over. We would occasionally offer them again, and if our child said no we simply moved on to something else.

Suddenly, in the last month or so, they have started to ask us to read, sing, or watch some of these "scary" things. They still find it scary, and tell us so, but also want it and will sit through the scary part to enjoy the rest.

  • I would add that this is a chance to teach your kid(s) about negotiation and sharing. when your child gets upset tell him you'll take turns do it once the traditional way and then do it your creative way. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 17:22
  • ask about their ideas. Don't force them to do it your way I must confess I didn't think of asking them to give the song a new ending, too. I'll try that the next time. My kid also asks me to fast-forward Disney's Snow White whenever the evil witch appears on screen, and we're following the same learning process -- hopefully with the same results as yours! Thanks for answering.
    – walen
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 11:27

Am I straining the intellectual and emotional development of my child by doing things that I see as imaginative, but maybe they see as crushing the foundations of their reality?

Well, that's putting it a bit strongly, but, yes.

I think every tired parent has faced the ire of a child demanding that a song or a story be read/sung properly by a parent trying to take a shortcut at bedtime. They have strong feelings about it.

I believe it's very important to respect a child's feelings, whatever the reason for the feelings. That doesn't mean, "give in to everything". It means, stop, ask questions, try to understand, and adjust your behavior accordingly or explain why it can't be done like that.

Children need a sense of order and security in the world. Changing the lyrics doesn't make a child creative. Breaking (unknown) 'rules' makes a child feel less secure. They are telling you they are upset. Listen to them. Do think outside of the box, but if it upsets your child, get back in the box for a while until your child reaches a more pliable stage.

Read about giving your child a rich emotional vocabulary. (I have given this advice countless times; search the site for 'rich emotional vocabulary' and you'll doubtless come up with answers detailing how to do this.) When you do, you can ask how your child feels about your 'rule-bending', or even about 'rules'. A rich emotional vocabulary is a great gift to give your child; recognizing and naming an emotion is the first step in dealing with it effectively.

I hope this helps, but please know your second child may well be a completely different person!

One of my children needed the bedtime routine to end exactly like this: I had to stand at his door, and say, "Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite. If they do, grab your shoe, and beat them till they're black and blue. If they do, don't be rude, ask them if they'd like some food, or "Bood"! (one of their nicknames.) then I had to leave their door open 'just so much'. This was by far my most sensitive child. If this is what it took, this is what I did. Every night.

  • Read about giving your child a rich emotional vocabulary I will do this, thanks.
    – walen
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 11:29

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