If I hadn't actually given birth to them, sometimes I'd swear my children were aliens: When one of our kids climbs into an empty grocery bag, or throws a Matchbox car into the toilet, or tears his clothes off and runs through the house shrieking "Naked baby! Naked baby!" my husband and I look at each other and wonder: What on earth possessed them?
A pretty powerful force, actually -- an unstoppable desire to experiment. Kids may sometimes seem like they're from outer space, but they're actually burgeoning scientists. As relative newcomers to the world, they're trying to figure it all out. That's why much of kids' behavior seems inexplicable to us: We're old hands at how the world works, and the wonders have, well, dulled. Take gravity, for example. This is a mind-blowing concept for little kids. Every time a baby throws food off the high-chair tray, she's figuring out that it falls. She'll test this hypothesis on all available samples -- Cheerios, sippy cups, spoons. Her gravitational studies will usually last for about a year; kids who are still throwing food after age 2 are trying to get your goat. Which has its scientific payoffs, too: "If I pour this milk on the floor, a loud sound will come out of Mommy's mouth. Cause and effect!" When you view kids' behavior in the context of a science lab, even the craziest activities make sense. Below, a field guide to their odd experiments -- the maddening and the cute:
Case Study #1: The Cardboard Box
How many times have you witnessed this baffler: The birthday girl tears into a gift -- a bike or kid-size kitchen -- pulls the toy out of the box, and then promptly climbs inside, ignoring the real present altogether. As toddlers, my kids loved to curl up inside paper grocery bags. The reason for both behaviors is the same: Children simply enjoy the sensation of experiencing the world from a safe cocoon. And developmentally, box play helps address a child's fear of being lost: They can "disappear" and then come back. It's like reverse peekaboo; instead of your going away, the child does. To maximize their interest, start "looking" for your toddler next time she's curled up in a box: "Where's my little girl? I can't find her anywhere! She's not behind the curtain! She's not under the table!" In pretending to be lost, she's taking the first steps toward more elaborate forms of play -- an important developmental skill that leads, eventually, to abstract thinking.
Case Study #2: Mountaineering
My 9-month-old nephew, George, loved to climb on top of the dining room table whenever he could make a break for it. This is common in older babies and toddlers, who are constantly honing motor skills like balance, coordination, and reaching. They're proud when they do something that takes hard work, and inspired to try more challenging feats -- much to your frustration. "George would wait for me to turn away, and then up he'd go," says my sister, Lori Renkl, who lives in Homewood, AL. If kids thrive on your attention, why do they invariably wait until Mom's distracted to reach new heights? The answer, again, is that insatiable toddler curiosity, says K. Mark Sossin, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Pace University in New York. As long as he has Mom's attention, he's entertained and content to stay close. "But when his parent is focusing on something else -- answering the phone or another child -- he may turn his attention outward to dangerous places," says Sossin. Of course, he doesn't know what's dangerous, so it's up to parents to encourage exploration in a safe context. Keep a basket of special toys or stuff that's new to him near the phone so you can direct his curiosity in harmless ways -- at least long enough to say, "Can I call you back during naptime?" And when he's got energy to burn, hit a playground or baby gym so he can test his physical prowess under your safe watch.
Case Study #3: Graffiti Art
There's a reason Crayola invented washable crayons and markers: Blank walls (or refrigerators or cabinets) are an irresistible canvas. When she was 2, Jinny Breedlove's daughter Jenna put her own sweet spin on modern art. "She took a plastic honey bear and made Jackson Pollock-like dribbles on the floor," says the Katy, TX, mom of four. "Talk about a massive cleanup!" So why do they go for a big canvas? Because they can! They don't know your wallpaper doesn't need improvement; they just want to see their scribbles writ large. There's no need to squelch the impulse to create big; just do a little redirection. A box of washable markers and a paper tablecloth spread out on the kitchen floor can soothe the itch. Or try this idea from Amy McComish of Charlotte, NC: When her three kids were small, she'd hand them big, clean paintbrushes and a bucket of water and send them outside to "paint" the backyard fence. "The water turned the wood a darker shade, and they really thought they were painting it," she says. "And when the water dried, they could do it all over again."
Case Study #4: Getting Dirty
You may not relish mud puddles and other forms of filth, but little kids sure do. "My three-year-old enjoyed putting dirt in her hair," says Birmingham, AL, mom Allie Cavender. "It took about three weeks to wash out." Mucking around in the mud is all about tactile experience; it feels good squishing through their fingers, and it changes as they touch it. That's the same reason kids love to stomp in puddles, says Jana Murphy, author of The Secret Lives of Toddlers. "When a child comes to a puddle, she has two choices: go through or go around," Murphy says. "Walking through it rewards her with a splash, a noise, and wet feet. It's very satisfying for a kid who's just beginning to understand how her actions have an effect on her environment." Her goal isn't to get dirty (who cares about that?!). It's to experiment with different forms of matter. Instead of discouraging it, consider a sandbox (or a plastic container filled with sand on the patio), or put a blob of mashed potatoes or Jell-O on the high-chair tray and let her squish to her heart's content. And, once in a while, let her at some mud after a rainstorm!
Case Study #5: The Rewind Button
When Mary Beth Ladd's daughter was 2, she was addicted to Beauty and the Beast, says the Delafield, WI, mom. "Cara knew all the dialogue and lyrics. As a treat, my husband and I took her to see Disney on Ice: Beauty and the Beast. When it ended, she stood up and shouted, 'Rewind it!'" Little kids are pulled in two different directions, explains Sossin: the search for novelty and the comfort of familiarity. For toddlers, everything in their lives is an adventure into the unknown, which makes the need for comfort and familiarity intense. But hearing Green Eggs and Ham for the 412th time is about more than comfort. It helps little kids learn to predict what will happen next, which gives them a feeling of mastery. When you're reading your child's current favorite aloud, pause in a few key spots. Toddlers love filling in a missing rhyme or character's name, and they thrive on the feeling of accomplishment that comes from "helping" you read the book.
Case Study #6: Stripping
Christine Hohlbaum's son, 3, loved to streak. "Jackson whipped off his clothes at the speed of light and laughed himself silly," says the Virginia-born mom who now lives near Munich, Germany. "It was impossible to keep him clothed." Not only does being naked just feel good, kids have no hang-ups to keep them from indulging in it. But it's also a way to show their independence. Says Murphy: "As babies, they're wrapped up in diapers and Onesies. But when they're toddlers, they discover their power to take that stuff off, and revel in it." As long as your child's safely indoors where he can't hurt himself, let him strut his stuff for a while.
Case Study #7: The Toilet
Just about every kid likes to hurl whatever's handy into the john: a barrette, a toy, a hairbrush. The swirling flush alone can be pretty fascinating, but for older toddlers who are being potty-trained, there may be a strong sense of self-preservation at work: "Before I see what this thing will do to me, I need to see what it does to this Binky!" The downside is that the toilet is germy and poses a real drowning risk -- and you could be in for a hefty plumbing bill. So buy a locking device for the lid.
Case Study #8: Stand-Up Comedy
One night, Louis Franzini heard his 4-year-old son, Sam, say, "I farted in the bathtub thirty-four times!" A few days later, Sam mooned his mom. "He thought that was incredibly funny," says Franzini, who has a unique perspective on these kinds of shenanigans: A clinical psychologist in St. Augustine, FL, he's the author of Kids Who Laugh: How to Develop Your Child's Sense of Humor. The bottom line with potty humor? Kids find body noises hilarious because they know that such sounds are socially taboo. "They learn early on that well-mannered people do not intentionally belch or pass gas in public," he says. So when body noises erupt, they're delighted by the undermining of polite behavior. Just try to ignore the resulting giggles. But if your little comic is deliberately using potty words or emitting fake noises in front of company, calmly send him to his room or time-out spot and tell him he can rejoin the family when he's ready to participate nicely. And, above all, try not to laugh!
Margaret Renkl, a mom of three boys, is a Parenting contributing editor. She lives in Tennessee.