Are you serious right now? I thought as I carried my thrashing, way-too-strong-for-such-a-little-person toddler to his crib. I’m getting sick, I barely slept last night, and now you’re flipping out over nonsense. Really?! Then I reminded myself: yes, he is. From his limited perspective and working knowledge of the world, and with his rapidly declining self-control due to fatigue, he is fully serious. This is the best he can do, so I remembered to do a tiny thing that can affect a toddler for the rest of their lives: take them seriously. I breathed in, dug deep, and looked at him, jumping and yelling in his bed. I started talking, though I wasn’t sure he’d listen, because I knew that even if he wasn’t, narrating what’s happening aloud helps me address my son calmly and respectfully, instead of losing my temper.
“I know you want to listen to Hamilton right now, and you're frustrated with me because I said no. I saw that you were sleepy earlier, so I'm trying to help you calm down and rest. I know that music makes it hard for you to do that; it makes me really excited, too. But you'll feel better after you sleep. Do you want to calm down in your crib or would you like me to pick you up and cuddle you?”
“Up,” he responded, reaching out towards me. He was listening, after all. I picked him up, and we sat together and rocked in his reading chair. I could feel both of us calming down considerably.
I spend countless moments like this every day, including in public places where people frequently look at me like I’m growing horns. Yeah, it might seem strange to some to have an earnest conversation with an upset toddler, but it’s the best way I know to calm myself down, defuse the situation, and teach him to eventually be able to respond calmly to his own emotions.
This is the best he can do, so I remembered to do a tiny thing that can affect a toddler for the rest of their lives: take them seriously.
So many of us struggle to re-learn how to listen to our own inner voice because no one took us seriously when we were younger. I’ve personally spent my whole adult life unlearning the bad habit of reflexively dismissing my own negative feelings (which were constantly derided as “being dramatic” when I was little), after that bad habit led me to stay in bad work environments and problematic relationships far longer than I should have. I know plenty of people who have yet to begin that work. Every day, I see people polling their friends to decide if they’re justified in feeling negatively about how someone is mistreating them, or struggling to make basic life decisions because they’re so out of touch with what they truly want.
We’re born knowing these things. We’re born understanding ourselves, and able to listen to our own voice, the one that articulates our needs, wants, and intuition. But over time, we learn to ignore that voice, every time someone we trust — like our parents, our teachers, and other important people in our lives — tell us that what we think and feel is silly, or tells us to “fix our face” or otherwise deny our feelings when we’re upset, simply because they didn’t take our responses to our situation seriously.
Taking toddlers seriously is a way to look out for them without denying their rights, boundaries, feelings, and autonomy. All easier said than done when our kids are working our nerves, for sure. It is often hard to do this in practice, especially because we often have so little support in our own lives, and as a result have way less time and patience than we’d like. But as hard as it is, it’s worthy work, if we don’t want our kids to struggle with the same shame, anxiety, fear, and self-doubt so many of us are working to overcome for ourselves.
We’re born knowing these things. We’re born understanding ourselves, and able to listen to our own voice, the one that articulates our needs, wants, and intuition.
Taking toddlers seriously looks like talking to them and responding to them like we would anyone else we respect. It means having back and forth conversations with them, using real language, when they try to engage with us. It means telling them about what's going on as we go from one daily activity to the next. (You'd freak out and melt down a lot, too, if people were constantly interrupting what you were doing and moving you around without warning.)
It means honoring their thoughts and emotions as valid, instead of mocking or dismissing them because we see the situation differently from them. Yes, to our grown up eyes, it's silly that they have to have the applesauce pouch from the box instead of the one that's already on the counter, or whatever else they're freaking out about. But for some reason they can't yet explain, that distinction matters to them. Whether we give them the thing they want or not, we can acknowledge that we see it's really important to them, and give them support to deal with their feelings if it turns out there's some good reason why they can't have the specific thing they want.
Taking them seriously looks like respecting their physical boundaries, and insisting that others do the same. It means not forcing them to touch, hug or kiss when they don't want to, and teaching them to do the same for others.
It means choosing our words carefully when we must discuss them in their presence, instead of talking about them as though they can’t hear us.
Taking toddlers seriously is a way to look out for them without denying their rights, boundaries, feelings, and autonomy.
It means respecting and anticipating their needs, by making sure they can eat, rest, and play as much as they need to, and giving them enough time to transition from one thing to the next so we don't don’t push them into situations where they're pretty much guaranteed to melt down.
Fundamentally, taking our toddlers seriously means treating toddlers with empathy and respect. It means we treat them like we would any other person we respect, not like a doll or an annoyance or a chore. Admittedly, this may sound less and less like a “tiny” thing the longer anyone who lives with a toddler stops to think about it. Toddlers can be extraordinarily challenging (understatement of the year); their physical capabilities, feelings, and curiosity far outweigh their understanding of the consequences of their actions, so they're almost constantly racing toward trouble and causing potential problems for themselves and others, then melting down when we stop them.
But even when their desires strike us as frivolous and unreasonable, they matter to them. Little things are big things to little people. When we take them seriously, instead of mocking or belittling the things that get them so worked up, we show them we believe they're worthy of respect, which helps them continue to see themselves the same way.