There is little I love more than seeing my toddler hang out with kids her age. The weird things toddlers do around other toddlers are a fascinating glimpse into child development and psychology. Oh, and the sheer bizarre irrationality of small humans. Can't forget that one, folks.
Having raised one toddler and coming up on the end of raising a second, I've been able to enjoy a broad swathe of weird toddler behavior. The ages of 18 months to 3 years look different for every child, and what it looks like can change from day to day (or hour to hour... or minute to minute... because they're toddlers). For example, my son was social, sure, but he was just as likely to play independently. My daughter, on the other hand, will almost always find a buddy within moments of stepping onto the playground. My son tended to shun children his own age when given the chance and latched onto groups of older children. My daughter tends to stick with her peers. But despite these marked differences, there were some weird, distinctly behaviors that would always show up, at least from time to time and regardless of individual personalities.
If you have a toddler of your own, these will all likely be quite familiar to you. If you expect to have one any time in the near future, consider yourself warned.
They Completely Ignore Each Other
You meet someone cool and, joy of joys, they have a child your toddler's age. "Awesome!" you both think to yourselves. "Play date!" So you plan it out and get all psyched about it and tell your kid about how "our friend Billy" is going to come over and play. The day finally arrives and so does Little Billy... who promptly ignores your child and vice versa. Your child goes off to paint something, little Billy plays with blocks. Your child plays with her cars, little Billy pretends to be a chef in the play kitchen. They could not be less interested in one another. It's like when you're one of only a few people on a subway car and you're taking special care not to make eye contact.
On the one hand it is weird because it's like, "You're constantly asking me to play with you, I bring you someone who is enthusiastically interested in playing and all of a sudden you want to be by yourself? WTF?" On the other hand, I could easily see a toddler thinking, "I don't know this person, duh. You think we're going to get along just because we're the same age? WTF?"
They Instantly Become BFFs
This new child is the center of your child's galaxy, their sun and stars. It's not important that they just met 12 seconds ago, because your child now loves this kid more than you, their grandparents, all their siblings, and even, perhaps, the family pet. They sob when you can't take them home with you from the playground. They will ask how long before they can see their best friend for months and you will run out of creative ways to demure and cover up the fact that you have no idea who this child is or where they live. You question if there is something off about your kid based on their seemingly indiscriminate attachment but then you remember, no, toddlers are just bizarre.
Those damn ear piercing, soul devouring, take-your-breath-away screams. The kind of screams that you can never, ever become inured to. Why do they scream? Because there's another toddler around. Why do they feel the need to scream just because there's another toddler around? I. Don't. Know. No one knows. Scientists, philosophers, and alchemists alike have been trying to solve this mystery since the dawn of time and have yet to reach a consensus or a cure.
They Suddenly Become Shy
Even outgoing, bubbly children are not immune to social anxiety. My daughter is usually Queen of the Toddlers, but even she falls victim to a case of the shrinking violets from time to time. She'll see another toddler coming and immediately run to me and hide her face in my legs (which is super awkward now that her face is right at the level of my butt and crotch). I have not been able to figure out any rhyme or reason to who, what, or where prompts her sudden (rare) bouts of shyness to the point that I suspect there is no rhyme or reason because #toddler.
They Suddenly Become Grown-Ups
Whenever I dropped my daughter off at preschool, a friend of hers would come up to greet her. If it was one of a handful of girls, my baby would go into full-on adult mode. There was nothing toddler-ish about their interactions, either. They were simply mini-adults.
Friend: "Hi Gigi."
Daughter: "Hi Emily."
Friend: "I like your shirt."
Daughter: "Thank you. You have nice shoes."
Friend: "Thank you. Do you want to play blocks with me and we can build a house?"
Daughter: "Yes, and we can bring the babies inside it and be mommies."
It was weird. Like, they're making small talk and plans. They're observing the social niceties of complimenting one another. They're cogent and measured and who even are you and where is this grown-up behavior when I ask you to brush your teeth or eat a vegetable?
Like screaming, there is no discernible reason as to why they are doing this. They just do. They will likely cause damage to themselves (minimal) or your property (maximum). I don't think this is why they do it, yet knowing that they might never, ever stops them.
They Want A Toy They Have Literally Never Cared About Before Because Another Child Is Holding It
They haven't played with or so much as looked at the toy in question all day. Maybe they've never been especially interested in it. But as soon as another toddler puts their grubby little toddler hands on it it's not only your child's favorite thing but they convince themselves that the child in question is making nefarious plans to steal it and (probably) burn it in a fire just to spite your kid. With this idea unshakably cemented into your child's brain, howling rage and sorrow ensues.
They Become A Dictator
This can manifest in a nice way, where your toddler acts parental toward another child their age (my daughter does this with every boy her age she's ever met) or they become a little executive/task master who sets the agenda for the day that must be followed to the letter. If you're lucky, you will have a meeting of toddlers where one is happy to lead and the other to follow. Or you'll have kids who don't mind taking turns being The Decider.
But if you wind up with two kids who always want to be the boss? Cut your losses and just go.
Which is pretty cute until one of them starts crying or kicking.
They Forget You Exist
"I'm sorry but, um, who are you? Look, I don't have a problem with you or anything but, as you can see, I'm here with my friend. We're trying to have a nice time and catch up over this pretend cup of tea and, well, you're sort of in the way. So you can go sit over there... no, a little farther... farther still... the other room, maybe? Perfect. OK, great. If we need anything we'll let you know. Bye!"