With Toddlers, Sometimes Less is More

The toddler years are a time of clashes and conflicts. Flaring tempers, red faces, and streaming tears are common — for parents as well as their children.

Frequently, parenting a toddler can feel like a battle between two powerful forces, which, in a way, it is. What parents want and what children need often seem to be in direct opposition to each other.

Your goals as a parent are to keep your child safe, to help him develop self-control, and to teach him your values. But as a toddler, your child’s goals are to learn the rules of the social world, to grow and explore, and to work toward independence.

Children begin to make headway toward their goals long before they start school. These are lessons they must learn for themselves through experience. Parenting that works against children’s natural and healthy desire for autonomy can hinder development and lead to long-term problems with behavioral and social well-being.

As your infant becomes a toddler, it may feel as though your job description has completely changed. Just when you were adjusting to the challenges of caring for a baby, you’re suddenly saddled with an entirely new set of duties and responsibilities.

The adjustment can be made easier if you take the time to understand what’s really going on during these battles over candy, cartoons and car seats.

Children learn from conflict.

One of the most common themes in recent research on early childhood development is that traditional academic learning — reading, writing, math — is only part of what a child needs to ensure a strong foundation for the future. The other part consists of social and emotional skills. Resources such as patience, empathy, self-control, self-confidence and persistence need to be cultivated in early childhood.

Those toddler battles that always seem to erupt at the most inconvenient times are actually crucial learning experiences. Children need to develop a sense of empowerment; they also need to learn the limits of that power. It’s how they learn to navigate the social environment successfully.

During infancy, children need endless love and affection, and they thrive when they understand that our presence and support is a constant. But somewhere around age two, things begin to change, and what children need is greater independence.

Toddlers have reached a point in development when they need the freedom to try and fail at some things without our constant intervention. They need real challenges where success doesn’t come easily.

Toddlers need real challenge where success doesn't come easily!​ Tweet this

No, Daddy. I do it.

The hands-off approach can be tough, even heart-breaking for some. Effective parenting gets harder, because the strategies that lead to the best outcomes for our children can seem counter-intuitive. When your toddler falls and gets a scrape, you’re likely to want to rush over to him, scoop him up and take the pain away with love.

But think of other moments in this stage of childhood. Your child is determined to climb into her highchair by herself, and though she struggles at first, the victory she feels when she makes it is obvious.

Moments like these build pride, confidence, and the other social and emotional skills children need to prepare them for future success. Remember that some skills may take considerable time and effort to master. At this stage, the learning process is more important than mastery. Try not to intervene unless your child becomes genuinely distressed.

What drives children to attempt new and difficult challenges? Although they may look for parents’ approval when they succeed, current science says it’s less about impressing parents and more about testing their own capabilities.

The same applies to toddlers’ frequent oppositional behavior. To deal with these conflicts calmly and constructively, parents must remember that their child is not motivated by the desire to be difficult, but rather by the desire to learn.

Support plus autonomy equals success.

As they grow and develop, what our children need from us changes, and it happens earlier than we like to believe. We often want to continue to protect them from every momentary unpleasantness, but in many cases that’s exactly what they don’t need.

Beginning in the toddler years, they need us to take a step back, giving them room to grow into their new roles. We need to begin to do so from the moment they show us they are ready. Of course they still need to know that our love is unconditional and our support is always available. But they also need to learn from mistakes, to win and lose some battles on their own, and yes, even to express themselves with the occasional tantrum.