Live life by your toddler’s rules
She might be little, but she’s got a lot of the big things right…
Your toddler is full of fun, and full-on. To her, the whole world is brand new and shiny bright – and she doesn’t have an ounce of baggage to cloud her view. And, perhaps, there’s a lot we mums could learn from that uncomplicated approach to everyday life. ‘The toddler years are such a magical moment in your child’s life,’ says developmental psychologist Alison Pike. ‘She is just beginning to explore the world and her place in it. And by looking through her eyes, you can learn to see life in a brand-new way, too.’
OWN THE ROOM
Earlier this year, Robert E Kelly’s live interview on BBC News went askew when his four-year-old daughter, Marion, sauntered into the room and onto camera. Rather than ruining his career, the world fell in love with Marion’s swagger. ‘Most toddlers exude high self-esteem,’ says Alison. ‘They carry themselves with an
attitude that announces: “Here I am! Look at me! Aren’t I lovable?”’ That’s because they’re exposed to a lot of loving behaviour, but also because they’re body-confident. ‘Toddlers are more body aware than adults are. Between the ages of 12 and 24 months, so much of their learning is done in physical ways, such as grabbing and licking,’ says Alison. ‘But by the time we reach adulthood, we lose touch with our bodies.’ Research suggests that one of the biggest things that affects confidence is our posture. So, adopt your toddler’s swagger, expect everyone to love you, and they most probably will.
BE TRUE TO YOURSELF
Do you ever let your toddler dress herself ? You have to admire the confidence with which she flings together mismatching socks and pairs a tutu with a woolly hat. ‘This is partly because toddlers are only just beginning to develop the ability to conceive of other people’s perspectives,’ explains Alison. ‘Think about playing hide and seek with your youngster: she believes that when she puts her hands over her eyes, you can’t see her. She isn’t able to think outside of her own perspective, and she feels like the centre of the world.’
In 2011, research from the Institute for the Study of Self Development found that selfconsciousness emotions, such as embarrassment and guilt, don’t begin to emerge until around the age of three. And while we all need to develop that self-consciousness – it is part of the glue that keeps societies together – it does make us anticipate the responses of other people. In doing so, it can inhibit our behaviour. It might stop us from wearing the outfit we want to, in case others question it. And it can stop us from being the person we really want to be. So if wearing a tutu makes you happy, go for it!
SAY ‘NO’ IF YOU WANT TO
The average 18-month-old will snatch toys from another toddler around 18 times an hour. Ask her to share and the answer will probably involve some foot stamping and an extremely insistent ‘no!’. ‘We’ve all been there,’ says Alison, ‘but isn’t there something that’s refreshing about that honesty? And isn’t it frustrating how much second-guessing we have to do in our adult relationships, because we’re all so reluctant to be rude and just tell the honest truth about how we feel?’ The next time you’re cornered into accepting an invitation that you’d much rather skip, or feel yourself bowing to pressure to host the family get-together again, stop and consider why you’d rather say no: your reasons might be very valid, and worth expressing.
If the toddler years are marked by one question, it is this: ‘Why?’ ‘The perspective of a newborn is very limited – she can’t move, so can only see what you dangle in front of her,’ says Alison. ‘Then she learns to crawl, and she has a new, but very low, perspective on the world. At the toddler stage, her head is suddenly raised up and she sees the world from a new perspective yet again. Everything looks different, and deserves re-examination.’ And there is something joyful about this continual curiosity. ‘As adults, we inhibit our curiosity,’ says Alison, ‘perhaps because we want to be seen as cool, or worldly-wise.’ Toddlers, on the other hand, are completely transparent about their ignorance and, as a result, they learn incredibly fast – much faster than we do. Studies have shown that the very fact they know less enables them to learn more. As adults, we bring too much of what we already know – or think we know – to a new problem, and it clouds any new understanding. Perhaps, being clueless could be a good thing.
APPRECIATE THE LITTLE THINGS
We’ve all experienced that classic scenario of buying an expensive toy for our toddler, only to discover that what she really loves is the
box. From birth, your baby learns through first-hand experiences, depending entirely on her senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. And that’s why your toddler still gravitates towards experiences that immediately reward her senses.
But as we grow older, we educate ourselves away from these simple joys. ‘We learn what value things have,’ explains Alison, ‘and that feeds into our appreciation of things.’ But it also stops us from gasping at the beauty of blossom on the trees, or relishing the feeling of grass on our bare toes. Earlier this year, a study found that the simple act of stopping to observe nature can lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress, however. So stop and smell the roses!
‘Most toddlers love to draw and paint as a way to express themselves,’ says Alison, ‘as well as loving the praise you give them for it.’ By the age of about eight, however, most children stop drawing at every opportunity. ‘That’s because this is the age at which they realise art has a value – that it needs to look right,
and that other people’s judgements of their work matter,’ adds Alison.
As adults, if we don’t think we are good at something, we’re embarrassed to do it. Most of us don’t paint or draw at all. But we should. ‘Getting back to that idea that the audience’s opinion doesn’t matter, that self-expression is the ultimate goal, is a very healthy thing,’ says Alison. ‘Being creative helps lower stress levels, distracts you from the demands of everyday life and leaves you feeling calm.’
‘Planning is a pretty complex procedure for brains,’ says Alison. ‘And so your toddler is only able to plan in the very short term. She’s not able to understand, for example, that she can have a banana after lunch. To her, if it’s not happening now, it’s not happening, full stop!’ The upside of this is that your toddler is, in effect, a mindfulness expert, explains Alison: ‘In her world, it’s only ever all about the here and the now. She is entirely present in the moment.’ As adults, we rush around with our mind permanently in the future: what will we cook for tea, what emails do we need to send, when is Aunty Emily’s birthday? Research has shown, however, that focusing entirely on the present moment decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increases signalling connections in the brain and gives us better control over our emotions and even pain.
SEEK OUT LOVE
When did you last rush into the arms of a friend, just because you were feeling a little wobbly? When your toddler is feeling scared, unsure or unwell, her first instinct is to reach for a hug. And she’s got it right. A 2015 study revealed that hugs reduce stress, due to the release of oxytocin, the very same bonding hormone that promotes attachment between mothers and their newborns. ‘As we get older, we lose this emotional honesty that toddlers have in abundance,’ says Alison. So give those close to you a hug whenever you get the urge: you’ll feel happier for it.
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Alison Pike is a developmental psychologist at the University of Sussex and expert on Channel 4's The Secret Life of Four Year Olds.
‘Aariv has taught me that you don’t need expensive treats to enjoy life. Blowing bubbles and splashing in muddy puddles can bring endless delight!’ Samantha Dhanilall, from London, is mum to Aariv, 3.