“Because I want to.”
This was my toddler son’s response to my question about why he had chosen to pee down the heating vent next to the toilet. It wasn’t very reassuring to me, but I’m certain it made a lot of sense to his almost-three-year-old way of thinking.
Toddlers are like that. In just a little over a year they’ve become much more mobile and the world is an exciting place. Because they are not capable of reasoning like an adult, they often try things just to see what will happen, e.g., emptying a container of bath powder into the bathtub just to enjoy the clouds they create in the process. One toddler I know climbed up on a chair to reach a container of Vaseline at a time when his parents thought he was sleeping. He saturated his hair and his brother’s for the sheer joy of smearing the viscose material. Another tried flushing a jump rope down the toilet, only to create a plumbing nightmare for his father.
“This parenting class isn’t working,” the dad exclaimed at the next workshop session, reciting his plumbing woes.
I had to tell him a parenting class isn’t intended to prevent two- and three-year-olds from being inquisitive. A parenting class is intended to help parents know what is normal and how they might respond to their child’s behavior.
Simply put, it’s normal for a toddler to explore her world and be experimental. It’s also normal for them to have very little understanding of the danger they may face or the consequences of their actions. This is why children in this age group require such close supervision. They are capable of creating a lot of trouble for themselves and their parents. They also are curious about many, many things and they like to imitate what they see their parents doing.
This imitative, creative, independent behavior led to an interesting early morning experience for one dad I know. Awakening from a deep sleep he staggered into the kitchen for his morning cup of coffee only to discover his three-year-old son, Ethan, preceded him by half an hour or so. Ethan had opened the freezer, removed a carton of strawberry ice cream, selected a spoon, and trundled off to the bedroom of his twin 15-month-old brothers. The three of them had enjoyed almost the entire contents of the ice cream carton when their dad came upon the scene. The family’s dog was finishing off what remained in the carton on the floor as Ethan proclaimed, “Look Daddy, I fed my brothers ice cream.”
When a parent is faced with a plugged toilet, urine in the heating vent, or a bedroom swathed in strawberry ice cream, it is understandably a frustrating experience. No one likes to clean up a mess and toddlers can create some pretty big messes. At the same time, this behavior is a normal developmental phase. It is part of a child’s cognitive development and is mostly easily avoided by close supervision—though it is definitely not possible to watch them all the time.
It’s important to remember that your child is not deliberately trying to create chaos or make you angry. She is learning. It is entirely appropriate for you, as the parent, to set limits and explain that certain behaviors are not acceptable, e.g. helping one’s self to ice cream without prior permission. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised by new opportunities to teach your young one what is and is not appropriate. Although they can be exasperating some days, they look to you for love and security. Even though it can appear “no” is their favorite word, what you think of them and how you respond really matters. If you learn to have realistic expectations about this stage of your child’s life, you can save yourself a lot of hassle and enjoy your young one in the process.
For more great insights and tips be sure to subscribe to our Good Dads Podcast, and check out this four-part mini-series with three Springfield, MO dads talking about the realities of their toddlers pooping, eating, sleeping, and saying "no!"
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and Executive Director of Good Dads. She is the wife of one, mother of two and grandmother of eight. She may be reached for question or comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.