Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Don't tell me that young children have a short attention span.

This morning I watched  2 year old Ricky spend between 12 and 15 minutes scooping up water and seashells into a container, and collecting the shells into another bucket. I don't know if I could pay attention to a tedious task like that for 12 minutes.   Could you?

Last week,   I observed Marshall sweeping every last grain of birdseed off the floor with a little broom and dustpan when it was time to clean up our sensory play.

I also saw Mindy spend at least 5 minutes washing her hands, scrubbing every bit of paint off them when she was finished working at the art table.

Don't tell me that toddlers have no empathy.

This morning I observed Sally, Jose, and Tommy bringing toy after toy to Nakhir when he was sad after his mom left. They didn't give up on him, even when their first few offerings were refused.  And sure enough, after awhile, the love and generosity of those two-year-olds did help cheer up Nakhir and he was soon ready to play.

Last week when Allison pinched her finger,  two-year-old Michael's face mirrored the distress on her face.  It was almost hard to tell which child had the hurt finger-- Michael looked so upset.   He offered multiple times to go get her an ice pack, and he stayed near her until she felt better.

When Raymond saw that Azir needed to use the big truck even more than Raymond did, Raymond willingly gave it to Azir and patiently waited for a turn.  (Yes, these children are TWO!)

Multiply these little snapshots times a thousand, and you'll see what I see every week, as the teacher of toddlers:  the most complex, wonderful, and baffling people on the planet. Just remember that toddlers will always prove you wrong, so forget everything you've ever heard about them.  Just enjoy them for who they are.  Observe them and learn from them.

We don't need to do a whole lot of direct teaching with young children. A lot of what they need to know is already inside them. When we simply build on the wonderful natural attributes of children, we help them become their best selves.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Jason was busy with the trains, and Tyler wanted one of the trains Jason was using.  In typical toddler fashion, Tyler simply picked it up and walked away. It makes sense...... from a toddler world view.  Naturally, Jason was upset and thus began one of several minor train-table-skirmishes that would occur that day at preschool.  I love the trains!  Toddlers feel such intense love and ownership for them that this one area of the classroom prompts many opportunities for social learning every day.

I could have responded by solving the problem for the boys.  I could have responded by ignoring the situation entirely.  Instead I tried using what seems to be the best way to help toddlers learn to get along with one another.

I handed Tyler another (very attractive) train while gently removing "Jason's" train from his grasp. While handing the disputed train back to Jason, I quietly explained that Jason was using it right now but that he would share it with Tyler when he was all done.  Then I turned to Jason, and said, "Tyler would like a turn with that train when you're all done, but you can play until you're ready to share. "Please note that I just had to ignore a little bit of fussing during the few seconds it took to accomplish this.

Then I immediately turned my attention to Tyler, and said, "What would you like to play with while you're waiting for your turn?" Then I helped him find some other, very exciting trains and other toys.  I gave him my full attention for a minute or two while  he got through the discomfort of not getting THE train right now, and soon he was playing happily.

At about that time,  Jason magnanimously handed the magical, much-wanted train to Tyler, in a grand gesture of sharing, saying, "Here."  I didn't make a big production of this, but simply said (so that both boys heard me,) "Thank you for sharing, Jason."

Joy, pride, and deep learning were the result.  Both boys felt good about themselves, and moved a little further in their journey of social learning.  They learned a little bit about how to imagine how someone else was feeling, they learned a little bit about waiting, and they learned that it can feel good to share with someone.

The Magic Words are "when you're all done,"and "when you're ready." A child who is using something needs to feel respected, and should not be rushed to finish his play just because another child is interested in using the same toy. It's important to make sure the child feels ownership of the sharing process, and at least temporary ownership of the toy in question. No one can share something they don't feel is theirs to share.

Another key part of the formula is my giving quality attention to the person who is waiting.  "What would you like to do while you're waiting for your turn?" are magic words as well. It's not my intention to distract Tyler, so that he will forget about the train that Jason has.  I don't believe in distracting toddlers, although sometimes that can be effective. I prefer to allow them to feel difficult emotions, and to be right there with them while they are feeling them. I think that's how emotional growth happens.

Learning to share is gradual. It's really not easy for any of us, at any age.  Yet we often expect toddlers to  be able to do it beautifully, even though they have just jumped onto this long, long learning curve.   All children will share when they are ready.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


It's so hard to tell where you end, and they begin.  Where is the boundary between parent and child?  Presumably, there is one, but sometimes it's hard to find it. When you're pregnant, you learn to cope with the mind-boggling sensation of a tiny parasite living inside you (and in my case, sapping most of your physical and mental energy.) You truly ARE one person for those months.  There literally is no separation, although at moments during those last few weeks, you really wish you could just have your body back. And then your child is born,  and SNIP, doctor or Dad cuts the cord, and you begin the long process of letting go.

If I weren't a toddler teacher, I could just focus on my own parenting.  I could reflect on my own journey, and think about how far down that path of letting-go I've finally made it in these twenty-two years. I could realize that my job as a mom is sort of close to "ending," but not really, because it never does.  And then I could focus on other, more adult issues, such as, say, the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. But I get to be immersed in the same struggle every day with my preschool families, and this causes me to look at the world a little differently than I would if I were an accountant, an editor,  or a stock broker. I see everything through the lens of ATTACHMENT. I can't help it. It's the only lens I have now, after all these years with toddlers and their parents. And I guess I'm glad that I see the world this way.

The most important thing I've learned is that attachment is real and it's essential.  Everyone needs to be the center of someone's universe.  Child-parent attachment and its implications have been well-studied and documented, and a strong attachment early in life is widely accepted as being foundational to life-long mental, physical, and emotional health.  Ok, good-- so our urgent impulses to protect and nurture are accomplishing what nature intends.  Our desire for close connection with our offspring serves a purpose in their development.

BUT:  the second most important thing I've learned is that healthy attachment includes a component of de-tachment. The healthiest family relationships are based on the changing needs of the child as the child grows and develops. It's not good to get stuck in one spot and stay there.  A newborn needs constant close contact for survival, but a two-year-old really does need a bit of physical and emotional space. Many parents in my programs are struggling with this change:  it felt really good to be everything to that child for two years. Even though it's now becoming obvious that it's time to step back a bit and let the child work on a few things on her own, Mom or Dad often are not ready for this step in their own adult development. They don’t know how to re-tool and reconfigure their parent-child roles and relationship. So they hover over the child at school, they remind the child that they are “my baby,” they speak for the child, they speak TO the child instead of letting other adults speak to them, they make excuses for the child's behavior, and they insulate the child from as much frustration as possible.  Sometimes, the toddler's developmental mandates will take over, and the will to be his own person will manifest itself in tantrums, fussing, and rebelling.

Fortunately, many parents begin to get the message at this point, and start learning to gradually detach: they stand back physically so that the child can interact with other people on her own, they wait 20 seconds before intervening in a toddler squabble over a toy, they refrain from saying, "he's tired," or "she's getting her molars" to explain the child's fussy behavior, and instead let the child and her behavior speak for itself. When parents are able to adapt and change their connection gradually to meet the changing needs of the child, they reap the benefits of a constantly changing and ever-strenthening bond with their child.

My young-adult daughters still need a close connection and a young-adult form of attachment to their mom, but it doesn't work for them at this stage of development when I try to pull them as close to me as I did when the were little. And frankly, it doesn't work for me, either!  As they have grown and found their own path in life, so have I. They want their space, and I do too.  It feels good for all of us to be right where we are in our own development, and we greatly enjoy each other's company when we converge our individual paths to spend time together. I can only imagine how frustrating and stressful life might be if we were still trying to be as merged as we were when they were much younger.

In my parenting, letting-go has been a gradual process, and I've had to work hard to figure it out along the way.  I've gotten it wrong a lot of times: I've clung too tightly to them many times, and let go too quickly at other times.  I'll always get it wrong sometimes, I'm sure.  But I cling to the hope that trying hard really does count for something in parenting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


She just drove away. She's heading back to school for her last year of college. She's happy and excited, and a little bit nervous. She loves school and she's anxious to see her friends.

And here I am, curled up on the couch, crippled by spasms of crying and sadness that come in waves, the way the pain comes in waves after you burn your finger or stub your toe or smash your finger in a door. Missing someone hurts, even before they leave. At this moment, there is no way to separate the physical pain from the emotional pain. I know that both are only momentary, and that in a few minutes I'll get busy cleaning up all the messes she left behind, and happily diving into projects I've been wishing I had time for.  I've been looking forward to some me-time.

But first: give me a few minutes to cry.

When moms and dads say goodbye to toddlers at my school, the pain for some of those children and parents is no less intense, even though this separation is only for a couple of hours. It's just one of those things, part of life. Some of us experience it more intensely than others, and at times in our development it can be more intense than at other times. But there is no fixing it, and no rushing it.

I started feeling this "separation anxiety" when I occasionally had to be away from my own mother for a little while when I was very young. I remember feeling as if my arm had been ripped off when I was pulled away from my mom for an hour while she went to the grocery store. I continued feeling it when my daughters were little and we occasionally had difficult goodbyes,  and I still experience it very strongly now every time I say goodbye to my daughters or my mother after a visit. Maybe this is why I'm a toddler teacher.

While I've learned that I can't run from the sadness, I've learned that some things can help those waves of pain to pass a bit more easily and quickly:

-Go ahead and feel it, and cry as long and hard as I need to. Holding it in or hiding it hurts more.
(So, I always give "permission" to my toddlers in school to do the same.)

-Talk about it if I can, or express it in some other way, such as through art, music, or writing.
(At school, the children usually need to paint, work with clay or sand, scribble with crayons, dictate a note, build with blocks, or play in water.)

-Fresh air and exercise will make me feel better.
(Kids already know this, and often head outside with no prompting when they are sad.)

-Hugs and comfort from others help a lot.
(That's what teachers are for.)

-When I'm ready, I need to get busy doing something meaningful and interesting.
(At school, I learn what each child loves the most, and I help them head toward their favorite activity when they are ready.)

Ok-- now I've cried and I've written about my feelings. I'm doing a little better. I think I'm ready to go for a walk. Then I think I'll plant some flowers, and after that I'll get busy on all the work that's piled up lately. I'm ready for a good day. Maybe I'll call her later and see if she's all moved into her new room.

I was sad, but I'm all better now.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yesterday at a Town Hall meeting regarding health care reform, here are some behaviors I observed in people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's:

-Loudly interrupting the speaker, repeatedly
-Yelling rudely at other people with whom they disagree
-Ignoring instructions
-Refusal to listen to others, even those in authority

Today at this year's very first day of preschool, here are some behaviors I observed among the young two year olds:

-G. handed a toy to another child at the water table, saying, "Here. For you." With no prompting.
-K. said "Sorry!" to A. when she accidentally splashed water on him, which momentarily upset him. Again, no adult prompting.
-When two boys both wanted the same book, a brief tugging match ensued.  When teacher assisted by saying, "Would you like me to read the book to both of you?"  both boys settled in to happily listen to the story together, forgetting their squabble.
-Everyone willingly listened to what the teacher said, and readily complied with the few instructions.  They washed their hands, went to the picnic table for snack, and rang bells for Goodbye Time.
-One boy served a new friend a plastic pear at the tea party he had set up in the housekeeping area.
-Four of the toddlers easily negotiated turn-taking with the doll-strollers.
-Several children began learning everyone's names, and using them correctly.
-Everyone seemed happy to be together, even though they don't know each other yet.

What a contrast from my experience at the Town Hall yesterday.  It reminds me of why I work with toddlers instead of working in politics. Toddlers are so much more civilized.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Emily was busy stacking blocks, and seeing how high they could go.  This playgroup was a challenging experience for both Emily, and for me, her mom.  She was almost two, and her behavior had never been more difficult.  So as Brandon approached Emily's block tower, I was on edge, waiting for the tantrum.

Sure enough- as soon as Brandon reached Emily's invisible force field of six feet, the shrieking started. Feeling pressure from the other moms, I thought I needed to "do something." I took some of the blocks and gave them to Brandon, saying, "Emily, we need to share with Brandon." Needless to say, the screaming did not decrease in intensity.

What was learned that day?

Emily learned that sharing is a bad thing.  It's a bad word, I don't like sharing, I don't want to share. (It takes awhile to un-learn these things if you have enough of these lessons.)

Maybe Brandon learned that when you want something someone else has, they have to give it to you even if they don't want to.  (That can take some serious un-learning too.)

I learned that I am too easily influenced by my perceptions of what other adults are thinking of ME.  Because I feared the other moms would think I was a bad mom, I made the mistake of forcing my toddler to do something she was not developmentally ready to do.

When Emily was ready to share, she shared. Today, she is a loving and very social twenty-two year old who spends hours creating hand-made birthday cards and gifts for each of her dozens of best friends. She would give anything she has to anyone who wants or needs it.   But when I tried to rush her readiness, I was actually defeating my goals of raising a generous, sharing child.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Toddlers have a bad reputation for selfishness.  But are they really selfish?

Toby is busy playing with a large collection of animals and people.  Several children are watching, and because Toby is so absorbed in his play, it really looks like fun!  Of course, the other kids want to have fun, too. When Katrina reaches out for a zebra, naturally, Toby reacts with a loud, "NO!  Mine!"

Is this being selfish?  I don't think so.  Toby needed all of those particular toys for the elaborate scenario that was playing out in his head at that moment.

I explained to Katrina that Toby was using those toys, and I mentioned to Toby that he could use them until he was all done, and then he could share them when he was ready.  Then I helped Katrina find other things to play with.

A few minutes later, I observed Toby give a deep, contented sigh, and look up from his play.  Then he looked over and saw Katrina nearby.  I saw an "Aha" look cross Toby's face. He picked up the zebra Katrina had reached for earlier,  then walked over and handed it to her.  I said, "Thanks for sharing, Toby.  It looks like you're all done now."  Toby smiled broadly and walked away.

This is the way that sharing is learned. Toddlers are very capable of sharing, as long as they are allowed to feel ownership first.  If you don't feel that you own something, it's not yours to share.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


"My toddler is cranky, even when we're out doing fun things just for him."

"Why is she so fussy even when we're at a park or playdate?"

"I don't know what else I could be doing to entertain my kids: I take them to the children's museum, parks, hikes, the beach, trips, parties, friends' houses, and all kind of other activities, but they are still whiny most of the time!"

Most of the parents I know want to provide a rich, full life for their young children. So they take them out into the community almost every day to see and do things, and to interact with other children. Parents believe that children who are exposed to a wide variety of experiences will have a head start in terms of academic learning, social skills, and general happiness. And many parents base this belief on the fact that they, themselves, thrive on being out and about. They love going, seeing, and doing, and they want to share these enriching experiences with their children. There is great demand for these activities, so you can find baby gym classes and swim classes, preschool sports camps, infant/parent music classes, and amusement parks geared toward the infant-through-preschool set in almost every community. Surely, all these opportunities for fun and learning lead to happy, well adjusted children, right?

So why do so many parents find that their well-traveled toddlers and preschoolers are still fussy and grumpy, even with all these fun things to do?

Everyone is different. Surprisingly, you may find that your own child is very different from you.

Perhaps you find it energizing and calming to take daily trips to the park, or to attend frequent playgroups with other parents and kids. But perhaps your child is having an experience that is different from yours. Some people, who may be considered to be more extroverted, do thrive on a lot of social interaction. Being around people "re-charges their batteries," and makes them feel happy and alive. Other people are more introverted, and find that even if they are having fun, being around people tends to tire them. Their "batteries" must be re-charged by being alone. Sometimes it's hard for parents to understand that their children's feelings and experiences may be very different from their own, and extroverted, energetic parents assume that their children need as much stimulation as they do. A toddler isn't capable of expressing his need for alone-time. But he will make his feelings obvious by his behaviors. A whiny, cranky child may be a child who is in need of more solitude.

All children, even those more on the "extroverted" end of the spectrum, need some down-time to play alone, think, observe, do nothing, and just BE. This is when the most intense brain development is actually taking place, because the child is having time to reflect and construct his own knowledge. It's important to realize, however, that TV, movies, computer games, and other electronic media-based activities do not count as "alone time." These activities do not actually provide the emotional or cognitive benefits that children need, even though they may beg parents for them. (More about that at another time.)

"But when I try to have a stay-at-home day with my toddler, she whines at me all day! She wants to go out. She gets bored."

In my experience, children who have been trained to expect the constant stimulation of trips and activities (or electronic entertainment) sometimes have to adjust to the idea of entertaining themselves at home. It may take a day or two of practice before they can settle in and begin spending long periods of time playing with their toys or puttering around their own back yard. But once children have the opportunity to experience some healthy down-time, parents often tell me that the child seems much happier and cooperative. I think they feel that they have breathing room now-- space in their heads for their own thoughts.

Finding the right balance between down-time and activity isn't always easy, especially when family members' needs are quite different from each other. But it's an important goal, and it can be achieved when parents are tuned in to their children's behavioral cues and are creative about making sure everyone's needs are met, including their own.

Later, we'll talk about some of the simple things that toddlers like to do at home when they are given time to slow down and set their own schedule. Childhood is very short! Rushing from one activity to another is not always the best way to enjoy the special gift of childhood.

Down-time is learning time!