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A Day in the Mind of a Toddler

At 19 months, my daughter Margaret is in the full bloom of toddlerhood. She moves nonstop. Her emotions can change faster than a streetlight. Her needs have a here-and-now urgency. She's only semi-verbal and semi-rational. She's also fun, funny, and  -- with her big dark eyes and unruly brown hair  -- utterly adorable.

Margaret is also a little sponge, absorbing everything she sees and hears. That fact struck home when I recorded everything she did for a day, and then asked experts on child development to analyze her actions. Their comments made it clear that plenty was going on "behind the scenes."

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the mother of three and author of The Parenting Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth.


7:00 AM

"Ma-ma! Ma-ma!" Margaret stands in her crib, clutching Love Toy, as her sister and brother (ages 4 and 6) have dubbed her beloved pink flannel rag doll, and her Blankie. She's grinning, ready for a grand new day.

7:25 AM

Diapered and wrestled into clothes, Margaret insists on going downstairs alone, clutching both Blankie and Love Toy. Patience, I tell myself, as we slooowly descend. Another day on Toddler Time is just beginning.

"Nyuk!" (milk), she announces as soon as she's strapped in her high chair.

She impatiently points to the exact place on her tray where she wants everything placed: "Cup! Cracker!" (cereal). I fill her bowl and begin to empty the dishwasher. "Spoon! Spoon!" she shrieks, when I've forgotten it.

"Routines may be tedious for parents, but they make a toddler feel secure," says Patricia Shimm, associate director of Barnard College's Center for Toddler Development, in New York City. Even mundane morning activities are a form of learning, experts say.

"Repetition is also a way for a toddler to control her environment," Shimm explains. The child learns what to expect and feels in charge, which puts her in a confident frame of mind to start her day.

7:50 AM

Margaret wanders into the living room and finds a naked Cabbage Patch Kids doll. Pointing at each part, she proceeds to give an anatomy lesson to no one in particular: "Eye. Nose. Boo-boo." (belly button). George, her daddy, picks her up, and she begins to poke his eye and probe under his shirt for his navel.

"Where's your belly button?" George asks her. She points to her stomach. "Where are your eyes?" She points. "Where are your teeth?" She sticks out her tongue. Oops. Daddy gently corrects her by pointing to his teeth and then to hers. "Teeth," George says. Margaret points to her teeth.

"Toddlers are becoming more self-aware, realizing how they're different from other people," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based organization devoted to infant and toddler development. "They spend a lot of time classifying things to help them understand the world. Saying words over and over is part of that, and so is learning body parts."

9:40 AM

Outside. On the driveway, Margaret sits on her haunches, staring at the ground in rapt attention. She runs back to me and reaches out to give me something, but there's nothing in her hand. This happens three times. Finally, I walk over to where she's been crouching and realize that she has been watching ants and trying to pick them up. A brief discussion about ants follows. (Me: "Oh! Those are ants." Margaret: "Ants. Ants. Ants.")

"Sometimes it's hard to read a toddler's signals," says Shimm. Margaret's persistence in coming back to me was an attempt to tell me something, though she didn't know the word for those amazing black moving specks that defied being carried. It can get tiresome reacting to your child's every minute discovery, but when you show interest, you build her confidence. "When you went over to look," Shimm adds, "it made her feel, 'Wow, my mom understands me.'"

10:00 AM

We go out for a walk. Margaret imitates the noises she hears: "Caw! Caw!" (a crow), "Tweet!" (a robin), "WOOOO!" (a siren).

"You can see how alert she is to her surroundings and how much she lives in the moment," Shimm says.

10:30 AM

Back in our yard, I turn on the hose. Margaret fills a bucket and empties it. Over and over. Fill, empty. Fill, empty. Then she notices the water pouring onto the grass. She moves the hose from the grass to some nearby stones, and watches the water over them. "Wet," I say. "Wet!" she echoes. By now she's soaked and dirty. Time for a cleanup and costume change.

"It's science for her," says Lerner. "She's trying to figure out how water in a bucket is different from water on the grass or a stone. By about 18 months, toddlers begin to move into abstract thinking: 'Okay, now I'll do this and see what happens.' Solving problems this way is the core of developing true intelligence."

11:15 AM

Immediately upon entering the house, Margaret opens a kitchen drawer and leaves a trail of pot lids behind her. She sees a toy catalog on the floor and tries to pick a picture of a Teletubby off the page. It won't come. Baffled, she begins to whine and tear the page. "No tearing books," I say, taking it away. She starts to cry.

"At this age, a child lacks an adult's sense of reality," says Shimm. "Figuring out the difference between a live person and an image of a person on television or in pictures will take many months." Even preschoolers may talk about "walking into the TV," because they think the wonderful action is really taking place inside the box.

11:30 AM

Distraction: lunch. Midway through, Margaret dabs some yogurt on top of her muffin. Next, she dunks the muffin into the yogurt. Then she pours milk onto the yogurt. She does everything but actually eat it.

"Toddlers love to dip and dunk. It can be disgusting, but it's another form of experimentation," says Shimm. The trick is to respect your child's curiosity without destroying your kitchen. "You have to set limits  -- such as taking the food away when it becomes a toy to play with rather than something to eat. If you don't draw the line, you'll go nuts," she adds.


Nap time. In her room we read Time for Bed and Goodnight Moon. "Again! Again!" Margaret says. After four rounds, I put her in her crib. She cries. I give her Blankie, Love Toy, and a kiss. She cries louder. I shut the door. She stops before I reach the stairs.


3 PM

Post-nap. (A nice, long nap, hurray!) After changing her leaky diaper and clothes, we go outside. Walking toward the street to check our mailbox, Margaret doesn't want to hold hands. She bounds ahead. I stop her at the curb: "No. We can't go in the road." She begins to wail, furiously, until a passing squirrel distracts her. "Quirl." A few seconds later, the street has her attention again.

Again I say, "No, no," bracing for another battle, but this time she stops by herself. On our way back to the house, she turns to look back at the street and says, "No, no." Then she's off to pick the blooms off the impatiens.

"A perfect example of how a toddler internalizes a message," says Shimm. She's teaching herself a lesson. This is why you'll see a child reach for a hot stove or an electrical outlet while murmuring "No, no." "No" is a powerful word best left for true danger, Shimm adds. "You can't say no all the time. Pick and choose what to be firm about."

3:40 PM

Over the next hour, Margaret pushes a wooden toy around the room; removes Duplo blocks, one piece at a time, from a bucket until it's empty; builds a small tower; replaces each piece; dumps the whole bucket out; and finds an old pop-up toy she hasn't played with for weeks. This last discovery occupies her for the next 15 minutes-an eternity in toddler time.

This unscripted time alone is constructive and necessary, even in toddlerhood, says Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center. "Sometimes kids need to take time alone to master something in depth."

During her 15 minutes with the pop-up toy, for example, Margaret was probably listening to the noise it made and trying to figure out the connection between what she did and what the toy did. Was it moving on its own or because of what she did? "All of this discovery takes time," Lieberman says. "It's like trying out new software on your computer  -- you test it so you'll understand it."

4:45 PM

Margaret finds a pen on the floor, climbs up on a chair, and makes marks on a piece of paper. Then she begins to draw on the table. I remove the pen from her hand and say, "No. We only draw on paper." This prompts an instant throw-self-on-floor tantrum. After a few seconds, she picks herself up and attaches to my leg, making whiny noises, while I'm fixing dinner. When I can no longer stand the sounds, I pick her up and twirl her around. She loves it. I put her back down. The whiny tantrum picks up right where it left off. I'm feeling ready for my own tantrum.

"A tantrum can be a toddler's very normal reaction to being told no," says Lerner. "All toddlers experiment and test out what they can and cannot do."

In this instance, it's best to think of yourself not as a disciplinarian but as a teacher, she says. "Ask yourself, 'What do I want my child to learn from this experience?'"

In this case, my job is to help Margaret adapt and to steer her to acceptable behavior. Distraction works wonders; for example, the twirling. Or, I might have substituted the pen for a crayon and shown her how to draw on paper. Ultimately, though, Margaret wanted food. Since dinner wasn't ready yet, I gave her leftovers from lunch. Once she'd eaten, she was happy again.


5:30 PM

"Down! All done!" Margaret rips off her bib and is finished eating just as George and I and Eleanor and Henry sit down. So much for the family breaking bread together. Luckily, Margaret quietly looks at some books by herself in the living room.

5:45 PM

Bang! Bang! I leap up from the table to find Margaret hitting the television set with a wood toy. "No!" I shout, perhaps louder than necessary. More tears. I feel mean, but I am not in the mood for a broken TV. George finishes his meal and goes in to work on puzzles with her.

7 PM

Tub time! As soon as I say the words, Margaret is climbing the stairs and standing at the bathtub. She points to the drain plug, then the faucet, directing me through the routine. In the water, she echoes everything her bathmate big sister does  -- from pouring the soapy water on her body to warbling like the Little Mermaid. She especially likes pouring a pail of water over her head and blowing bubbles, which she saw her brother do a few days earlier at the pool.

Toddlers learn from watching everything, and sometimes they play back actions observed in the past, says Lieberman. At first, most play is imitative, such as cuddling a baby doll or combing its hair. Then, at around 18 months, pretend play kicks in. The child will decide to feed the baby, while the comb becomes a hair decoration or a banjo.

7:30 PM

Pajamas on. Kiss everyone goodnight. Emergency! Love Toy has disappeared. Daddy and siblings form a search-and-rescue squad for the rag doll while Mama reads Pat the Bunny again. No Love Toy. I continue the usual routine: Say a round of nite-nites to her room ("Nite-nite, Bear; nite-nite, Bird"), then plop her in the crib with Blankie.

"La Toy?" Margaret asks, with slight distress. "Nite-nite," I say cheerfully, but she keeps repeating "Ma-ma! La Toy!"

I know from experience there is no substitute for La Toy. Margaret will just have to do without for tonight.

8:20 PM

Margaret falls asleep. Calling out her comfort object's name helped Margaret deal with the loss, says Lieberman. "She was able to conjure up the doll in her mind. It's how we remember people we love when they're not with us," she says. Frustrations such as these help her learn that not everything in life will go her way.


The next day Margaret finds her very soggy Love Toy outside. "Wet!" she exclaims and kisses it.

"That's a lovely sign of her capacity to tolerate frustration and separation," Lieberman says, "instead of ignoring the doll or being angry at it." It just points out again, she says, that "toddlers have a gift for finding wonder in the ordinary. And they help adults reconnect to the simple pleasures of life." Thank heaven for that!