Many new parents may be too busy to realize it, but toddler whisperer Tovah Klein of Columbia University argues that “the ages from two to five are crucial for your child’s long-term healthy development and success—for laying the foundation of who they will become over time.” As the father of a young boy who is nearing two, these are some of the things I think about when I consider his future. Am I doing what’s best for his development? How much structure should I provide? How much freedom? Why is he not doing what I want? As Tovah points out in our conversation: “Toddlers are not there thinking they want to make you look good.”
In her book How Toddlers Thrive, she addresses these questions and much, much more. Yet one of the crucial lessons of her book is that routines and the rhythm of the day provide the structure in place so our young children can have the freedom to play, to develop, and to build the foundation that can allow them to thrive later in life as healthy, adjusted, and fully-functioning adults. But beyond providing the appropriate baseline, a large part of laying that early foundation is about we as parents not getting in the way of our child’s natural development.
From that perspective, although there is much more wisdom in her book than can be shared in this article, here are some lessons I learned about parenting young children when I talked with the toddler whisperer.
1. The crib as a metaphor for raising a child: kids need boundaries so they can have guidance but also freedom.
“The essence of my book’s message is that setting limits and boundaries is critical. So every day there are routines. First we put our socks on, then our shoes, and then we go outside. That sets up a structure, but whether they put on their sneakers or sandals can be up to them is the parent getting out of the child’s way. The foundation should be set, but then the child should be allowed to choose how they play or build the block structure, but we can say things like ‘You can’t throw the blocks.’ Say you have a backyard with a fence, you can sit in the backyard and your child can play. But you’ve got a fence or hedges where you’ve drawn the parameter. Which is similar to when your child is in the crib and has some safe place or structure where they have the freedom to wind down and rehearse what happened at the end of the day before falling asleep.”
“We’re all ready for them to grow up. We 'overadultize' them. And as soon as kids can talk, we make all these assumptions about their maturity level. They take in and are managing so much during the day, they’re trying to control those impulses, they’re learning miles a minute. And the crib is this safe place where they can just exhale. It’s like we’ve put these structural boundaries around them. So I literally see it as a metaphor for raising a child. If you put the structure and boundaries around them, then he can roll around in his crib or play with his animals, or look at books or whatever without you there. If he’s having a conversation with himself for an hour you’ve given him that gift. You’re giving him the gift of ‘I can be by myself, I can have my own ideas, there are no demands on me, I don’t have to please anyone, I can just wonder.’ He doesn’t have to battle his own impulses which is ‘I wish I could jump out of that bed.’”
2. One way of setting boundaries is limiting screen time: “if we use them as pacifiers and think our children are going to get smarter we make a mistake”
“The American Academy of Pediatrics came out again in the last few years saying there’s no benefits for screens for children under two. For children two to five, it should limited to no more than an hour a day. I think there’s some real smarts in that. Screens tend to be used by parents as pacifiers for young children because it’s like our pacifier. But before the age of five are the years young children are learning the most important basic skills of self-regulation, delay of gratification, and handling of emotions which are being set up in the brain. If you get that in place you’re putting in a really good foundation for later. Where the screens interfere with that is they pull children completely out of the here and now. It’s very enticing and addictive. Screen addiction may soon be a real clinical term. Programs are being invented to stop people from checking their phones. Children use downtime to think, be bored and wonder—that’s where imagination comes from. Some children have imaginary friends, some create blocks or trains and they come up with stories. And language comes from that. But you always do that when you have the space and time when information isn’t constantly being thrown at you—when adults and screens aren’t telling you what to do.”
“Screens need a tremendous amount of parental guidance. It’s very hard to get a smartphone out of a toddlers hands. It’s like video games. There’s so much we don’t know about early brain development and screens that the best caution is to say less is better. There’s also no evidence that children who aren’t on screens before the age of five are going to be behind in any way. Children are surrounded by screens, so they are going to be in their lives, but if we use them as pacifiers and think our children are going to get smarter we make a mistake. If it’s one activity of the day where we look at animal pictures or pictures of a family or you play your favorite iPad game for 20 minutes that’s not going to hurt anybody, but it takes the parent to put the structure around it for sure. No kid can self-regulate that.”
3. Realize that your child may not be just like you, and that can be a good thing.
“It’s hard when our children aren’t like us or have qualities that we don’t understand. We tend to try to mold our children to be like us. But if you’re the kind of person who is shy and not outgoing and you have this robustly outgoing vivacious child, it can be very confusing as to what they need. You may try to quiet them down, you may try to stop them at the playground and say ‘Don’t go up to that person!’ We tend to see in our children what we understand. If you were a rambunctious person or remember being like that as a child it’s easier to understand that behavior. So much of it is getting to know yourself. And you want to put up the proper guidance so it’s not a hands off free for all. Ultimately all of us want our children to be polite, kind, decent human beings, but the toddler years are not the time that children show that, even though they may model us.”
“So if you’re very stuck on please and thank you, you are constantly interfering with your child who is like ‘Hey! I see something interesting over there. Let me just go over there and look at it.’. That’s because toddlers live exactly in the moment. They’re not thinking about whether they’re going to be liked, they’re wondering ‘That’s a beautiful flower, let me run over to it.’ We live on a much bigger plane, planning ahead, looking ahead, thinking ‘Oh if my child does that will people think he’s rude?’ So much of that comes from who we are and how we see ourselves. If I see myself as polite, then toddlers are going to be very very embarrassing 24 hours a day. It might help if you can say to yourself ‘I know he’s a really compassionate human being but right now he’s just so curious.’ Being aware of what biases we bring from our own upbringing and life experiences is not easy. But I can promise you this much: when we have more objectivity and see ourselves as separate from our children and their behavior, we are much more likely to be able to guide our children in a loving, supportive, yet firm way.”
4. Be flexible in your expectations: “Toddlers are not there thinking they want to make you look good.”
“Where do we get in the way of our children and where do we get in the way of ourselves as parents? We all go into parenting with expectations. Some of them are worries and trepidation. Lots of them are expectations of what it will be like. When parents allow themselves to shift that once they’re with their children, in a way it frees them up to parent in a way the child needs. Say we’re talking about the transition from infant to toddler, we never think infants are going to take care of themselves, we’re going to comfort and feed them. But when the toddler gets up on their feet and starts to walk away, and has much more of a personality of their own, that’s often when the challenge comes for parents, and that’s where the shift in expectations need to take place. And this is when parents need to think about how this is about my child, who is saying ‘I want to be my own person, you might not like how I do things, but you gotta let me do them.’”
“Having a very demanding two or three year old in your life is very frustrating. ‘Only the red cup will do, I’m not gonna wear that shirt, don’t make me turn the TV off.’ And this is a reconciliation point for parents, where it’s not that their child is a bad person, it’s that they’re really demanding to be seen for who they are. And that’s what the toddler years are about. This might not be fun all the time, but if I see that my child is really just trying to figure out who they are, I actually enjoy being a parent more. But if you see it as you need an obedient child and you’re being defied, then you’re constantly in control battles. So that’s where the shift in expectation is often during the toddler years because that’s where the real challenges of parenting come in. How do I get my child some limits and boundaries but still let them be who they are? And who they are is not always so socialized at this point. Toddlers are not there thinking they want to make you look good. Their role is to figure out who they are. And that’s often going to be an embarrassment. They’re going to have a meltdown in the middle of a public place, or they’re gonna say something rude to the friendly neighbor, like “Get away from me.”
5. Let your child play and have the freedom to create and fail in their own way.
Creativity is about thinking, curiosity, imagination, and decision making. If a child really feels that they can trust themselves and feel good about their ideas, they can spiral that into anything they want. When you first give them some crayons, they’re going to think ‘Oh, what am I going to do with these?’ But if you’ve been told over and over that there’s only one way to do something, then when you give your child crayons, they immediately look to the adult and say ‘What should I draw?’ or ‘How should I draw it?’ But when they’ve really been given the space to be okay with their ideas and not criticized then they pick it up and say ‘I wonder what I can do with this? Well I can bang with it and it makes these spots. I can go round and round and it makes these squiggles. And these squiggles look like an animal!’ They just keep spiraling with ideas. But that really comes out of being able to try things and test things and make what we might call mistakes—you know try it one way and then try it another. Many would prefer that young children spend their time tracing letters, obediently following adult directions, or matching figures on a worksheet. But this view of play is an adult view. The Toddler Center—which I direct—is based upon the notion that if you place young children in a stimulating, safe environment that is set up for their exploration, supporting them as necessary, then they will naturally engage with their world, explore, discover, and yes, learn. And that is the essence of play.”
6. Despite the pressure, try to give your child the space to grow and develop.
“Our society is very pressured these days and very competitive. We have lots of checklists, when did your child start to talk, run, does your four or five year old know how to read yet. So we live in a competitive parenting time. For example, maybe their child isn’t so interested in books right now, but it doesn’t mean they’re not going to be uninterested forever. But parents get very worried, so there’s a lot of them trying to teach children when all of the scientific evidence shows that children learn by doing, exploring, by very hands on play at the younger ages. But when we don’t give children room to do it they literally can’t make choices for themselves. I think one of the core things that comes out of play, maybe you’re in the park or the backyard, and they might wonder ‘Do I want to go on this swing, do I want to kick a ball around?’ all of that is decisions and choices which is the key to learning, but also there’s this whole process of figuring out what to do.”
“This may be why toddlers throw so much. It’s very powerful to be able to throw something. They might think ‘Hey, I’ve got this thing in my hand, ooh I could lunge it across the room!’ But as a parent you could say, ‘No you can’t throw it everywhere but you can throw it here in this basket.’ Toddlers throw all the time. They don’t have the impulse control, they’re testing gravity, and when they yell it’s even more exciting, and they’re really trying to figure it all out. What we call mistakes or failing some children do not see it that way. If you watch a child build with Legos or wood blocks, they’ll build something and even as it’s building and it falls down, there’s often even glee when it falls down even if they’re frustrated, but then there’s a new decision point like ‘Oh, I could just walk away and do something else’ which is perfectly fine. But parents worry about that all the time and think ‘Will he ever persist?’ Or they might decide to rebuild it the same way or rebuild it a little differently. All of that is learning. We worry so much in this competitive era about learning. So they’re learning but also happy and excited and joyful. And that’s actually what spurs learning through life. If you’re passionless, you can’t sit down and do calculus if you don’t get any pleasure out of it and simply don’t care.”
7. Adjust your definition of success, especially for your young child at this time.
Especially for parents who are pretty well established and have done well in life, and because we live in a hyperaware era with the internet and all the media outlets that scare us, we worry. For example the media might tell us that if you’re child’s not doing X by this age it could be sign of disaster. One thing is there’s a deep lack of understanding that normal development is a very wide band. I talk in my book about how the normal range of walking is between 10 and 17 months, but walking at 10 months doesn’t predict geniushood, and walking at 17 months doesn’t predict slowness in learning, it doesn’t map onto anything else. But a parent of a 15 or 16 month old who isn’t yet walking is going to be petrified in this era. Everybody has their way in the world, and if you take that approach you see development as a kind of zig zagging pattern, but in this era we tend to see it as a very straight line. First my child’s going to walk, and then they’re going to run, and then they’re going to jump, and then they’re going to be a basketball player. It doesn’t really work that way! One of the things hyper competitiveness does is make children become more misunderstood. For writing, some children learn very holistically. Other kids learn it very piecemeal. One line, one line, another line. But they all learn it. So when you get into the comparison of that child is doing something that my child’s not, I think children feel very misunderstood. The toddler is trying to figure out the world on their own terms, and what we’re doing as adults is saying that you have to do it on our terms.”
“Success to me is a person who feels confident to explore the world around him with excitement and curiosity, who is not afraid to make mistakes, who feels secure enough to begin to make friends, and who feels well-adjusted enough to bounce back when she is disappointed. A person who can handle life is motivated to learn, stands up for herself, and cares about others. That’s what I think parents should work towards developing in their children.”
8. Realize that being a parent of a young child is hard, and it’s okay to admit that.
“For a study we conducted on the challenges of early parenting, often what parents talk about is how the joys are so high—sharing in the joys of their toddler—that when their child is happy and laughing it brings a joy to the parent that is almost indescribable. But they also talk about becoming a parent and those early years of parenting are so much harder than they ever could have imagined. In this day and age of Facebook and social media being a parent is made out to be this purely joyous endeavor, when in fact it is very difficult and it puts a lot of strain on the marriage. So much of parenting is pretty mundane and kind of dull and boring. So it’s okay and even healthy to admit that and realize everyone is going through the same thing.”
9. Learn to let go: “This will pass. Mine were like this once and now they are adults. Enjoy these years all you can.”
“But sometimes as a parent, you feel stuck. You are out in public. Your child melts down. You brace yourself for the stares. The looks. The criticisms. What are you to do?! I recall being on a very open promenade in California when my then two-year-old threw a huge tantrum. He was sprawled on the ground, unmovable and inconsolable, kicking and shrieking. All I could do is let him do it; I had failed at all attempts to ward it off. A man was approaching us on the walk, and I braced myself for some embarrassment or criticism from him about how bad my child was (or what a terrible parent I was). Instead, as this stranger got closer, he smiled and said, ‘This will pass. Mine were like this once and now they are adults. Enjoy these years all you can.’”
© 2015 by Jonathan Wai