I’ve been referring to my daughter as a toddler for a while now, but a few things have happened in the last week to really hammer home the harsh reality that she isn’t a baby anymore. First, she got upset when her brother went for a play date. Not because he was leaving, but because she wasn’t invited. Second, she walked from the bottom of our street to the mall, a little over a kilometer. She is making it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to ride in the stroller anymore (yeesh)! Third, she wants to pick out her own clothing. I wasn’t ready for this. This morning I told her it was time to get dressed. She marched off to her room, opened her drawer and brought me her french fry t-shirt and said, “dressed? French fry!”
The ways in which children signal that they’re making developmental leaps will vary. Some children are eager to learn new skills and assert their toddlerhood. Some need more help and encouragement to become more independent. Watch for cues from the child, but around 18 months you can start teaching (and expecting them) to do some things by themselves. Full disclosure: this means more work for you, probably for a long time.
Communication: Talk to them All. The. Time. The more you talk to them, the more they will talk to you. Describe the objects you see around you or use in your daily routine, noting colour, size, texture or shape. “Your cereal is in the blue bowl today.” “Can you put the small block on top of the big block?” “Your sweater is so fuzzy and cozy.” “I like the stars on your shoes.” Encourage your toddler to repeat words you use and to use language when they want something. We use the phrase “use your words please” followed by a short question like “would you like some more? Say more, please.” Be ready to step in when your child takes a toy from someone else and say, “It’s not your turn right now. You may have it when they are finished.” You can also help them to say “no” or “stop” when someone tries to take something from them.
They can do it themselves: Toddlers are ready to start help to get dressed and undressed. Start small by teaching them to take off their shoes and put them away when they come inside, take off their jacket and hang it up, or put their arms in a shirt. We’re still working at taking off the shoes independently, but it only took one day for my toddler crew to learn to put their shoes on the shelf when we came in and find them when it was time to go out. At mealtimes your child should be given small utensils to eat their food. Now is also the time to wean off the sippy cups or bottles at meal times. We have started by switching to cups with a lid and spout but no vent (so they get used to the instant flow when they tip their cups) and will graduate to regular cups in a month or so. When you do give your toddler a cup, use a small one with only a small amount of milk or water and refill as needed. It will be messy, but not forever. There really isn’t any need to cry over spilled milk.
Limits and boundaries: Behaviour management at this stage is about keeping your child safe and teaching them how to live in a world with other people. Enforcing limits like not throwing sand, going up the stairs and down the slide, sitting on their bums when eating, no hitting/biting/pushing are for the safety of your child and other peoples’ children. I use an address, warning, follow through method with toddlers. Address: get town on the child’s level and address the behaviour (i.e. “We don’t throw sand.” “Biting hurts.”). Warning: let the child know what will happen if they continue the behaviour (i.e. “If you throw sand you will have to leave the sandbox.” “If you bite you will have a time out”). Follow through: make it so. Make sure you are willing to follow through on your warnings. If you aren’t really prepared to leave the park after you just arrived, don’t make that your warning. And remember, it’s okay for your toddler to get angry and feel frustrated when you say no or when follow through with a consequence. These are valid emotions that should be honoured and your toddler deserves the time and space to feel them.
Most of all, have fun with your toddler. It’s so awesome to see them making connections, building a vocabulary, making friends and learning to navigate the world. Enjoy the ride, it goes too fast!