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The Secret to Your Crazy, Adorable Toddler

The Physical World

Toddlers are eager learners, but it's difficult for them to grasp such abstract physical concepts as the distance to the store, the idea that water makes the floor slippery, and the fact that leaning back in a chair may tip it over. For Bailey Lipset, 2, of Sands Point, New York, the idea that she can't reach out to hug a tugboat on the ocean is hard to wrap her mind around: If she can see the tugboat and cover it with her hand, why can't she touch it? Several times now, Bailey's mom, Beth, has broken the news that cuddling with the tugboat isn't possible. While Bailey takes the news stoically, the next day she's back at it.

Bailey's exhaustive amount of trial and error stems in part from the fact that at 12 months, a toddler's short-term memory typically extends back about a day. While recall increases by the time toddlers reach 36 months, long-term memory -- stuff that happened, say, three weeks ago -- remains wildly inconsistent and incomplete. And even if they could remember what happened the last time they pinched the cat, their motor skills are constantly changing: Maybe this month they mastered the art of the gentle pinch.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that the ability to pretend kicks in anywhere from 14 to 24 months. Combine this with a lack of understanding of cause and effect and suddenly almost anything seems sort of possible. What a leap off the bed! What a crash on the floor! What a look of genuine surprise on the toddler's face!

"She has an image of herself as older than she is and of being able to do more," Jennifer Grosman, Ph.D., of Washington, DC, says of her daughter, Hannah, 2. So when she watched a 7-year-old gymnast perform flips, Hannah immediately wanted to flip too. "Her thinking is very aspirational," says Grosman, putting a gentle spin on her daughter's lack of reason. "Occasionally, that will end up in frustration," and Hannah will rage and whine.