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Crazy Toddler Milestones

Michal Horevaj

One evening when my younger daughter, Genie, was 2, I walked into my bedroom to find her frowning at a twenty-dollar bill on my dresser. “He ugly!” she said, holding it up. Yeah, one can kind of see how Andrew Jackson's caterpillar eyebrows might not do it for the preschool crowd. I chuckled and left the room for a minute, but I wasn't laughing when I walked back in to find Genie proudly tearing Andrew into confetti-size pieces. “What are you doing? That's twenty bucks!” I shouted as she burst into tears. I quickly apologized (after all, she didn't know from money, and I'd left her with it) and taped it back up. My husband told me I could probably exchange it at the bank. But six years later, it's still in my dresser drawer—a reminder that my children will periodically behave in ways that throw me a curveball, and that I've got to take the small stuff in stride.

Actually, it wasn't small stuff at all, says David Hill, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Dad to Dad: Parenting Like a Pro. “Genie was demonstrating fantastic hand control—something I look for in small kids during their checkups,” he says. “Sometimes a very young child will come into my office and even before I've walked into the room, he's destroyed the tissue paper on the table he's sitting on. His mother will start to apologize, and I'll say, ‘Oh no, that's terrific, he's just saved me the developmental part of the exam!’” Which just goes to show you, for every milestone and leap forward we watch for, applaud, and photograph, there are plenty of others that come disguised as less-than-scrapbook-worthy moments. Here, the bright side of some otherwise annoying behaviors.Imitation Frustration

From the moment you bring your baby home, your house can feel like a zoo. But never more than when your child's first birthday nears and you begin to think you're raising a parrot. Your little one may start imitating your tone of voice as you talk, making low hums when your own voice is low or high-pitched yelps when you're excited. And just wait till she can speak and starts mimicking all your catchphrases. “My three-year-old, Arya, will say, ‘That is gorrrrrrrgeous,’ drawing it out just like I do,” says Rebecca Bernard Aguiar of Inglewood, CA. In St. Louis, Andrea Goodson squirms when strangers approach her 3-year-old twins, Alayna and Josslyn, at the supermarket: “The girls imitate people they don't even know!”

The Upside to the Upset: Your mini-mimic is doing what she needs to in order to learn how to speak, says Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who maintains a website,, and is the author of Why Do Kids Act That Way? “She's tracking your every word in an effort to acquire language. Naturally, she practices by imitating what you and others do, which can be hideously enlightening.” That's how Lisa McNoughton of Las Vegas feels when her 2-year-old, Kaitlyn, talks on her toy phone just like Mommy. “It's totally hysterical…until a curse slips out,” she sighs.

How to go with the Flow: Well, first of all, stop cursing around your child if you do! Otherwise, don't try to muffle your little echo at home now that you know how important this behavior is. But it's OK to explain to your 2- or 3-year-old, if he starts imitating friends or strangers, that “people don't like it when you copy them.” Hopefully, he'll tone it down (or you'll be stuck haunting the grocery store at midnight so you don't meet strangers. Hey, no checkout lines!).Paint and Suffering

When you're little and stumble across a crayon, your inner artist comes out—onto your clothes, Mom's loveseat, and wherever else you can make a scribble. “She's our little Michelangelo,” says Cathy Judkins of St. Louis about her 3-year-old, Anna. “When she was one, she made big circles on our bedroom wall with a permanent marker. These days, she loves drawing rings on her fingers.”

The Upside to the Upset: Chalk up the chaos to enhanced fine motor skills, a grip that's growing stronger, and a desire to make her mark, says Dr. Hill. “And to your child, paper may be white and blank, but a wall is, too—she may not know the difference yet.” Stuff like jewelry-drawing on one's body shows a big imagination, he adds.

How to go with the Flow: Channel that creativity. Set up an art station in a corner of the playroom with some kid-friendly paper and coloring tools, or spread a few sheets out on the kitchen floor and let your child do his thing. And pick your battles: “We've decided we don't mind the body jewelry,” says Judkins. “We only give Anna washable markers, so the rings only last till her next bath.”Paper Capers

You've got a toddler. You've got toilet paper (we sure hope). Guess who's about to be on a roll? “Until recently, our house looked like we made a lot of teenagers mad, because it was in a constant state of TP,” says Jill Eastman of Fort Worth, TX. The stuff's irresistible to wee ones, who'll unravel it every chance they get. And tissues? Prepare yourself for some truly out-of-the-box moments. “I recently asked my nineteen-month-old, Khloe, to take a box of Kleenex to her daddy, then I went about my business,” shares mom Aleshia Green of Wilmington, NC. “A little while later, my husband walked over to me. There was our little girl on the floor, surrounded by a pile of pink tissues. I laughed and let her play with them. But when I went to put them back, I realized I'd have to throw everything out because there were boogers on some and I wasn't sure which ones she'd wiped her face on. It was cute but a bit frustrating.” We get it—it was a brand-new box!

The Upside to the Upset: What your kid's actions signify—besides that you've got a world-class mess-maker on your hands—is that her fine motor skills are evolving nicely. She can now grasp even light, thin objects. “Playing with toilet paper and tissues is very common for kids from around six months to two years of age. They're looking for repetitive ways to practice using their hands precisely,” explains Dr. Hill.

How to go with the Flow: Dr. Hill recommends keeping the bathroom door closed due to the many hazards inside. Even better: Add a door-handle safety cover, which your intrepid explorer won't be able to turn. As for the tissues, let 'em fly. To minimize the mess, give your child a box with only about a dozen tissues in them.Fashion Faux Pas

Aww, David Perrault, 4, looks so cute in his Halloween shirt! And if you're David, there's no finer day to wear it than Easter Sunday…or the Monday after Easter Sunday…or the Tuesday after the Monday. “He's obsessed,” says his mom, Julie. David's twin sister, Cate, is at the other extreme. “She insists on changing her outfits about four times a day!” says Perrault.

The Upside to the Upset: Whichever clothing quirk your kid has, it's a sign that's she's becoming confident in her ability to pull together a sharp-lookin' set of threads, says Adiaha Franklin, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. “Children this age are thrilled to be able to exercise their power of choice,” she explains.

How to go with the Flow: Establish boundaries. Perrault told David he had to wear his Easter outfit for their formal celebration in the morning but could change to his Halloween shirt later in the day. To reduce the mess of a clothes-changer like Cate, set up a basket where she can put her cast-off but clean duds. That way, you'll know what can be reworn without washing—which may help to keep you from totally unraveling.Seeing red?
And a few other colors? How to handle scribbling gone wild:

1. Put pens, permanent markers, and other grown-up writing and painting tools out of reach.

2. Gently guide your child to a brief time-out and explain where he went wrong.

3. Buy washable markers. (And take a picture to laugh over later!)

Clothes calls
Is your child hooked on a favorite outfit?

1. Consider buying multiples of the item, if you can, to cut down on laundry and premature wear.

2. Remind yourself how confident those threads make her—is variety so important?

3. If you really need her to wear something else to an event, give her the heads-up so she isn't shocked and stubborn.