As babies, our little ones need us to give generously to care for them. Our wholehearted responsiveness to their needs of all kinds creates within them a sense of trust in relationship. We respond with ‘Yes, my dear one’, as much as we are able. Babies learn that the world is a safe place, that they can ask for help, and that support will be given to them. What babies give in return is their unmediated love and presence. What a gift to us.
As babies come into toddlerhood, they come into a developmental stage of differentiating self and other. They explore their world in movement, gradually coming into a bigger world of our home and the playground. Toddlers fall – and it is OK. This is part of their learning; we can create environments that are safe for them in exploring and in falling.
Toddlerhood is a very emotional time for most little ones. It’s a big deal to realize that the beloved cannot read your mind, and is not always in agreement, and has needs that are completely outside of one’s own felt body. Toddlers also start to say no, to want things they cannot have or are not good for them to have. Since some of these things are unhealthy or dangerous (sugar, knives, running into the street), parents have to say no. Part of the developmental process for toddlers is learning that the world has limits of safety. Toddlers also gradually realize that their parents are separate human beings with needs of our own. By tending our selves as well as our child, we are teaching how to live in giving and receiving. This includes learning patience and many other emotional skills. Now we are fostering emotional intelligence in relationship. It’s a very different stage than the newborn days.
Trust comes from being guided within safe limits. A child learns to thrive within limits. These don’t have to be viewed as restrictions; but as the container for thriving. For example, a cell has a membrane that contains all of its components inside of it. The membrane acts as a filter to allow nourishment in, and to release what is not needed. This membrane boundary forms a container which the very special process of life is enabled. Healthy boundaries allow us to thrive within limits.
Each little one comes into the world with his/her personality. As parents our role is to meet them in who they are, and to foster them in both becoming an individual and in respecting & honoring others in their personhood. From toddlerhood on we are fostering independence and interdependence in community. Since every child is different, we are responding to each individually about what guidance may be needed to support each child coming into themselves, their world and the community. This role of parenting extends over years, into adolescence.
I will share a story about a close friend and her kids. I learned so much seeing her parent. She has three children, now each an adult fulfilling themselves in good relation and in their beautiful work in the world. Each of them had a very different personality. I will be using pseudonyms.
Her firstborn, Joseph, was an adventurous, high energy child. Generally he would leap before he would look. Jack climbed up the bookshelves and would be found perched on top of dressers. He would run out of the house & down the street. This was at the time when my friend was pregnant with baby #2. He was a faster runner than her in her pregnancy. Jack would dismantle clocks and mechanical devices very early on, in his curiousity to understand what was inside and see how it worked. My friend had to set very clear, strong limits with strong consequences for him to learn. She talked with me about her idea of discipline coming from the disciples of Jesus. So, discipline is very multi-dimensional.
Her second born, Robert, was a very quiet and reflective as a child. He was very obedient and followed all the rules. Robert was delayed in speech, in the saying words, the small building of vocabulary typical of toddlers. When he did begin to speak, he spoke in complete sentences. He was not a risk taker. My friend was concerned about how compliant Robert was. She found a Sesame Street book, Please don’t push the red button. Here’s a description of the book:
‘On the tape, Grover guides the listener through a series of puzzles and games, but requests rather emphatically that the listener never push the red button on the Talk ‘n Play unit (4 colored buttons). If the red button is pushed, Grover usually offers gentle corrections (“We are not pushing the red button today!”) but occasionally he becomes a bit exasperated.
But, see, this little review is written about how MOST children would interact with the book. Most toddlers & preschoolers would not be able to resist pushing the red button, since the idea of doing this is introduced on every page. Joseph would gleefully hit the red button again and again. Instead, Robert would never push the red button, following instructions by Grover. My friend sat with him, making suggestions: ‘I wonder what would happen if you pushed the red button. It’s OK to be curious. It’s OK to not always do what people tell you to do.’ The book was very well designed. Hitting the ‘right’ button’ elicited an encouraging & affirming response. Grover was patient with the rapscallions who pushed the red button. And the final page was a big hurrah. grand finale of: Hit the RED button! 🙂
My friend’s third born child is a girl, who was curious and exploratory – all around a child balanced in activity & reflection.