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!
Posted by ANNIE CASTLE DECKERT, M.ED.PSYCH.