Are you the parent of a toddler? The care provider for a toddler? Do you teach in the 2s classroom at your local preschool? Have you ever seen a toddler? Or heard about a toddler?
If you know anything about toddlers, chances are, you know that our society has some pretty strong opinions about toddlers. We can be sure of this when we watch television or movies starring toddler characters.
Society tells us that toddlers are terrible. Monsters who scream, whine, and demand their own way. Toddlers are egocentric and can’t take the perspective of another human being. Toddlers eat what they aren’t supposed to, play with what they aren’t supposed to, climb on what they aren’t supposed to, and generally, find themselves on the “not supposed to” end of all sorts of situations.
We go so far as to label the entire toddler experience as “The Terrible Twos.”
I have a different message about toddlers, a radical and surprising message.
It revolves around this story:
Simone (4) was playing with Desmond (2). They were building cages for play horses out of wood blocks. Desmond took great pride and joy in carrying the blocks to Simone, presenting each to her so she could enclose the structure. Once they finished, they began the work of finding food for the animals.
They found a toy baby bottle and were using it to feed the horses. Simone used it to feed a horse, and then set it down. Desmond eagerly picked it up and started to carry it around. Simone wailed loudly.
S: “Desmond! I wasn’t done yet!”
Me: “He doesn’t know you’re talking about the bottle. You set it down. He thought you were done. Tell him you weren’t done with the bottle.”
Simone melted into a pile on the floor – she finds words difficult when she becomes emotionally overwhelmed. I stood by to observe, but didn’t stay involved. Desmond noticed that she was crying, and he began to figure out what might help her.
He found a stuffed elephant and brought it to her. That didn’t help.
He carried his most valuable item (his blanket) over to her and set it on the floor next to her head.
He then took the baby bottle and set it on the floor by her head.
What is amazing about this exchange (and give me chills as I write about it) is to observe Desmond. The toddler. He shows incredible capacity for perspective taking, gentleness, and compassion. He observed the crying of another person, recognized it as pain, and offered objects to relieve that pain. First, he offered a toy. When that didn’t work, he offered his blanket, the object that he wants when he is sad. Then he attended to the specific situation and the events leading to the situation, and offered what he knew she was playing with.
Toddlers are not the monsters we make them out to be. Toddlers are learning about the world, endlessly curious about the people and objects around them. That curiosity – informed by a very limited life experience – must find limits (where to climb, what to eat, how to meet needs), and must persist until it finds a limit. And then, that curiosity must find that limit over and over until the toddler is confident that the limit will remain.
When we label the necessary curiosity of toddlers with so much negativity, we convey our own adult-centric bias. We show our own lack of perspective taking. We communicate our own limitations.
Yes, toddlers can be tricky and tiring, but terrible? Far from it!
The radical truth about toddlers? Toddlers have a capacity for generosity, compassion, and perspective-taking. Toddlers have an insatiable curiosity and a passion to discover the workings of the world. Toddlers build verbal language where none existed before, and use that language in increasingly sophisticated ways. Toddlers understand what we say, and are capable of working together with us when we make space for them.
The more we champion a new and nuanced view of toddler-hood, the more our toddlers can grow into the people they are to become.
I strongly suggest you hop over and read “On Developmentally Appropriate Practice…and Why We Don’t Push Kids Down The Stairs” from Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute which explores the way that we try to push kids in developmentally inappropriate ways. It offers a really insightful metaphor about the way we try and guide behavior.