Surviving the Toddler Years
by Naomi Aldort
Many attachment parents call me in bewilderment when their child's
behavior or development does not meet their expectations. "I did
everything right for her!" says a young mother, "She was born
peacefully, I carried her all the time, and she is still nursing and
sleeping with us. Now that she is two years old, I am just not sure what
to expect, or how to deal with her many needs." Some parents have
specific questions about eating, sharing, cooperation and developmental
stages. Others simply aren't sure how much to limit, and how much
freedom to provide. These issues can indeed be perplexing. We have no
role models to follow, as most of us are not following in our parents'
We all love our children and want the best for them. We want to
follow our hearts, our intuition, and most of all, our children's cues.
At times, our own childhood may make it difficult for us. Even the best
and most loving parents sometimes respond to their children in a less
then loving and kind way. This often stems from past hurts being
restimulated by the child. How can we learn to care for our children in
a loving way, without the interference of our own past painful memories?
Attachment parenting is the shortest route to knowing a child's
needs, and trusting and responding to their cues is the best way to
avoid mingling our own issues with their care. Yet even then, we
sometimes miss. It is relatively easy to trust a baby: nurse,
change, burp, rock, sleep. As the little newcomer starts acquiring
physical independence, things may flow just as easily, or she may take a
direction that bewilders us, and we are not sure what to allow and what
Toddlers need our leadership. They need clear, gentle guidance as
well as our support and our "vote of confidence". The beauty
of being a leader is that the best way to lead is actually to follow.
When a young mother consulted me on how to stop her 2-year-old son
from throwing his spoon and fork on the floor after each meal, I asked
her how she was feeling about his behavior. She said she had been
grinding her teeth with anger and frustration while trying to prevent
him from developing bad table manners. But as she listened to her own
inner conversation, she was able to separate her emotional reactions
from the real needs of her child. She remembered the pain of feeling
"used" as though she was the "slave" in her family.
She recalled having to do chores she hated to do, and being scolded and
shamed when she didn't do them well enough. She also remembered the pain
inflicted on her if she acted with childlike freedom, and the inner fear
that prevented her from being fully curious and vivacious as she grew
As she realized that her negative reaction to her son's behavior was
based on her own past hurts, she could see what was really going on for
him: he wasn't exhibiting "bad table manners"; he was a young
scientist, experimenting with gravity. When she was able to see things
from her son's point of view, she could then marvel at and enjoy his
experiments as well as his other creative ideas. She could then play with
him: she picked up the silverware, handed it back, and he dropped it
again and again. They could both laugh at this, because she was going with,
and not against, his need.
Not surprisingly, the "throwing spoon and fork on the
floor" game disappeared by itself as her little boy became
interested in other things and activities. His general behavior
improved, and his mother's ability to enjoy him grew by leaps and
bounds. She learned to see her son as an individual with his own
perspective and his own motives. Every stage in a child's life is there
for a purpose. If we can respect and respond to their needs fully during
each stage of life, they can be done with that stage and move on.
My son Oliver, at age 2, was sitting in my lap to be read to. As soon
as he was done with one book, he wanted another. I kissed him and said:
"Put this book back in its place and bring whatever you want to
read". This was no difficult task, and he did so with a smile on
his face. Oliver's days are full of small and achievable tasks. Shoes
come off when we enter the house. Then they go in the entry closet. Each
toy is put away before choosing another one. Their father and I help, as
needed, to keep things joyful and accomplishable.
Sometimes the mess is too overwhelming and I end up doing much of it
by myself. My commitment to order, self-discipline, and responsibility
is being modeled with, or without, my children's participation. Watching
me clean up the food that spilled on the floor, or voluntarily helping
me with this task (at his request), are much better teaching tools for
Oliver than being coerced to do it by himself before he is truly ready
for that stage. Similarly, my gentle tone of voice, and my generosity
and kindness in responding to his needs teach him what a million words
would fail to convey.
By age 3, Oliver was asking me to clean up if food fell off the
plate. He already cared. Yet my other children did not internalize that
attitude until much later. Each child has a different built-in
time-table of development. In a relationship built upon attachment,
children internalize all the nuances of our ways of being, because they
trust us. When we are self-disciplined, they follow our lead. When they
experience our kindness and gratitude toward them, they become kind
themselves, and when they watch our cooperation with each other and with
them, they learn to cooperate.
Some people may say "No, my child doesn't seem to learn".
In answer, I can assure them that he may not have learned yet, and he
will. When he is full-size, he will be close to behaving like an adult.
He may not live up to all of his parents' expectations, instead he will
live up to his own: to grow, to fulfill himself, to belong and to
contribute. He will be uniquely himself.
A parent may have a "spirited" child, or may see her child
as "different, not like others". Each child is indeed unique.
A parent can be attached, meet a child's needs, be kind and loving, and
still have unexpected difficulties. Some children simply have an unusual
"blueprint of being". In such situations, parents may need
help to learn to recognize the needs of their child. Children
communicate in ways that are not always clear to parents. Although
learning the special language of one's child is easiest through
attachment parenting, even then we can sometimes lose sight of the
child's inner reality.
Saying "yes" most of the time builds trust and cooperation
When a child becomes demanding, whiny, or less responsive, she is
most likely feeling frustrated by unmet needs. The child's tolerance to
frustration and to "not getting her way", has a lot to do with
the degree to which she feels that life generally flows with, and
not against, her needs. We need to say "yes" to our
children's needs as much as possible, and when that is not possible, we
can still say "yes" to their feelings.
To respect and meet their needs is the best way to assure happy and
cooperative children. Play and experimentation are the "job
descriptions" of a toddler, and he needs our vote of confidence in
him. Making a sculpture out of mashed potatoes harms no one, is
low-cost, and cleanable. Running away from us at bedtime is an
invitation for play, and taking apart an old phone is a learning
adventure. Most no's can turn into yes's easily: "Yes, you like to
cut books, here is a magazine you can cut."; "I see you are
making a lake out of your juice. Here, let me move your project to the
sink."; "Yes, you love to paint on the wall, here is a big
sheet of paper." and "Yes, you can play with the phone."
(I unplugged it).
When it is painless, safe, and simple to clean, we can be leaders by
providing tools and by removing obstacles. Doing so helps the child feel
worthy and helps her to trust our leadership, guidance, and intentions.
She then responds to our leadership, not out of fear or intimidation,
but simply because she wants to respond to us as lovingly as we have
responded to her.
Providing leadership in tough moments
A three-year-old girl had a swim in Mom's arms, which she greatly
enjoyed. When she was finished with swimming, she asked to be dressed
and to play on the grass. As soon as she was out and dressed, she
started whining, "Mom, I want to go home now". Her mother told
her that it was her brother's turn to swim, and that when he was done in
5 or10 minutes, they would go home.
The little girl was adamant: "NOW!" she screamed. "I
want to go home NOW!". This mother wanted to meet the needs of both
children. She validated her daughter's feelings while touching her
gently: "You want to go home now, and we are not going yet. You are
sad and crying." The little girl asked once more to go home and met
with her mother's validation, but not with any change of plans. Once her
need for empathy was fulfilled, she stopped crying and played happily
the rest of the time.
For many parents, the story is reversed: a child does not want to
leave. The challenge is the same, however. The child wants something
that is not possible, will be at the expense of another child, is
unhealthful, or is otherwise not available. Parents may feel anxious to
supply everything the child asks for, and can experience panic in the
face of an upset or crying child. Being on our child's side does not
always mean it is possible to give them their wish. Most verbal
youngsters are able to handle the simple limits of reality as long as
we show them that we genuinely care and understand their feelings.
When will they learn to "behave"?
Parental expectations may be the greatest obstacle to a child's
development and a prime cause of difficulties. Children are doing their
absolute best to learn, to imitate our modeling, and to please us. We
can trust them and guide them based on their readiness. They have a huge
job ahead of them: becoming adults. They are in a rush and going as fast
as they possibly can. Indicating to a child a need to grow even faster,
can only lead to failure experiences and low self-esteem.
What leads most often to difficulty are the common parenting
techniques of punishment, including threats, deprivations, time-outs,
bribes, insults, shouting, scolding, inducement of guilt, and other
attempts at controlling the child. The best thing we can do as parents
to ensure that our children will grow into compassionate, communicative,
responsible, caring and considerate adults is to treat them with those
same qualities, and then trust them to model our behavior at their
Nursing on demand, holding, responding to cries, and co-sleeping form
only a part of attachment parenting. A child will speak in a gentle tone
if he hears his parents speaking kindly to him, and to others. He is
likely to keep things neat if he has experienced others' commitment to
their surroundings. He will learn to share from being shared with, and
from being respected when he is not ready to share. He will learn to say
"thank you" by receiving and observing many expressions of
gratitude. The only way to know when to expect the development of
certain behaviors is by observation of the child. In the meantime,
parents can lead not by controlling or instructing, but rather by
example and clear, gentle guidance.
Here is a "declaration of complete confidence in children":
Adult-like behavior matures by the time we are adults.
No expectations means no disappointments for us, and no damaging
pressures for our children.
Children respond best to modeling and leadership, not control.
Trust... and wait.
Choose between your momentary convenience and your long-term goal
for your child's sense of self.
Enjoy your child for who he is, not for who you would like him to
be - he will never be this age again.
Distinguish between your emotional needs and what your child
feels and needs. Act toward your child in harmony with her needs;
take care of your emotional needs elsewhere.
Celebrate your child's uniqueness as well as your own.
Reprinted and adapted with permission of the author from
"Kangaroo Kids", newsletter of Northwest Attachment Parenting,
Issue 27, Autumn 1998.