B is for Behavior (and Balloons)


A toddler holding a balloon.

I’ve finally figured out why my generally good-natured and sweet 18-month-old yells the entire time we are in the produce section – Balloons.

The produce section, which is always our first stop, is in full view of the floral section, and there are always, without question, half a dozen Mylar balloons just begging for his attention. Yikes. Short of asking the store if they would please stop selling helium balloons, I will have to find another way to deal with the screaming and pointing.

As an educator, I thought I had a solid understanding of behavior. Behavior is, at its core, communication. When a child misbehaves, they are trying to communicate something.


This is where we get the phenomenon of the “terrible twos” and “troublesome threes.”  Children at this age are learning rapidly and have a clear idea of their wants and needs, but often have a hard time expressing them. (This is why baby sign language has become so popular!)

My little guy’s receptive language, or his ability to understand what we’re telling him, is great. His expressive language? Not so much. He has a few favorite phrases (“uh-oh!” being the current favorite) but primarily communicates nonverbally. Note I did not say non-vocal ways. He’s certainly very vocal; he just isn’t using words!

So, whenever he yells or throws something, my brain jumps into teacher mode, and I start thinking about the four functions of behavior.

  1. To avoid or escape a situation.

  2. To get attention.
  3. To obtain something tangible.
  4. For sensory input.

And then my head starts spinning. Is he throwing his milk cup on the floor to tell me he’s done with it, or does he simply like the sound it makes when it hits the floor? Is he trying to get my attention? Or does he want something different? At this point, I still have no idea why it happened, and our cocker spaniel is already licking the floor clean.

I know that my actions immediately after a behavior occurs, no matter what, reinforce his behaviors. 


If he screams and I let him out of the high chair, he wanted all along, I’ve just reinforced the screaming. But without a clear understanding of why he’s misbehaving in the first place, without knowing the function of each behavior. I’m at a loss for what I should reinforce (and what I should be fully ignoring).

So, for now, I think we will visit the balloons the moment we walk into the grocery store. Play with them, look at the pretty, shiny colors, and then wave goodbye. Will it work? I have no idea! But it’s a start

Please tell me I’m not the only mom afraid to look my fellow grocery shoppers in the eyes sometimes! There are days when my little man is a perfect gentleman while shopping, but other times, he is a handful. Lucky for him, I love him to pieces either way!


  1. I keep trying to read Happiest Toddler on the Block (we loved Happiest Baby), but I just can’t get into it. I also have What to Expect the Second Year, and I like the nearly 100 page “Behavior” chapter. That reminds me, I should probably re-read 🙂

    • Thanks for the suggestions Jana! We loved Happiest Baby too, but I didn’t even know there was a Happiest Toddler on the Block. I actually never got What to Expect the Second Year after my little guy turned one. Time to update the library!


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