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What Makes a Toddler Tick

Toddlers are moody, and that often rubs off on the people taking care of them. When Benjamin, my 17-month-old, wraps his arms around my neck and plants a slobbery, open-mouthed kiss on my cheek, my heart melts. When he flings his body to the ground and wails inconsolably because I won't let him play with a bottle of vitamins, my blood boils.

I'm often surprised, and confused, by his behavior, but it wasn't until I spent an entire day jotting down every mysterious, aggravating, and delightful move my little boy made that I seriously started to ask myself, What's making him do what he does? Luckily I had access to several child-development experts who helped clear things up.

6:30 a.m. I hear Benjamin happily babbling away in his crib. I peek into his room and see that he's sitting up, carrying on a one-sided conversation with several of his beloved pacifiers as he places them in different positions, like they're action figures. Since he's happily engaged, I go back to bed.
"It's satisfying for him to hear his own voice -- and less frustrating than trying to talk to humans, who for the most part can't figure out what he's trying to say," says Heidi Murkoff, coauthor of What to Expect the Toddler Years and a Parenting contributing editor.

7:00 a.m. I drag myself out of bed when Benjamin begins to whine. He practically leaps into my arms, he's so thrilled to see me -- until I break the bad news: It's diaper time. He thrashes around as I wrestle him onto the changing table, but as soon as I say, "Mommy's hungry! Does Benjamin have a snack for me?" his cries turn into gleeful squeals. He extends his arm up, my "snack" held between his pinched thumb and forefinger. "Yum!" I say. "Can I have some more?" He gladly obliges.

"The last thing an active toddler wants to do is lie down for a diaper change," explains Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy development in the early years. Using humor, she says, is a great way to get toddlers to cooperate, and it has the added benefit of stimulating their budding imaginations. "When my daughter, Jessica, would make a huge mess, all I had to do was take her favorite stuffed animal and say, 'Pongo is sad because he can't find his favorite toy. Let's put all these things back on the shelf so he can find it.'"

Jana Siegal Banin is a freelance writer in New York City.

The morning rush

7:30 a.m. Benjamin is dressed and in his high chair. When I ask him if he wants a waffle, he belts out this hilarious, high-pitched fake laugh, followed by a "yah." As soon as he shoves the first bite into his mouth, though, his expression changes from elated to disgusted, and the unchewed food rolls out of his mouth. I offer him more, prompting him to wave his arms violently back and forth in protest. Okay, okay, I get the point! But what happened? Last week he loved waffles...
"Resisting a parent is a toddler's way of establishing autonomy. For the first time in his short life, he's his own little person. He's carving out an identity for himself -- one rejected waffle at a time," Murkoff says. Also, she says, toddlers are ruled by whims. He may have enthusiastically agreed to a waffle five minutes ago, but that's no guarantee he'll still want it now. "There's also the possibility that he wasn't really agreeing to it -- he was just caught up in the excitement of the moment."

So pressuring Benjamin to try the waffle again probably wasn't such a great idea. Why make the high chair a war zone? "Let him choose what he wants to eat, as long as he's presented with appropriately nutritious options," suggests Murkoff. "But once he's chosen, it's best to let him live with his choice. Resist opening a short-order kitchen."

7:45 a.m. "Bye-bye, Benjamin. Daddy's going to work now, but I'll see you soon," my husband says. Oblivious, Benjamin pushes pieces of dry cereal around on his high-chair tray. "Tell Daddy goodbye," I say. Nothing. Strange  -- weekday mornings are the only times he doesn't acknowledge his dad. Call me crazy, but it seems as if he's deliberately ignoring him.
"It's possible," says Lerner. Comings and goings are especially hard on toddlers because they're out of their control. She recommends instituting a goodbye ritual, such as Daddy kissing Benjamin on both cheeks or starting an activity together, like a drawing, that they can finish when he gets home.
Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, adds that rituals are essential to toddlers. "They give kids a sense of security because they know what's coming next," she explains.

8:10 a.m. Benjamin is engaged in his favorite activity (for this week, anyway): pulling every single book from his bookshelf. He holds up and thoughtfully examines each one before chucking it to the floor. When the shelf is cleared, he shifts his focus to a farm-animal puzzle. He removes the cow and carefully places it on top of the books. Then he reaches into the pile and fishes out a book with a cow on the cover. He walks over, thrusting the book at me. "Go, go," he says, his way of asking me to read it. "What a funny coincidence," I think to myself, certain that the cow theme must be a fluke.
"Toddlers are just learning about cause and effect, and it's fascinating stuff," Murkoff says. "So it's exhilarating to cause such a large effect as emptying a bookshelf."
She also says that I needn't doubt Benjamin's cow connection. "We rarely give those little minds credit for what they're capable of," she says. "I remember when my daughter, Emma, was just ten months old, she started screaming 'Ga-Ga!' -- her word for Daddy -- as we passed a bookstore. I couldn't imagine what she'd seen that reminded her of him, until I noticed a book that he'd been reading recently displayed in the window."

8:30 a.m. Benjamin has moved on to his musical instruments, so I figure it's a good time to pick up the books. When he sees what I'm doing, he freezes, tambourine in hand, and patiently watches me. When the last book is in place, he toddles over and starts tearing them down all over again. Oh, well -- at least one of us is satisfied.

9:20 a.m. We're at the grocery store, and I've mistakenly parked the shopping cart -- which Benjamin is sitting in -- too close to the crackers. He takes a swipe at a stack of boxes, nearly knocking it over. Crying and flailing ensue when I move him over a few inches, so I duck behind the cart for a game of peekaboo. The distraction works -- I'm received by adorable giggles. You'd think it would become less funny the next ten times I repeat the act, but, no, Benjamin finds it increasingly hilarious. The minute I stop he starts to fuss. "I am not a performing seal," I remind myself. But I'm not above bribery -- out come the trusty Cheerios, which keep him happy for the rest of the trip.

10:35 a.m. Benjamin occupies himself with an empty seltzer bottle -- standing it up, flipping it over, placing it on a chair  -- while I unpack the groceries. Then it's back to the bookshelf. At least he actually wants to read this time! He hands me Goodnight Moon, his latest favorite. Not only does he like to read it ten times in a row, but I'm not allowed to skip the title page, which he usually kisses. Soon he starts rubbing his eyes. I pick him up and ask him if he wants to see his pacis. He practically leaps into the crib, where he plays with them for a few minutes before peacefully passing out.

Afternoon delight

1:15 p.m. After a two-hour nap Benjamin is groggy and cranky. As soon as I utter the magic words "chicken nuggets" he snaps out of it. He's so pleased he literally starts drooling. I offer him peas and apple slices as well, but since they're not brown (the only color of food Benjamin will tolerate these days), they end up on the floor.
I've been worried about Benjamin's color-coded pickiness, but apparently it's typical. "Toddlers get enormous comfort from things being the same," says Murkoff. And while it's okay to let him stick with brown, she says, I might continue to offer other foods as well. "It takes children an average of fourteen times before they'll accept a new food, so don't give up."

1:50 p.m. "Ba!" Benjamin exclaims when he discovers a bouncy ball with a picture of Elmo on it in his toy basket. He picks it up and places it on a chair, then watches it roll off. Up and down, up and down, up and down. It looks like he's forgotten I'm in the room, so I take advantage and sneak over to the sofa with yesterday's newspaper. But as soon as he hears the pages rustle, he realizes I'm not there. I'm busted. "Maaamaaa," he whines as he scurries over to tug on my arm. I lower myself onto the floor. "Bye-bye, newspaper..."
"For a seventeen-month-old, even the slightest separation means you might go away," Lerner says. She suggests bringing the paper over to the sofa while continuing to talk to him. If that works, I can then try moving to another room. "The key is to stay connected to him while also helping him see that he can entertain himself."

2:30 p.m. Time for our playdate. "Ca ca!" Benjamin gasps, looking up from his puzzle when his pal Callan, a week older, arrives with his mom. Benjamin races over to his friend and gently pokes him in the chest, as if to make sure Callan's not just a figment of his imagination. They check each other out for about ten seconds before completely ignoring one another for the next hour.
"Toddlers are by nature egocentric, which doesn't make them ideal playmates," Murkoff says. "That's normal and age-appropriate -- they have to learn and care about themselves before they can learn and care about others. That's why they tend to parallel-play, rather than play together. Interaction is often limited to occasional shoving or biting." Luckily there's none of that today!

4:00 p.m. Benjamin looks up at me all doe-eyed, hoping I'll comment on his stacking-cup tower. "Very nice," I say. Seconds later an accidental bump of his foot sends the whole thing crashing down, making him wail. "You can rebuild it, Munchkie," I say. "Start by putting this cup here. ¿" As quickly as it hit, his tantrum subsides.
"At this age toddlers aren't always capable of doing what they want, which leads to great frustration," Klein explains. The important thing, she says, is to try to help him through his feelings instead of stacking the cups for him. "That will take away his thrill of success."

4:45 p.m. Benjamin's wildly ecstatic babbling doesn't contain one coherent syllable, but I know exactly what he's trying to tell me. Rough translation: "Why, yes, Mommy, I'd just lo-o-o-ove to watch a DVD. How did you guess? You've made my day!"
Today's feature film is about body parts. When the segment on mouths plays, he touches his lips, and when they get to eyes, he says "ice." Wow, a new word -- I'm impressed! But then he continues to say "ice" throughout the rest of the show, even when it's time for feet and noses, so it's hard to tell whether he really knows what he's talking about.
Klein says that while Benjamin was most likely saying "eyes," that's probably his world for all body parts right now. "Toddlers overgeneralize -- that's how they learn language," she says. "It's the same way that, for some toddlers, 'baba' for bottle becomes the word for all food." Plus, for a novice communicator, every new word learned is thrilling and fun to practice over and over.

The evening wind-down

5:30 p.m. He's back in the high chair for supper. I try to sneak a piece of a broccoli nugget -- which looks almost identical to the chicken variety -- onto the tray, but Benjamin is not about to be fooled by a healthy imposter. He barely glances at it before tossing it to the floor. He then grabs his sippy cup and takes what I think is a long, satisfying gulp. Then I see a mischievous smile forming behind the straw and water gushes out of his mouth. Part of me wants to laugh, but at the same time, I don't want to encourage him.

6:00 p.m. When the front door opens, Benjamin rushes over to his dad, beaming and yelping "da da da da." He stretches his arms out to Moshe, who picks him up and swings him around.

6:30 p.m. Judging from the belly laughs coming from the bathroom, bathtime with Daddy might actually trump an Elmo's World marathon. I walk in, holding Benjamin's fluffy yellow towel, but he's too busy decorating the tub with a soap crayon to pay attention to me. "Does Benjamin want to brush his teeth?" I ask. He drops the crayon and starts laughing hysterically, psyched to gnaw on his toothbrush.

7:00 p.m. Pajamas are on, classical music is playing softly, and Benjamin is cuddled up in my lap with a small stack of books. After a few stories and many good-night kisses from Moshe and me, it's time for Benjamin to go to bed. He plops his face on to one of his pacifiers and grabs hold of two more, one in each hand, just like he does every single night.

Another heart-melting moment! I guess toddlers aren't the only ones who love predictability.