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Entering Toddlerhood: What I Wish I Knew & What I’ve Learned About Myself

Oh, toddlerhood.

Charlie, our oldest, is almost two, but it feels like she’s a total “threenager”. Oh yeah, we’re talking full on tantrums, screaming and crying when things don’t go her way, throwing things, spitting, and even hitting. The whole shebang.

At first, I was pretty terrified. It felt like everything I did, she hated. It seemed that anything I’d say to her would just go in one ear and out the other.

My patience was running on empty and Charlie was running on full blast. I got to a point that I truly didn’t know how to handle her. I mean, yes, she’s the most amazing little girl. She’s hilarious and brilliant and cute as hell. But there’s many times throughout the day that things are challenging.

Was I being a bad parent? Were we doing something wrong?

I set out to find some answers.

I’d start talking to other mom’s that we’d meet out on our daily adventures (the library, playgrounds, museums, etc.) and I soon found out how normal all of this was. Every mom I met would nod in remembrance or agreement to these issues I’d bring up.

The more books I read, like The Montessori Toddler and Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, I started to realize that everything Charlie was doing was all a part of a stage in her development.

Each child experiences their own way of growing and finding their identity. Some are super obedient, reliant, and kind of chill. Others, like Charlie, are strong-willed, independent, and daring.

There’s no right or wrong—every child is just different. But there’s also so many similarities among our tiny tots.

After reading books, listening to podcasts, talking to other moms, and observing my own child, I learned SO MUCH about these little cuties. I just wish I had better prepared myself so I could be organized, ready, and set with the appropriate expectations before we entered these years. But now that I’m on my own journey of learning about her, I’ve decided to start changing things—in our home and within myself.

Here’s some things that I’ve learned about what toddlers like:

-They love order and routine:

1) Something about being able to predict what’s coming next really helps them feel confident and calm. Most kids sleep, eat, and act better when there’s somewhat of a routine throughout the day.

Kids learn through patterns—we all do. With pattern comes predictability, and with predictability comes a sense of security and calmness. They know what to expect.

2) Something I learned from the Montessori approach is to:

Have a place for everything and everything in its place. This allows kids to build memory, as well as maintain a kind of order in the home/classroom. They always know where to go when they’re looking for something.

Think about how we’d feel if we couldn’t count on things to be where we left them, or we’re constantly wondering where everything is. We can get stressed out by the mess and unpredictability. Like us, kids love certain kinds of chaos, but when things are disorganized, their fuses seem to be a bit shorter than usual.

3) CLEANLINESS: If you were to walk in our house right now, the odds of Charlie’s playroom being messy are pretty darn high. One time, it was especially untidy. I watched her approach it, look at the destruction and just walk away. I’m seeing how important it is to keep everything in order as often as possible (which is way harder than it sounds with a toddler!).

“When they can routinely predict what's going to happen next, children can dedicate more energy and concentration to their current work because they are not anticipating any surprises.” - Miss Heather, Grasshopper Teacher

-They love to master skills:

1) They enjoy things that are just hard enough to challenge them and give them a sense of accomplishment when finished, but they’ll tend to give up when something is too difficult to do or understand.

2) I’m really trying to take the time to observe my kids. I’m always watching them, but to truly observe is something I’m practicing more and more of each day:

Which hands do they use for which tasks?

What frustrates them?

Which activities are they more drawn to than others?

What sort of things do they enjoy?

What are their interests?

Which motor tasks do they like? Dislike?

Once I learn the details about how she operates, I can put certain activities in her path to help her gain mastery and appeal to her interests. We can also remove things that make her upset, and maybe introduce them a little later.

Right now, Charlie loves pointing out letters, colors, numbers, animals, and noises she hears. I’ll center the day’s activities around these things so she can feel accomplished throughout the day, while also mastering these skills. While also introducing new things whenever I can and see what she’s commonly drawn to.

3) Once I see she has truly mastered them, I’ll introduce either the next step (learning letters and then their sounds) or I’ll introduce something different and new.

What I love about Montessori learning is that it’s centered around the idea that all kids are on their own paths to discovery. Rather than a teacher teaching every kid in the same way and expecting the same results from all, Dr. Montessori observed that kids should be the ones to decide which things they want to learn about and in which order.

Eventually all topics will get covered and mastered, but in their own time and their own way. There’s no stress on the child to learn quicker or about something they don’t like. For Dr. Montessori, learning and playing were one and the same.

“Every one in the world ought to do the things for which he is specially adapted. It is the part of wisdom to recognize what each one of us is best fitted for, and it is the part of education to perfect and utilize such predispositions. Because education can direct and aid nature but can never transform her.” -Maria Montessori

4) As I learned from the Montessori approach, we now try to also avoid quizzing her on things she may not know yet. It can be discouraging to kids to be wrong too much.If they ever do answer wrong, try not to point out their being incorrect (“No, that’s not an elephant.”)

Instead, focus on the correct answer (“Good guess! This is actually a horse. Do you know what sound a horse makes?”). Or stay quiet, take a mental note which things they need to practice on, and introduce it again later.

The idea here is to make learning fun. We don’t want them to grow afraid of being wrong and lose their drive for learning/finding answers.

“The child is not an empty being who owes whatever he knows to us who have filled him up with it. No, the child is the builder of man. There is no man existing who has not been formed by the child he once was.” -Maria Montessori


Okay, I know, I’m being super obvious. But I often need to remind myself of this.

As toddlers, they have no concept of time or money or adulthood. When they cry for our attention, throw a tantrum because we can’t buy their toy, or they get upset because they have to leave the playground, they are never trying to be mean or rude.

They just want what they want and they don’t have the brain capacity yet to understand why they can’t.

So it’s our job to put things in a way they can understand. If they can’t, distraction is usually your next best bet. If I can’t distract Charlie, then I allow her to safely have her tantrum. (CHECK OUT MY TANTRUM TIPS BELOW!)

So rather than getting upset when my to-do list remains untouched or getting angry at her for screaming as we leave the park, I remember that she needs my help to understand. And I need to understand that she simply just wants to play.

My friend, Colleen said it well: “If he doesn’t respond well to me, I make it more of a game.”

Remembering this also helps me practice presence. I can get pretty caught up in trying to get the house squeaky clean. To hear her cry out to me reminds me that I do need to step away, embrace the mess, and go play with my daughter as much as I can.

Because there might be a day when she wants nothing to do with us!

But more than be with her, I'm choosing to play and to LAUGH as much as I can. No, I'm not teaching Charlie what it means to grow. She's the one reminding what it's like to be young and in love with life.

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” -Leo F. Buscaglia

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” -Plato

-They love to be involved in the family:

Charlie gets so excited when I ask her for help. Whenever she gets bored while I’m choring it up, I’ll include her in my duties.

Just remember though: when we invite our babies to help us, the goal is neither precision nor productivity. Often, they’ll create more of a mess and it’ll take double or even triple the time to complete a task. BUT THAT”S OKAY!

What we aim for here is learning and giving them a sense of purpose and responsibility.

Let’s show them what it means to build a home and take care of our things and each other. That way, they aren’t taken by surprise if we were to introduce them later.

If they remember a time when they didn’t have “chores” then they feel a bit negative towards the new, boring additions into their life.

But if these duties were always a part of life, they aren’t missing a time when they weren’t. It’s just what they’ve always known.

-They love to make messes!

I know, another DUH one. But how many times do we not let them do something simply because we just don’t want to clean it up afterwards?

We can’t always allow messes (especially if we don’t have the time to clean up). But if we do have the time, let’s get messy! Especially if it allows them to learn.

Bring on the motor skills!

Not only is making messes fun for them (and sometimes us), but it also brings up the importance of cleaning up. Cleaning up after our kids is easy and quick but they don’t learn anything from what we do (other than maybe observing the pattern of mommy or daddy cleaning).

Start ‘em young! Honestly, you can’t begin this habit too soon. Make it fun, and have them help you clean up or run things to the garbage can. They don’t have to be perfect and speedy at it. But to make this a pattern for them will raise them to be responsible for their actions and an active member of the family.

Also, I always say, “In our house, you have to make a mess to clean a mess.” Many times I have to let Charlie do something messy to keep her busy while I clean. Ironic, I know.

But it prepares me for the idea that messes are inescapable. The more I focus on that, the less stressed I feel when messes arise.In fact, I’m really learning to welcome them.

Messes are signs of living and playing and learning! Embrace the mess. (Read this post if you’ve had a hard time coping with your growing to-do list!)

Oh, and go outside as much as possible! I can’t stress this enough. Go play in the dirt, hold a ladybug, jump in puddles, change their outfits ten times if it means they are learning and having fun. It’s so important to give them this freedom to just go be a kid.

“We cannot create observers by saying 'observe', but by giving them the power and the means for this observation and these means are procured through education of the senses.” -Maria Montessori

“Children learn as they play. More importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.” – O. Fred Donaldson

-They like our presence AND their space:

This is one of the most important ones in my eyes! At this age, I like to say we are the boundary-setters. The sheep-herders, if you will. We learn things by learning what they are not—by putting boundaries around something.

As parents, we decide where they can and cannot go. By setting up CONSISTENT boundaries, our children learn their limits.

But we must be consistent! As toddlers, they have a hard time understanding contextual rules. For example, “You can hit and rough-house Daddy, but not anyone else.” It’s best to go with absolute rules. “Never hit people.”

As much as we want them to be independent as they grow older, right now they need us to guide them.

In our house we try to find a middle-ground, in which Charlie can experience some independence (doing things without our help or interruption), but she can also count on us to be there making sure she doesn’t hurt herself or others.

THAT’S WHAT I LOVE ABOUT DR. MONTESSORI: She encourages us to give our kids more space—to hover and interfere less.

Allow them to mess up and make messes. Allow them to try to drink from a glass of water.

And be there to observe and offer help if they ask for it.

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” -Dr. Montessori

They love to mirror you:

Kids absorb EVERYTHING:

Not only do our kids absorb our sailor mouths, but also everything else we do and say and how.

They absorb our tone, our word choice, our facial expressions, our level of intensity, and our emotions.

They watch how we slam doors when we’re mad, throw the remote when it doesn’t work, and drink from the milk jug when we’re too lazy to get a glass.

EVERYTHING we do and say—that becomes theirs. Charlie’s trusts me to do and say things the right way, so all of my habits and subconscious actions are taken into her mind like a sponge, while she most likely adds it to her own being. She is the product of us and the people we surround her with.

Believe me when I say they catch on quick and hold on tight. Charlie might hear us say one word on one occasion and she repeats it incessantly. The more we try to get her to stop, the louder she says it.

When Charlie was 6 months she started growling at people. It was super cute but I also wondered where she got it from. One day, someone cut me off on the road, and I somewhat grumbled at them with a long, irritated, “ERRRGGG.” She repeated me right then and there.

Having kids really made me self-reflect onto my own subconscious habits and doings. I was surprised how many times I reacted negatively to stuff!

Some days, Charlie is especially grouchy. Now, this can be due to many things! Boredom, hunger, need for independence, need to get out of the house, or just waking up on the wrong side of the bed.

But some days, IT’S BECAUSE OF ME.

I’ll just get too caught up in the day’s tasks, stuck in my head, or I just forget to have fun amid the mundane routine.

So, I’ve experimented with her. I’ll catch myself being a grumpy-pants, and then I’ll work really hard to consciously change my persona into total goofball, running around the house, laughing, kissing, and pretending to be a lion hungry for tickles. Magically her mood CHANGES to mirror mine.

Sometimes, all it takes is for me to remind myself to JUST HAVE FUN!