Sometimes parenting books feel like they’re a dime a dozen — a handful cross my desk each week promising to provide the definitive method for raising sweet, well-adjusted tots — spoiler alert: few actually do. But when I learned that Dr. Tovah Klein, a mother of three and the director of the Barnard College Center For Toddler Development in NYC who has been observing toddlers for over 20 years, would be speaking at my son’s preschool PTA meeting, I made sure I was seated in the front row to hear her philosophy and learnings firsthand. Dr. Klein’s How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today For Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success ($19, originally $25) was already generating buzz, and after hearing her in person, I understand why.
Based on the philosophy that toddlers are not miniadults, that they’re individuals fueled by a desire to know was just the beginning. In just 45 minutes Dr. Klein took us deep into the magical world of the toddler years and got to the root of many of our biggest frustrations with our tots. I learned a few fascinating philosophies about young kids that have already helped me better understand my child. I highly suggest you pick up a copy, but in the interim, here are a handful of teasers you’ll find in the book.
Any parent who has lost their cool over a toddler not understanding that you “need to leave N-O-W” knows that they just don’t understand the concept of time. What you probably didn’t know is that they don’t have the brain structure for it. According to Dr. Tovah Klein, “Because toddlers lack this sense of time and their brains are still developing, they have not internalized the skills that adults (well, most, anyway) use to help them manage time, control their impulses, express their needs, thoughtfully plan their actions, and cope with stress.”
Toddlers exist in the present. So when you say “we’re leaving in five minutes,” they just know that they’re not leaving now — which is why their answer to how much longer they want to do something is usually five minutes — it’s a placeholder. Repetitious routines and use of sequential language (first, next, then, etc.) helps teach younger tots the concept of time, but they may not fully grasp it until the later elementary school years.
Take a step back and think about the world from your toddler’s perspective. They have little say in what they do, what they eat, where they go, etc. Parents have all of power and control. So what can a child control? The clothes they’ll put on, the food they’ll actually eat, if and when they’ll use the toilet, when they’ll fall asleep, and what they can and will say — the areas where parents tend to have the most trouble with their kids.
According to Dr. Tovah Klein, they’re learning to make decisions during this stage and parents should give them as many places to have control as possible. So if your child is giving you a hard time about getting dressed, ask her which shoe she wants to put on first, the right or the left. If she’s a picky eater, always make sure there’s one thing she likes on the plate. Giving her options, but not a ton of them, will help her feel like she’s in control of the situation.
As Dr. Klein writes, “I guarantee you that if you view parenting as a power game, with you as the parent truing to assert control over your child, then you will have to keep upping the power to win. And the child, over time, will continue to battle, fighting back as he tries to show you with greater and greater force who he is, what he can do, what he needs from you.”
It sounds obvious, but toddlers are happiest when they feel secure. According to Dr. Tovah Klein, “a little empathy and recognition go a long way . . . and helps toddlers understand what they are feeling by labeling the emotion.” So, as Dr. Klein explained at the lecture I attended, when you run out of Cheerios, the immediate reaction may be to run out and buy more Cheerios. But if you commiserate with them, you’ll show them that they can survive the situation. By helping them through adversity, you show them that they can handle it and you ultimately teach them resilience.
While we as parents want to paint a perfect world for our children — one without bumps and bruises, failures and defeats — they need to stumble and fall in order for them to become what we want them to become. Failures teach tots how to get over adversity, how to become flexible, and how to develop passion.
As Dr. Tovah Klein writes, “Growing and developing is about foibles, slipups, and vulnerabilities, falling down, and making mistakes. A child cannot move forward unless they make mistakes, through trial and error.” She also says, “If you can’t stumble and fall, you can’t take risks — and life is all about risks!”
Your child’s independence, curiosity, passion, persistence, and even his stubbornness can drive you batty. They are the traits that make you late for an appointment and make it seem like your child isn’t listening to you. But according to Dr. Tovah Klein, these are the traits you want to instill in your children, as these are the traits that will allow them to them thrive in the future.