TimeToddlers are completely in the moment. Time literally has no meaning for them; since they have only limited understanding of the past or the future, whatever they're doing now is all they're thinking about. The downside is that they can feel out of control -- and prone to tantrums -- when a parent dictates that it's time to start or stop a new activity. Indeed, change almost always comes as an unwelcome surprise. To make matters worse, toddlers can't even comprehend what it means when Mom says, "You can play for ten more minutes."
What helps is to make time as specific as possible. Let your child set an egg timer and watch it tick off the minutes. As it ticks away, explain that ten minutes is long enough for her to look at a book and have her teeth brushed. When those tasks are completed, check the timer together and see how many minutes are left.
Another strategy is to translate "ten minutes" into the length of three songs or the time it takes for the cookies to bake. Says Fitzgerald, "One thing I did with my child is tell her, 'You may not want to take a nap right now, but you have to stay in bed until this story on tape is over.' It's somewhat more concrete."
Talking to toddlers about the sequence of events also helps ground them. "When I'm changing diapers at the center, I'll take one child and say to the other, 'You will be next,'" says Fitzgerald. Children under 3 have relatively little sense of time in terms of anything abstract like minutes, but they are beginning to develop an understanding of "after this, then that."
Claire's a preschooler now and seems so grown up that sometimes I forget how much she still doesn't know. It's not her body that surprises her so much now (her scary plunge into the pool didn't stop her from learning the basics of how to swim), it's her emotions that keep all of us guessing. Recently, as she displayed a noisy mix of neediness, whining, and hyperactivity before bed, I told her, "Calm down!" It was only later that I realized she doesn't know how to calm down. "Okay," I said the next time she started fussing. "Start by taking a deep breath."
Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams is the mom of Drew and Claire, both 4. Her most recent article for Parenting was "Loving the Chaos," in the September issue.