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The Secret to Your Crazy, Adorable Toddler

We were lolling about in a kiddie pool when my 19-month-old daughter, Claire, staggered out of the water and moved quickly toward the deep end of the big pool. Barely acquainted with the physics of solids and liquids, she didn't pause to consider the difference between the gray concrete walkway and the shimmering blue water. Lurching forward, she plunged. A half step behind, I jumped in, lifted her to the surface, and wondered: What on earth was she thinking?

I still don't know. The toddler brain is a magnificent specimen -- one day convincing its young owner that the shadows on the pool are fish, the next day sending the message that a 20-pound girl in a diaper can actually swim like one. Ideas are embraced and rejected at a dizzying rate; moods shift dramatically. It's like living with a very short, very opinionated Hollywood producer.

Toddlers are adorable, so we cut them a lot of slack. Still, all this flirting with staircases, hot toaster ovens, and the word "now" can be tough on both them and us. It's not that toddlers are trying to exasperate their parents; at this age, their abilities simply haven't kept pace with their ambitions. Between birth and 36 months, their brains crank out cells to develop memory, coordination, and self-control. Until it all falls into place, those skills and traits just aren't available on demand.

Understanding what toddlers don't know can give you a bit more patience the next time your toddler decides that as an artist, he simply must scribble on the kitchen cabinets. Here, the limits of a toddler's knowledge in four key areas:

The Physical World

Toddlers are eager learners, but it's difficult for them to grasp such abstract physical concepts as the distance to the store, the idea that water makes the floor slippery, and the fact that leaning back in a chair may tip it over. For Bailey Lipset, 2, of Sands Point, New York, the idea that she can't reach out to hug a tugboat on the ocean is hard to wrap her mind around: If she can see the tugboat and cover it with her hand, why can't she touch it? Several times now, Bailey's mom, Beth, has broken the news that cuddling with the tugboat isn't possible. While Bailey takes the news stoically, the next day she's back at it.

Bailey's exhaustive amount of trial and error stems in part from the fact that at 12 months, a toddler's short-term memory typically extends back about a day. While recall increases by the time toddlers reach 36 months, long-term memory -- stuff that happened, say, three weeks ago -- remains wildly inconsistent and incomplete. And even if they could remember what happened the last time they pinched the cat, their motor skills are constantly changing: Maybe this month they mastered the art of the gentle pinch.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that the ability to pretend kicks in anywhere from 14 to 24 months. Combine this with a lack of understanding of cause and effect and suddenly almost anything seems sort of possible. What a leap off the bed! What a crash on the floor! What a look of genuine surprise on the toddler's face!

"She has an image of herself as older than she is and of being able to do more," Jennifer Grosman, Ph.D., of Washington, DC, says of her daughter, Hannah, 2. So when she watched a 7-year-old gymnast perform flips, Hannah immediately wanted to flip too. "Her thinking is very aspirational," says Grosman, putting a gentle spin on her daughter's lack of reason. "Occasionally, that will end up in frustration," and Hannah will rage and whine.

Delaying Gratification

Waiting isn't easy for any of us, but it can be excruciating for an 18-month-old, whose centers of emotional control -- the frontal brain lobes -- are just developing. Kate McFadden of Los Angeles was driving with her daughter, Olivia, 2, when they had this conversation:

Olivia: "I'm thirsty."

Mom: "I don't have any water."

Olivia: "I'm thirsty."

Mom: "I don't have any water."

And so on.

The dialogue was, from Olivia's point of view, almost existential in its implications: Where does a water bottle come from? Why can't it just appear in Mom's bag? Why do I have to wait for what I want? From McFadden's perspective, the dialogue was merely frustrating.

Next time, she might be able to redirect her daughter's chanting requests. While toddlers have biology working against them, distracting them can make waiting easier. Toss her a different toy, whip out a book, turn on the radio -- anything to get her mind off her inability to understand why she can't have exactly what she wants when she wants it.

Imposing consequences won't work until most toddlers are at least 2 ½. "Although you've told them a hundred times not to write on the wall with a crayon, they don't have the control to inhibit themselves," says Claire Lerner, a mom of two and a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit devoted to the promotion of healthy development in the early years. They'll stop coloring the moment you say no, she says, but when the urge strikes again -- and you know it will -- they don't have the brain development they need to override it. (That doesn't mean you shouldn't say no. Just expect to say it again and again.)

Developing consistent self-control takes a long time -- in fact, the frontal lobes will continue to mature through adolescence. For a 2- or 3-year-old, you can try talking to him about why waiting might be worthwhile (without, of course, expecting results): "If we save the chocolate-chip cookies until Aunt Kate comes, you can have a tea party with her!" When he's able to keep himself from grabbing the cookies, praise him. At this age, he won't be able to reliably control his impulses, but you've started to teach him that doing so is valuable.

And time is on your side. When a friend produced a lollipop for Tucker Ezrine, 2, and told him to put it in his pocket until after lunch, he started screaming, recalls his mom, Kimberly, who lives in Chicago. But the change in Tucker from 24 to 27 months has been huge. "We'll put the lollipop in a pocket and say, 'As soon as you eat lunch, you can have it,' and he'll be fine," says Ezrine.

His patience seems to be improving at the same rate as his ability to talk and understand. "It's different now that he understands the words 'before' and 'after,'" says Ezrine.

Spatial Relationships

Tripping on their own feet, walking into walls, getting fingers stuck in the VCR: Toddlers are pretty fuzzy when it comes to spatial relations. Much of this fuzziness occurs because motor pathways in the brain and spinal cord haven't yet matured -- the head doesn't always know what the feet are doing. Until neural pathways develop enough to allow information to flow quickly -- and muscles become strong -- toddlers have no choice but to lurch around. Typically, their coordination and timing start to improve between 18 and 24 months.

While they're navigating across the carpet, they're also trying to make sense of three-dimensional space. That's why they need to drive their toy minivan into the edge of the couch over and over: They have to keep testing whether the minivan is taller than the opening under the couch. Repetition strengthens neural connections, letting toddlers eventually figure out what's taller and smaller and what's in back and in front.

As toddlers grow from 12 months to 24 months to nearly 36 months, they become quite skilled at focusing on a single object or thought. But most of the time, they can't think about two ideas at once. Getting to a cupcake or a new truck is so completely absorbing that other essential information, such as how to walk down the stairs, is blocked out.

"When a fifteen-month-old is paying attention to going down the stairs, watching where she's going, putting one foot down and bringing the other foot to meet it, she can climb down," says Kathy Fitzgerald, a mom of one girl and director of the Child Development Laboratories at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "But a half hour later, she might just walk into the air. If what she's thinking about is her sister with a toy she wants down at the bottom of the stairs, the stairs are of no importance," says Fitzgerald.

Among the leading distractions is getting attention from Mom or Dad. Jennifer Davis-Kay of Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, often sees her son, Will, 2, chase his sister around the house, shrieking for his mom to watch him in action. "He'll run, gleefully looking over his shoulder to see if I'm watching," she says, "and bump smack-dab into the doorjamb."


Toddlers 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.