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9 Mysteries of the Toddler's Mind

"Cracker! Cracker now!" So I hand Page, 18 months old, a graham cracker. She's happy. She bites it. Oops, she drops it onto the floor. She picks up the pieces and stares at them in disbelief  -- then bursts into an ear-splitting wail.

"Now you have two crackers!" I say brightly. But that's not how she sees it. She sees ruin. She wails louder. I try to fit the broken bits together, to prove that they're the same yummy snack she started with. She's not buying it. A broken cracker, it seems, is no cracker at all.

Toddler behavior can be baffling  -- or at least seem that way to an exasperated parent. But usually, there are good developmental reasons for it, says Claire Kopp, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist in Los Angeles. "In toddlerhood, the number of words a child speaks increases, he has a deeper understanding of others and of his immediate surroundings, and he has a stronger recognition of his own identity, and more. So many behaviors that may seem peculiar aren't really, when put in the context of these changing skills."

Take Page and her graham cracker. Like all toddlers deciphering the world, she latched onto fixed ideas about how things must work. A graham cracker, in her view, was supposed to be rectangular or maybe bitten  -- but not in jagged pieces. As yet a literal thinker, she didn't realize that it would still taste like, still be, the same cracker. Hence her tears.

Ever wonder about any of those other weird things little kids do?

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline.

Why They Like the Wrapping Paper More Than the Toy

• Why do they like the wrapping paper more than the toy inside?

There you are, eagerly awaiting your child's reaction to the adorable puppet you've picked out. But no, it's the paper or the frilly bow that seems to win her heart  -- or at least her immediate attention.

While parents focus on the gift, young children have a broader notion of fun. Any novelty excites. Wrapping paper is delightfully crinkly, noisy, and crushable, "and there's sheer joy in the act of uncovering," says Kopp, who's also the author of Baby Steps: The "Whys" of Your Child's Behavior in the First Two Years. (That, more than greed, explains a birthday child's disappointment at the end of opening a mound of presents.)

Which isn't to say that you should skip the toys and offer only shoe boxes and gift wrap. But it's a good reminder of the virtues of variety. Rotate your child's playthings to keep them fresh, and include such simple objects as blocks, scarves, art supplies, and, yes, boxes, which invite imaginative use.

• Why do they insist on wearing sandals in the winter?

For the same reason they mismatch plaids with polka dots, choose tutus for the grocery store, or dig the same blue shirt out of the hamper day after day. "Children might focus on how the outfit or a pair of shoes looks or feels against their skin, or they might pick clothes they've seen their friends wearing. They also form attachments to certain items," says Barbara Kay Polland, Ph.D., professor of child development at California State University, Northridge.

Minimize battles over sandals in winter or mittens in summer by storing inappropriate items out of reach  -- and out of sight  -- each season. If the clothing in question is seasonable but just not to your taste, ask yourself what really bothers you. Are you afraid you'll be judged as a person who can't match or can't afford a big wardrobe? Don't get caught up in viewing your child as an extension of yourself. Besides, everyone knows that young kids are rugged individualists when it comes to style.

Clothing issues are rarely worth a power struggle. Save your energy. If you want to help him learn what matches, you could try stacking complete outfits together in drawers and letting him choose any whole stack. Then let it go. Revel in your child's creativity and comfort  -- not how his taste reflects on you.

• Why do they howl if different foods touch one another on the plate?

It's partly a preference for the purity of tasting one thing at a time and partly a function of toddlers' rigid ideas about how things are supposed to be, says Patricia Henderson Shimm, associate director of New York City's Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and coauthor of Parenting Your Toddler. Carrots are one thing and mashed potatoes are another, the child thinks, and therefore never the twain shall meet. When we have both mashed potatoes and peas on the menu, my husband tries to show Page how to make a "bird's nest" with them. She always screeches "No!" To her, food is food and nests are for the birds. A divided melamine plate helps avert overlaps, as does dishing out runny items, such as gravy or ketchup, very carefully.

Why They Repeat Themselves Over and Over

• Why do they invent friends we can't see?

Soon after the birth of 3-year-old Joe Anderson's only sibling, Louisa, another family member came on the scene. "Joey doesn't love you, but I do," Joe, now 5, tells his mom, Pat. "Joey said something mean, but I wouldn't do that." Joey is Joe's invisible buddy  -- and scapegoat. "Joey is the trouble-maker, and Joe's the knight in shining armor," says Anderson, of Cincinnati. "They also play together, and sometimes Joey goes to the babysitter's, so we have to bring an extra backpack."

Pretend pals can be annoying or funny, but they're no cause for alarm. Many normal, healthy children have them. "They're always available, provide a captive audience, and never tell a child what to do," says Polland. "Having such imaginary friends lets a child be the 'boss' of another 'person.'"

They also allow a child to work out conflicts and fears. Joey's arrival diverted some of the attention that was undividedly Joe's until Louisa came along.

• Why are they oblivious to a glob of snot hanging from their nose?

"A toddler can be filthy from head to toe, but if she's not uncomfortable, she won't mind," Shimm says. But let one drop of paint fall on a finger and she'll howl, "Off! Off! Wash my hand!" The difference is that the child can't see her runny nose or soiled bottom, and if there's no physical discomfort, she isn't bothered by it. But she knows that the paint isn't supposed to be there, so it upsets her. Until your child gets older, all you can do is keep the tissues handy.

• Why do they repeat themselves over and over and over?

As his family drove alongside a train, Russell Scott, 21 months, piped up from the backseat, "Roll the window down to see the big choo-choo train!" "It was by far his longest sentence ever, so we cheered and later repeated it to other people," says Russell's mom, Mary Niepokuj of West Point, IN. "Now he keeps saying it over and over. I'm starting to wonder if long sentences with complex syntax are really that great after all."

It's not the sound of his own voice a toddler loves, it's the response his words bring. "A kid wants to be noticed no matter what," Shimm says. "So he'll use anything that got a reaction." Her grandson Andy once spilled water at a restaurant and yelped, "Oh, the shame of it!"  -- a phrase borrowed from Thomas the Tank Engine. Shimm was in stitches every time she heard the British oath burble from the American tot's lips, which perpetuated it all the more.

The best advice when your child says something smart or wonderful: Don't overplay your response. Mildly continue the conversation ("Okay, I'll open the window" or "Let's clean up the water"). If you can, save cracking up for when you retell the story  -- out of tot earshot. Otherwise, just brace yourself for the endless repetition. When it gets to you, distract by saying something like "Yup, that's right. Now let's read this book!"

Why They Put Things in Their Noses

• Why do they scribble all over the nice picture they just made?

I eagerly watched my daughter Margaret, then 3, carefully draw a row of big-headed stick figures that she said was our family. I couldn't wait to post this masterpiece on the refrigerator. Then she ruined it (to my eye) by scrawling over the entire page with purple crayon.

Your child's artistic choices may not match your aesthetics, but she probably has very good reasons for them. Try asking her to explain her ideas. My daughter, in fact, informed me that she was putting clothes on all the people.

Parents often don't enjoy toddler drawings until they're identifiable, says Susan Striker, author of Young at Art. That's missing the point. "Kids this age have a physical need to scribble. They might call it a train today and a snake tomorrow, and to them it is," she says. Enjoy the process  -- and don't worry about a "finished" product.

• Why do they try to put pebbles and beans up their nose?

Why do men climb mountains? Why do explorers sail the Seven Seas? Because they're there. "Kids do this as a way of exploring their body openings, the sizes of these openings, and the relation of a small object's size to the size of a body opening," says Kopp. Since this propensity can be dangerous  -- pediatricians regularly fish out tiny objects from kids' noses, ears, and other orifices  -- it's worth having a warning conversation if you see your child attempt it: "Your nose is to help you breathe. Don't put anything in there."

• Why do they try to lift pictures off the pages of a book?

Page loves a particular Dorling Kindersley picture book. When she gets to the page of different foods, she picks at the cookies, as if trying to take one. At first, she'd get mad that she couldn't. Now she seems resigned to the fact that the treats won't come out but tries to lift them anyway, sometimes munching an imaginary one.

Until around age 3, toddlers have little sense of what's real or not, Shimm says. "If they see something wonderful, they want to have it, even if it's a two-dimensional picture." This partly explains why toddlers who adore Mickey Mouse in a book or on TV are terrified of the six-foot version at Disney World. Page has learned that the cookies won't come off, but it's a sign of her growing capacity for imaginative play that she can pretend to eat them anyway. The fact is, most quirky toddler behavior springs from a child's increasing ability to understand and navigate the world around her, which is why, when possible, it's best just to grin  -- or grimace  -- and bear it.

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