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Inside the Mind of a Toddler

It never fails. No matter how many times I say no, my 2-year-old, Ben, still smears his yogurt all over the kitchen table. No matter how many times I beg him to hurry, he still examines the lint on the floor mats before he crawls into his car seat. Some days, I could swear toddlerhood is one giant plot designed to drive me insane.

Of course, toddlers aren't trying to be exasperating. They just don't operate the way grown-ups do. We've spent enough time on the planet to know (usually) that "no" means "no." We can follow directions without a second's thought. But 1- and 2-year-olds are in their own little world  -- tiny scientists constantly confronted with new discoveries. For them, learning the rules  -- often by breaking them  -- is important research.

Still, there's hope for us. Life with a toddler can be easier if you learn to see the world through her eyes:

What, Me Hurry?

In Hyattsville, MD, Mary Crane rushes to get her twins, Nell and Tim, into the car and off to daycare. But the 2-year-olds scatter: Nell runs around and around a tree, while Tim searches for a ball that went into the bushes the day before. No amount of coaxing gets them into their seats.

  • Parent Thinks: Don't you have any regard for my schedule? We're going to be late.

  • Toddler Thinks: Let's play! Where did that ball go?
  • How to Bridge the Gap:
    Toddlers believe that the world revolves around them  -- they aren't capable of understanding anyone else's needs. Nor can they see what the big rush is. They live in the here and now.

    Save yourself headaches by doing your best to make sure that yesterday's unfinished business doesn't become today's delay. Try to find the ball the day it's lost. And minimize any visible distractions. If I leave crayons out on the kitchen table overnight, Ben will want to play with them instead of going to daycare the next morning. But when I remember to put them away once he's in bed, no more struggles.

    If your child dawdles, remind her of all the fun she'll have coloring or singing when she gets to daycare. Or divert her attention by requesting some assistance. I often speed Ben up by asking him to help me carry something small out to the car or to make sure Bunny is in the car seat.

    Another tactic you might try: Set a timer for five or ten minutes and explain that you'll all have to leave when the bell rings. Even though she doesn't know how long a minute is, she'll understand the signal. When the buzzer goes off, it's time to drop everything and get in the car.

    If all else fails  -- as sometimes it may  -- save the age-appropriate coaxing for another time and gently but matter-of-factly swoop up your child, plop her in her car seat, and strap her in.

    Picky Palates

    When nothing else would please him, Miles Bailey, 2, of Silver Spring, MD, would always eat broccoli with macaroni and cheese  -- until one day when he suddenly shoved his entire meal onto the floor. "No cheese, Mommy. No cheese!" he wailed.

  • Parent Thinks: How can you hate something you loved yesterday? "Doesn't he understand that I don't have time to create seventeen different meals just to find the one that will work for him?" says Miles's mom, Monette Austin Bailey.

  • Toddler Thinks: If I knew the right words, I'd say, "Enough already! I'm tired of mac and cheese!" Or "I'd rather have a sandwich." Instead, I'll just dump the dishes on the floor and maybe you'll get the point.

    How to Bridge the Gap:
    Like adults, kids can tire of a food, be in the mood for something different, or simply not be hungry. Unlike adults, toddlers have a hard time explaining what they want. Their likes and dislikes aren't always clear-cut either. Maybe they enjoy bananas, but only if you mash them. Or chicken nuggets, but only if there's sauce to dip them in. You might need to cut all the stems off broccoli. There's no way to explain kids' individual quirks.

    So if your child can't express himself clearly and you can't read his mind, what do you do if his tastes seem to change overnight or he won't try something new? Many parents offer a variety of choices, even if they don't have the time or patience for it. When Miles turned down mac and cheese, Bailey gave him cut-up turkey dogs. No go. Next was rice. That hit the deck too. "I was about ready to put him on the floor," says his mom.

    In cases like this, the battle may have nothing to do with the food itself  -- it's just a toddler exercising his desire for control. The best way to win: Step out of the ring.

    I offer my 2-year-old one plate with a balanced meal on it. If he doesn't want anything on it, that's fine. But I don't give him any other choices. If you prefer, go ahead and present another option. But if your child turns up his nose at that too, then it's okay for dinnertime to be over. One missed meal or snack won't kill anyone. Experts agree that most kids  -- even picky eaters  -- manage to get enough sustenance throughout a day.

    If your child won't try something new, don't hesitate to offer it again a few days or weeks down the road. Presentation or preparation can make a difference. A kid may like hamburgers but not meat loaf, for instance. When you reintroduce an item, don't make a big deal about it, says Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, author of You Can't Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded); just put it on the table and dig in.

    Testing, Testing

    Ben is playing upstairs. I'm in the kitchen when suddenly I hear wham! I peek around the corner to see a pile of toys on the floor and Ben at the top of the stairs, poised to send more down.

  • Parent Thinks: Hey! Let's not break those toys  -- they cost a lot of money! Why can't you just carry them downstairs? Why do you have to throw all of them?

  • Toddler Thinks: Is this cool or what? Everything I drop goes down. I love the way that one bounced around and made a crashing noise!

  • How to Bridge the Gap:
    Toddlers love anything that shows cause and effect  -- whether it's opening and closing a door, dropping things from their high chair...or tossing toy after toy down steps. "They're looking for predictability: Every time I throw this on the stairs, it goes down instead of up," says Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author ofLaying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting.

    However annoying for moms and dads, this is actually a crucial milestone. But why isn't once, or even three times, enough? "Kids have to repeat an experience over and over before the concept cements in their head," says Robert MacKenzie, author ofSetting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child.

    But since "over and over" typically means months, and not days, how do you survive all the destruction?

    Don't punish. Instead, show your child what she's allowed to do. With Ben, I illustrated the difference between hard toys and our set of soft foam blocks: "Hard toys  -- cars, trains  -- stay here," I said, putting them in his toy box. "Foam blocks, okay," I said, tossing one down the stairs, to his delight. (I've also shown him that half the fun of this game is going downstairs to retrieve whatever is thrown.)

    If your child's caught in a repetitive whirl, you'll have to just remove her from the scene. Say she's flushing the toilet repeatedly. Take her by the hand and tell her you have something you want to show her. Shut the door behind you, lead her to a favorite toy, and help her focus on the new activity.

    "Sit still!"

    Hoping for a relaxing evening out as a family, Laura and Curtis Stroud took their 2-year-old daughter, Brenna, out for dinner in Overland Park, KS. So much for serenity. "She wanted to jump in the booth, turn around and touch the people behind us, climb over the seat, and go outside and play," says her mom.

  • Parent Thinks: Why can't she stay put with us and behave herself for one simple dinner?

  • Toddler Thinks: I was strapped into my car seat for 20 minutes  -- now it's time to get up and move around! Look at all the places to climb on and hide! Look at all the new people I can talk to and play with!

    How to Bridge the Gap:
    At this stage, kids are a lot like Energizer bunnies  -- they just can't sit still for more than five or ten minutes. It's a reality of toddlerhood that's not particularly conducive to dining in restaurants. Plus, your child might be hungry and want to eat now, not in 20 minutes when the waiter shows up with the meal. Or maybe he's tired and cranky and would rather be snuggling at home on the sofa than sitting in a high chair in a room full of strangers. When toddlers are pooped or hungry, they're much more likely to fuss.

    Try to gauge your child's mood before going out. If he's irritable or has his heart set on watching a video, takeout might be a better option. If he seems fine, consider heading for a kid-friendly place. "The first five years, we ate only in Burger King, McDonald's, and restaurants that have play areas," says Cynthia Ulrich Tobias, whose twins are now 9.

    If you're determined to spend an hour or two in a regular restaurant with your child, briefly explain the situation and your expectations: "We're going out to a restaurant, where lots of other people will be eating their own meals. You'll need to stay in your chair, play with the toys we bring, and use an indoor voice." Let him know that if he breaks any of the rules, you might have to take him out to the car to sit for a couple of minutes until he can behave.

    Take along a bag of special treats saved just for these times  -- quiet toys, coloring books and crayons, and board books. I always make sure I have some snacks and sippy cups of milk or juice so Ben doesn't have to wait for the meal. Often, I order his food the minute we sit down and ask the waiter to bring it right away.

    I also try to involve him: "Ben, can you tell the waiter whether you'd rather have chicken nuggets or grilled cheese?" I teach that napkins go in your lap and, as I move knives out of reach, explain that they're only for grown-ups. These little efforts not only help Ben learn about restaurant behavior, but they also distract him from fidgeting for a bit.

    If your child acts up, remove him quickly and without fanfare to the lobby, outside, or to your car and let him calm down. If this doesn't work  -- and inappropriate behavior is the rule, not the exception  -- consider putting family dinners out on hold for a while. Until then, get a babysitter, or a pizza.

    Let's Talk

    When my son Jackson, now 4, learned to talk, he never stopped. He knew more than 75 words by 18 months, and he used them, along with hundreds of incoherent ones, all the time.

  • Parent Thinks: I'd give anything for a few minutes of silence.

  • Toddler Thinks: Speaking is neat! There's so much to talk about, and people actually understand me sometimes!

    How to Bridge the Gap:
    Extroverted kids have a lot to say and, like all toddlers, a huge desire to learn. Your child may drag you around, saying "What's that? What's that?" or give a running commentary on her life.

    If you remind yourself that your child's not doing this to annoy you, it may be easier to tune her out sometimes.

    When you can't ignore anymore, let your child know that Mommy and Daddy need some quiet time. "Kids have to accept that their parents aren't available 24/7 to hear all their new words," Robert MacKenzie says.

    Laurie Dove, whose daughter Ashley, now 7, was a chatterbox toddler, handled it by giving her some uninterrupted time to talk. "At the end of the day, we'd sit together at the kitchen table and I'd look her right in the eyes and listen," says the Newton, Kansas, mom. Even when I didn't understand her, I'd be animated and say, 'Really? You're kidding! Wow!' About thirty minutes of that seemed to satisfy her."

    Tobias suggests playing the quiet game  -- the first one to make a noise loses. Or use a timer and tell your child you won't answer her question or listen to her until the buzzer goes off; start with five seconds, and give plenty of praise.

    As maddening as all the chatter  -- and other challenges of toddlerhood  -- may seem, try to see the positive in it all. In many cases, your child is learning valuable lessons  -- about cause and effect, how to assert herself, and how to use language, for example  -- important skills now and for years to come.

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