I know that most people think childhood is just one big party. You get to sleep a lot, watch cartoons, be carried around whenever you get tired. There are all those toys, crayons, dress up clothes.
Sounds sweet, right?
Most people I talk to think that the hardest thing about toddlers is having to take are of them.
And as an aging woman who takes of 2 or 3 toddlers every day, I understand.
But here’s what I have been thinking about lately.
It is no picnic to be a kid between the ages of 1 and 5. I get to see, up close and personal, how much stress there is on those little toddlers.
Think about this:
When you’re a little kid, you have almost no control over the world you inhabit. You can’t get your own food when you’re hungry. If one of the grownups in your life finally agrees that you can have a snack, they might hand you a string cheese when you are desperately craving a bowl of cereal.
If you aren’t yet toilet trained, you have to spend a certain amount of time every single day sitting in your own pee and poop. You can’t go outside when you want some air. You can’t have ten minutes to yourself, because the adults are afraid you’ll eat a toy or fall down the stairs. You get to lie down and get some rest only when one of those grownups decides that it’s time.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. “Why not just ask for what you want?,” you sniff.
But toddlers can’t do that. In the first place, they most often don’t have the language to express the subtleties. My little grandson, at the tender age of 2, can tell me, “Me hungry.” But he can’t say, “I’m feeling a little run down. Maybe I need some protein.” He can’t say, “I’m not actually physically hungry, but I need a little taste boost. How bout some popcorn?”
Nope. He can’t yet get past, “Me hungry. Have a cereal bar?” I might say yes, but more often I’ll say “no” because his Mom and I are trying to be careful about sugar consumption. I might offer him a cracker or an apple.
At this point, he is likely to have a bit of a meltdown. Remember, he is hungry, and has physical feelings that he can’t recognize or understand. And even if he did, he can’t articulate it.
And even if he COULD tell me, “I am craving something sweet and filling,” he doesn’t have the power to make that happen. He has to depend on me to understand him and to grant his request.
Yeesh. That never happens to adults.
So language is one huge obstacle that toddlers face every single day. But the stresses of human interactions are even harder.
If you have ever spent more than 4 minutes with a couple of toddlers, you have heard dozens of variations on “That’s not fair.”
It might happen when the kids decide to play with a bunch of trolls. “But I WANT the one with the pink hair!” will be met with “But I got the pink hair troll FIRST!!!!” As the adult in charge, you are very very likely to respond with something like, “But there are 64 trolls in the basket.” or “You need to learn to share the pink haired troll.”
I’m pretty sure that what the toddlers hear is this: “You can’t have what you want. You have to give up your dream.” The toddler, at the tender age of three, does not think “big picture”. He does not think, “I can always get the pink hair later.”
If your entire life is only 30 months long, you don’t have the same sense of time perspective that all those frowny grownups have. What happens right now is all that exists for these little guys.
It’s an incredibly frustrating thing for adult caregivers to mediate. I get it. Here’s an example of a real life experience in my house this week, when three toddlers were having a snack.
“Can I have popcorn?”
“I want popcorn, too!”
“Can I have cereal? No want popcorn.”
Nonni dishes out the snacks.
“No, I wanted the yellow bowl!”
“But I want the yellow bowl! That’s my favorite color!”
“No, it’s MY favorite color!”
“Me don’t want cereal. Want popcorn. Inna yellow bowl.”
Naturally, Nonni tried to mediate this situation, pointing out that the popcorn would taste the same no matter what color the bowl happened to be.
The kids, because they are kind and well meaning, went along with it. But once again, I think the world must have felt just a bit out of their control.
If you spend time with children in this age group, you will know that nearly every conversation includes some kind of negotiation. Every interaction includes a decision about what to play (“Want to play Elsa and Anna?} as well as who will play which role (“I am Elsa.” “No, I want to be Elsa! You are Anna!”) . Every interaction includes some sharing of materials. (“I’m using this playdoh shape!” “But I NEED that shape!”}
And you know that every ten minutes or so (if you are a very lucky caregiver), someone has to scream out loud that someone else is hitting/grabbing/yelling/ignoring/refusing/arguing/wrecking everything.
As an adult, this feels ridiculous, stupid, pointless and endlessly repetitive.
But you know what?
As a small, powerless, tender little being who spends all day trying to learn the rules, find the words, gain some control and still be loved, these interactions are the biggest thing in life.
I have one example to share with you from my day today.
My grandson, only two years and 5 months old, played all morning with a four year old friend. They argued, screamed, played, laughed, fought, argued and yelled.
The friend went off to preschool, and my four year old granddaughter came home. Now my little guy was put in the position of negotiating with a whole new big kid. A big kid with different ideas, different needs and different words than the one who had been here all morning.
At one point, my grandson argued with his sister and ended up scratching her. She shrieked. I approached. I told him that he couldn’t hurt anyone, and I told him to go to the “time out” chair.
Now, this wasn’t his first trip to the chair, and he usually sits quietly for one minute and expresses his remorse.
This time, though, little Johnny burst into tears and collapsed onto the floor. He was sobbing, so I went to him. He leaned his forehead against mine, and put his arms around my neck. Through his tears, he whispered, “How bout if you just rock me instead, Nonni? Me so so tired.”
So I did.
And it made me think about the long, stressful day that this sweet little boy had put in up to that point.
All I could think was that toddlerhood is a pretty tough row to hoe.
It ain’t for sissies, that’s for sure.