There's a grocery store in my neighborhood that features something I used to love until I had a toddler in tow: bulk bins. Rows and rows of loose food, much of which is easily reached by curious little hands. I talk him through the "store routine" ("First we pick, then we pay, then we eat!") every time, but I also prepare for and expect a meltdown. Thankfully, fellow shoppers are usually sympathetic, but there's always that one person who glares at us and shakes her head. I just roll my eyes and turn back to my kid. Expecting a twenty-month-old to handle that kind of temptation is a clear sign my kid’s not being a brat, she just forgot what a toddler is like.
My son has lived on earth for less than two years. There's no way to reasonably expect him to get abstract concepts like money and private ownership, yet that's exactly what he'd have to understand in order to get why he can't just stick his hand inside the bulk bins and take food that's right in front of him. Frankly, from a biological perspective, the situation we're in at the grocery store is stupid: here is food, available in abundance. Everything in our bodies tells us to eat food whenever we find it because not that long ago in our evolutionary history, we wouldn't necessarily be guaranteed to find more. The only reason we don't, as grown-ups, is because we know it's socially frowned upon. Given that, of course he's mad that I'm telling him he can't have something that he can reach and has successfully eaten before. The radical in me agrees with him 100 percent, but I'm also familiar with social concepts like "stealing" and "police intervention," and I'm not going to put us in unnecessary danger over 70 cents worth of dried cherries. So I try to teach him the rules, I stop him when he breaks them, and I cuddle his wailing body until we get to the checkout lane.
Toddlers are challenging, no doubt. But the fact is, hundreds of times a day, grown-ups put toddlers into situations they don't understand and that make no inherent sense unless you've experienced them over and over again for years, like we have by the time we reach adulthood. Then we get mad at them for not knowing things we really have no reason to expect them to know, which is honestly kinda sh*tty on our part. The next time you're about to call a toddler a brat, whether it's my toddler or anyone else's, please check yourself. Sometimes, they're being bratty, but most of the time, your expectations are just unreasonably high.
If The Current Surroundings Are Not Completely Child-Proofed
Young children need to be curious and explore. It's literally their job. Very quickly, they have to learn all they can about how the world works, from physical concepts like gravity, speed, and density, to cause and effect, to all the boundaries of their social environment. Since there is no “How To Be A Human” school, the most effective way to learn all that is trial and error: engaging with everything that catches their attention until something stops them or something else catches their attention. Our job is to keep them safe until they have learned enough and are sophisticated enough to understand the consequences of their actions.
The most effective way to do that is to minimize the dangers in their environment so we don't have to constantly chase them and stop them from doing things that could hurt them or be destructive to their surroundings. If you're mad at a toddler for reaching for breakable or precious things at toddler height, either don't invite a toddler into that kind of environment, put the breakable things away while they're there, or don't be shocked if the glass collectibles on your toddler-height coffee table become a pile of shards on the floor.
If You’ve Confronted Him With An Abstract Concept
As grown people, we take it for granted that we already understand a lot of the ideas, social norms, objects, short- and long-term consequences, and other things that we encounter on a daily basis. Little kids are still learning all of that. So, for example, if you’re freaking out because you asked my toddler to “share” something and he’s not, consider that “sharing” is a really abstract concept for him right now.
(Plus, it’s probably the case that what you really want him to do is give the thing he’s using right now to someone else, which isn’t actually “sharing” at all, and is actually a little unfair. But if that’s important to you, ask him to do the specific thing you want him to do, instead of using — or misusing — a word that he doesn’t really understand yet.)
If You’re Expecting Him To Perform A Physical Feat He Hasn't Mastered Yet
As a teacher, I once witnessed a dad threaten to spank a student’s three-year-old younger brother for not tying his shoes fast enough. Predictably, the child broke down in tears. Setting aside the question of whether spanking is ever OK, this was a totally outrageous expectation on the dad’s part. Most kids don't have the fine motor control or executive function necessary to tie their shoes until at least kindergarten if not later, so berating a three-year-old for slowly doing what most of his peers can't do at all is horribly unfair.
Every child grows and develops in different ways. Just because your own child or another kid you know was capable of doing something at a certain age, doesn't mean that it's reasonable to expect the same of every other child you encounter, mine included. If you're asking or expecting a young child to do something and you're getting frustrated when they don't, stop and ask yourself (or even Google it if you're unsure) if your expectations are developmentally appropriate.
If You're Expecting Him To Sit Still For Extended Periods Of Time
Toddlers and even older children are not typically able to sit and focus on something for more than 10-20 minutes, especially if that thing revolves around abstract concepts or isn't an activity of their own choosing. So if you're mad at my or any other toddler for getting antsy during something like unexpectedly waiting in a long line (or at a kindergartener during a standardized test, which is a ridiculous thing that actually happens now), please readjust your expectations. They're not being bad, you're being unreasonable.
If You Aren't Breaking A Big Task Down Into Concrete, Smaller Tasks...
If we need to put the toys away, grab a snack, get shoes on, get a jacket, and get buckled into a car seat in order to go somewhere, then simply saying “Let's get ready to go!” isn't specific enough to expect cooperation. If we want a toddler’s help doing any of that, we have to break it down and ask for each task at a time.
...Or You're Giving Too Many Instructions At Once
If you just asked my toddler to stop playing, put his toys away, and find his shoes all at once, don't be surprised or angry if he doesn't do anything at all, or looks at you and then keeps playing. He’s not being openly defiant, he’s just recognizing that you said something to him, but he’s confused or overwhelmed by it all because it's too many things at once. Ask him to do each thing on its own, and once he’s done that, ask him to do the next thing.
If It's Really Early, Really Late, Or He Hasn't Yet Had A Nap
A tired toddler is like a drunk, belligerent adult. They're going to be clumsier and way crankier than they would be while well-rested, so we all just need to understand and accept that if we're in a situation where we're dealing with a sleepless toddler.
If He’s Hungry
Toddlers still have tiny tummies that need filling pretty frequently. If my toddler or any other little person in your company has suddenly turned into a little terror, offer them a snack and see if that helps. (But please make sure to OK the ingredients with their parent first!)
If He’s Not Close With You But You’re All Up In His Face
Toddlers are people, and people don't like it when other, unfamiliar people invade their personal space. Adults can say, “Step back, please,” if someone even dared to do that to them in the first place. Toddlers often don't have that kind of language or presence of mind, but they do have fists, so you do the math.
If You're Using Vague Or Abstract Language To Ask Or Tell Him Something
Most of the language we understand after a lifetime of usage is still really unclear to really young children, so if you're using words you couldn't readily picture in your mind, don't expect them to be able to do that either. If you want a toddler to have a fighting shot at actually understanding you or complying with the request you've made, take a moment to make a mental picture, and then demonstrate the specific behavior or concept you want them to understand while you verbalize it for them.