Strong Foundations for Toddlers

“Dash blash labba dunlap!”

The baby monitor has spoken. My toddler is awake.Thus begins our parenting day. There are feeds and a sendoff as Mama goes to work, dance parties in the living room, baby parkour exhibitions on the sectional, frenzied chores with a baby monitor on my hip, pleadings for focus at mealtimes, alternately protecting dogs and toddler from the other’s excessive exuberance, efforts to diaper the twenty pound flopping fish that looks strikingly like my little girl on the change table.

And as one such day melts into another, it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees.

The poop smeared, tear stained, laughter filled trees.

That is, it’s easy to forget what all of your individual parenting choices and actions are for. You as a parent are building up a little human, and the little decisions you make along the way are all turns of the wrench. Let’s take a step back and talk about the higher level things your little actions should be aiming to accomplish:

Establishing you, the parent, as a safe harbor. Every baby’s world starts out being the size of Mama’s womb and gradually expands from there. Every expansion means risk for your child, a venturing into unknown, uncharted waters. They need to know that those voyages can all end with a return to the safe harbor of your arms — that there can always be a retreat to their certainty. Make every effort to ensure your toddler feels safe in your presence.

Establishing your toddler’s place in time. Kids need to understand where they fit in their timeline, and begin to build understanding that they’ve been growing, developing and learning, and that they can expect to continue doing so. Take opportunities to look at old pictures together from when they were younger, and to explain that the person they’re seeing is the same person they see in the mirror. On the other side of the coin, point out older children and begin explaining that they’ll soon be that big, or strong, or capable.

Establishing your toddler as the individual they are. Take the broad strokes of parenting advice — including mine — because your toddler is one of a kind. As tempting as it will be to stick labels on them in your efforts to better understand them, make sure you don’t pigeonhole them as people.

Just because a child is initially cautious doesn’t mean they’re intractably “shy.”

Just because a child acts with zeal doesn’t mean they’re forever “rambunctious.”

Kids pick up on these labels and opinions, and it would be easy for things like this to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Let kids approach the world in their own way, and don’t be quick to shunt them into channels society has dug for the sake of its own ease.

Establishing trapeze nets for your toddler. I still remember a trip to the circus my class took in kindergarten, and getting my first lesson in opportunity costs when I only had enough money to buy either a light up plastic sword or a multicolored snow cone, but not both. (The sword won out, and may to this day be in my parent’s basement somewhere.)

Static among all the moving elements of elephants, clowns and jugglers was the trapeze net. And as a trapeze artist later lost grip and fell, my caught breath could find relief knowing it was there and they were safe. I think about it now as a parent, because it was important to note where it was placed — quite near the ground.

The net wasn’t built to prevent falls, to quell all fear of failure. It was built to ensure that, ultimately, the artist would come to no concrete harm from it. The same should be true of the safeguards you put in place for your toddler. Failure is baked into the cake of being a toddler. Even once skills are learned, there will be failures along the way. Try to make it such that your toddler, while knowing they’re ultimately safe, still feels some consequence of mistakes.

For instance, we allow our daughter to climb onto upholstered furniture (couch, ottoman) while making other furniture off limits (coffee and side tables). Early on, I shadowed her to ensure she didn’t tumble onto the floor. When I saw her lose her balance, though, I didn’t intervene immediately. I let her go past the point of no return and fall a distance before catching her. I felt it important for her to feel the consequence of missteps and have a healthy fear of falling. It’s paid dividends now, as she’s aware of edges and slows her pace as she approaches them.

There will be analogous issues for your parenting, all the way through until your child leaves home. I’ll grant, it’s a fine line to walk, and my wife and I have had lengthy conversations about where that line is with different things. But in my view, kids will do better with a soft net to catch them after mistakes than they will with a rigid guardrail attempting to prevent them.

Establishing that you’ve got construction to do, as well. It’s easy to buy your own salesmanship as a parent — when you speak from a position of authority with your child, you can easily fall into a mindset that you’ve arrived and have everything figured out now, and you’re just a dispenser of this wisdom for your child.

Don’t fall into this trap. Remember every day, hour, minute that you’ve got building to do in your life, as well. That you need to be learning and growing and discovering right alongside your toddler. That takes humility and patience, but it will open your mind to new treasures you’d otherwise have forfeited if you decided you already had everything you need.

. . .

Thomas Kempis said, “The loftier the building, the deeper must the foundation be laid.” If you’re reading this, I have no doubt that you want your toddler to grow up and reach lofty heights. With that the case, know that work starts now. Every spoonful of food, identified picture, comforting pat on the back is a brick in the walls which will rise to that place you desire for them. So be encouraged in your frustrations, for your toil is possessed of the utmost nobility.

This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.


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