NYMP Q&A: Breaking the Toddler Code
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You talk about the idea of letting the child be selfish, that generosity and sharing will come later. How can we possibly abandon correcting our poor-mannered kids?
Parents always tell me, “It’s embarrassing when my child doesn’t follow social norms.” I say, “Get over it. It’s not about you.” At ages 2 and 3, kids are just figuring out who they are. It is a very selfish time. We all want our kids to be kind human beings—but first, their sense of themselves as their own person has to develop. If we force them to share before they are ready, we are asking them to give up a piece of what they need. The media is very black and white on these nuanced concepts, but parents need to understand that toddlers are just going through an antisocial phase.
How do you feel about tablets and other technology for toddlers?
There is no question that kids learn through interaction in an environment with three dimensions. The brain develops by using all the senses. But one of my biggest concerns with technology is that it takes the parent away from the child. Young kids’ interactions are very “in the moment.” If they look up and Daddy is busy texting, the child feels neglected. Kids need that human interaction. Our kids are counting on us so much. We need to have a zone where our kids are number-one. Right now there’s no boundary.
(Get the low-down on children's ability to learn from learning-oriented entertainment.)
Are there any toddler traits that you wish we didn’t grow out of?
Oh, definitely! I envy a toddler’s wonder and curiosity, his lack of cynicism, his joy, his ability to embrace the moment. Toddlers truly do find joy in very small moments. They don’t see mistakes as mistakes—a setback isn’t necessarily wrong, or bad. And they can still think outside the box! They come up with new and innovative ways to do things. Toddlers really do have the ability to go into something open-minded.
What can you say to parents who are still struggling with the simple yet vital message that no single interaction makes a child who he or she is?
In this parenting climate there is so much pressure on parents that they can end up believing, “Every move I make is the most important moment in my child’s life!!” But in reality, kids are forgiving. What kids are actually taking back from these moments—good and bad—is a message of “I am loved, I am cared for, Mom and Dad are there for me. I can count on them.” And that comes from a relationship that does and sometimes does not go smoothly. Bad moments teach kids that it’s not about perfection: “Hey, even Mommy can do it wrong!” It’s in those very moments where we think we’ve done the worst job that the broader picture should emerge—that our kids are thriving in a relationship, not just one interaction.
Lucy Bayly is a New York-based writer, editor, and mother of two young boys. She lives amongst a rapidly expanding pile of rainbow bracelets and Lego police vehicles.
Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is a mom of three boys, a child psychologist, and the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, the Manhattan-based laboratory at the forefront of researching toddler behavior and development.