“A key test is resisting the temptation to control everything,” said Tovah Klein, also known as “The Toddler Whisperer.” She would know, with three kids and more than two decades of research as the Director of Columbia University’s Barnard Center for Toddler Development. She’s an expert from the land of tiny people.
At a recent interview in New York, the 50-year-old mom to a trio of boys looked like she never skipped a night’s sleep. Impressive, because in addition to being a Psychology professor at Columbia, Klein is also on tour promoting her book “How Toddlers Thrive,” just released in paperback. According to her research, the early years are critical for predicting self-regulation later in life.
In her new book, Klein demystifies what’s happening in the brains of children ages 2 to 5 that makes their behavior so turbulent. She reveals tools caregivers can use to plant seeds of lifelong success in children during this “lab for later.” Klein notes the needs of kids haven’t changed, but with ample information on the Web and obsessive comparisons with other parents via social media, parents are more self-doubting than ever.
“Family life can feel like a competitive arena rather than the very personal process that it is,” she said.
Klein believes that well-intentioned parents can get in the way of their toddlers’ development by overcorrecting, criticizing and trying to tame erratic behavior. She explained that, when children feel securely loved and adults step back a little, a child who is resilient, empathetic, and curious will authentically emerge on his own.
As a mother to two-year-old son, I wanted to know her secret to raising such grounded and well- behaved angels.
“Try to see the world through their eyes,” Klein suggests, encouraging moms and dads to get to know their offspring. She insists life with little ones can be calm, fun and enjoyable, but says it starts with recognizing their shifting cues and adjusting our reactions.
“Stick to routines, be flexible. And humor can go a long way for everyone,” she adds.
Klein shared her five principles for parenting from a child’s point of view:
1. Stay close even when it’s hard. Don’t see resistance as defiance. As parents, we are the rocks. Kids need us to stay calm even when they are difficult. When they push us away, we should move toward them. They don’t really want to be left alone. They are navigating complicated feelings of independence and attachment.
2. You’re in charge. Toddlers need limits and are looking for authority. Some parents are anxious that their children might become more challenging, and they get stuck in emotional battles, thinking they can’t give in. Other parents give up completely. But setting firm limits builds trust. By allowing our little boy to be upset with us, we are teaching him to handle his emotions in a safe place, and that love remains even when he misbehaves. Also we need to pick our battles—junior can’t cross the street alone, but let him win sometimes, such as when he wants to press the elevator button.
3. Be consistent. Your schedule should frame the day, not overwhelm it. Toddlers lack a sense of time. Having a routine teaches them organization, which they will build on for the rest of their lives. A big part of child behavior comes from the attitude of the parent. They watch us, how we react to things, and how we treat other people. Birth to age five is an important time to establish a caring relationship. Kids need a supportive environment where they can play, have fun and learn about themselves through problem solving. They don’t need dual language classes. They’ll be happy just building Legos with you on the floor.
4. Be realistic. In order for little boys and girls to feel self-assured, we need to have reasonable expectations of what they can and can’t do. Sometimes we are in a hurry to move on to the next stage—whether it’s learning to read, sitting at the table or staying on the toilet. But development is not a straight line. With growth, there will also be tantrums. Sometimes, especially with social media, we look at their milestones as a reflection of us. It’s not. Development is slow, and individualized.
5. Accept your child for who she is. We all have hopes and desires for our families. They get in the way when we can’t separate our dreams from seeing who our little ones really are. Too many demands can disappoint us, and end up causing them shame—like pushing them into social situations, assuming they want to be popular or outgoing, because we wanted to be. Stop and ask yourself “Who is my child? What does she want and what do I want?” She might be very different from you. If you can accept your child the way she is, she’ll thrive.
Jessica Milliken is a University of Maryland graduate and a personal trainer in New York.
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