NYMP Q&A: Breaking the Toddler Code

Child psychologist and parenting expert Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., gives insight to toddlers and how they thrive by giving us a toddler's view of the world, as well as tips for calming a public tantrum.

toddler girl with attitudeLet her get bored! Who cares if he never finishes dinner? And who says he has to share his toys, anyway? A refreshing new look at the terrible 2s aims to convince us that a hands-off attitude is not only key to your sanity, but also the seed of your child’s future success.

The way that parents interact with their kids from ages 2-5 has a permanent impact on who those children become later in life. Scared yet? In How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., a Manhattan-based child psychologist and parenting expert who has spent more than 20 years working with toddlers, gives us a unique perspective of the world as seen through the eyes of small children. Her easy-to-read “toddler manual” explains why letting a child be a child is the best way to instill self-confidence, resilience, and compassion that last a lifetime.

You write that we need to set a strong foundation during the toddler years in order to avoid “consequences that are seen for years to come.”
What most of us say we want for our kids is for them to be able to handle life, to be compassionate beings, to problem-solve, and to be motivated. If kids can’t trust themselves, then it’s very hard for them to put those pieces together. The roots of self-regulation are laid down in these early years, and to overlook that could mean a child grows up feeling insecure, afraid to try new things, and not being understood.

Are some parents more intuitive about “cracking the toddler code”?
There’s definitely a range. Anyone with more than one child knows that there is more than one way to interact. The second child can teach you so much if he’s different from the first. Some parents come to it more naturally. Some say, “I loved having a baby, but having a toddler is hard.” For others, the opposite is true. It depends who the parent is. And ultimately, our children teach us.

You recommend that parents rethink the food battle: Mealtimes are about chatting and coming together as a family, not about eating.
In many cultures, food is nurture, food is love, but it’s also a way of saying “I’m a good parent. My child eats well.” Well, unless your child has a rare medical condition, he won’t starve. Most kids have a control place—like sleeping, food, or clothing—and there are very few places where a kid can get control! But food can be a battleground. For toddlers, it’s a battle of independence. They decide they’re in control. The less the parents make it into a control battle...the easier it is for everyone. Kids will learn to eat what they need, but only if the parents stop interfering.

Any advice about every parent’s nightmare: the epic public tantrum?
If it’s somewhere like a grocery store, leave immediately, even if you have to abandon your shopping cart. All your child needs at this point is calm. She cannot listen or be rational, so do not make demands of her. She needs to hear “It’s okay, I’ll be here when you come down out of this.” It’s frightening for your child, too. She is literally beyond control, and counting on you to keep her safe. I always remind parents, “this too shall pass,” but it’s also important to look back and work out why your child has fallen apart to that point. Was she overwhelmed? Tired? Over-stimulated? Disappointed? This is a very little person!

You talk about the idea of letting the child be selfish, that generosity and sharing will come later. How can we possibly abandon correcting our poor-mannered kids?
Parents always tell me, “It’s embarrassing when my child doesn’t follow social norms.” I say, “Get over it. It’s not about you.” At ages 2 and 3, kids are just figuring out who they are. It is a very selfish time. We all want our kids to be kind human beings—but first, their sense of themselves as their own person has to develop. If we force them to share before they are ready, we are asking them to give up a piece of what they need. The media is very black and white on these nuanced concepts, but parents need to understand that toddlers are just going through an antisocial phase.

How do you feel about tablets and other technology for toddlers?
There is no question that kids learn through interaction in an environment with three dimensions. The brain develops by using all the senses. But one of my biggest concerns with technology is that it takes the parent away from the child. Young kids’ interactions are very “in the moment.” If they look up and Daddy is busy texting, the child feels neglected. Kids need that human interaction. Our kids are counting on us so much. We need to have a zone where our kids are number-one. Right now there’s no boundary.
(Get the low-down on children's ability to learn from learning-oriented entertainment.)

Are there any toddler traits that you wish we didn’t grow out of?
Oh, definitely! I envy a toddler’s wonder and curiosity, his lack of cynicism, his joy, his ability to embrace the moment. Toddlers truly do find joy in very small moments. They don’t see mistakes as mistakes—a setback isn’t necessarily wrong, or bad. And they can still think outside the box! They come up with new and innovative ways to do things. Toddlers really do have the ability to go into something open-minded.

What can you say to parents who are still struggling with the simple yet vital message that no single interaction makes a child who he or she is?

In this parenting climate there is so much pressure on parents that they can end up believing, “Every move I make is the most important moment in my child’s life!!” But in reality, kids are forgiving. What kids are actually taking back from these moments—good and bad—is a message of “I am loved, I am cared for, Mom and Dad are there for me. I can count on them.” And that comes from a relationship that does and sometimes does not go smoothly. Bad moments teach kids that it’s not about perfection: “Hey, even Mommy can do it wrong!” It’s in those very moments where we think we’ve done the worst job that the broader picture should emerge—that our kids are thriving in a relationship, not just one interaction.

Lucy Bayly is a New York-based writer, editor, and mother of two young boys. She lives amongst a rapidly expanding pile of rainbow bracelets and Lego police vehicles.

Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is a mom of three boys, a child psychologist, and the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, the Manhattan-based laboratory at the forefront of researching toddler behavior and development.