As a teacher who studied early childhood development, I am aware of the different stages that children typically go through. Of course, every child is different and develops at their own pace and the timeline for developmental milestones are broad.
What are your expectations?
What I have found helpful is to adjust my expectations. Sometimes I wonder why I am having such a tough time and clashing with my toddler. At these times, I try to take a step back and ask myself “Am I expecting too much or too little of her?” It can be helpful to take yourself back in time or put yourself in their shoes and think how the world looks when you are so small. I find that toddlers can seem rather mature in many ways, and we forget how little they still are.
Let us take for example my 3-year-old. Now, 3-year-olds love to mix, scoop and pour. From water to rice to flour etc. this is how they learn. My little girl is always opening cupboards, finding bowls, asking for flour and water and whatever else she can get her hands on. She then sits on the floor and spends her time mixing everything together, transferring stuff from one container to another. I try to anticipate what is going to happen and then I can set up a tray or put a towel down or convince her to take this all outside to help contain the mess. Sometimes I miss the chance and she is deep in play. I do not like to stop and disrupt her unless someone or something is in danger. Therefore, it is a mess. And you know what it’s just a mess, it can be cleaned up.
If she is purposely throwing food or pouring a jug of water on the floor for whatever reason I will step in, as that is not acceptable behavior. And believe me when she was 2, she went through a phase of purposely pouring water on the floor, spitting her juice out and other things. I think that she was having difficulty with emotions and pushing limits which children are allowed to and should do. Just keep your ground and say, “we do not throw water on the floor”. If you keep your reaction calm and strong, they eventually get bored of getting no reaction or I would say, “If you spit your juice out again, I will have to take your juice away.” She will of course then spit her juice on the floor immediately and I then calmly take the juice away and we carry on with our day. That is just how I dealt with it, and I found it worked for me and my little one.
Back to expectations. 3 -year -old’s mess. Often their play is messy, they do not do it on purpose, they are experimenting and exploring. They often jump from activity to activity, and they really couldn’t be bothered to stop and tidy up after themselves every 5 minutes, they are too busy playing. You should of course take opportunities to get your little one to help tidy up when it is time, but I would not suggest interrupting a period of deeply engaged play just to tidy up if it is not necessary.
So, if you know that 3 -year- old’s explore through play and are spontaneous, there will most likely be some kind of mess at the end of the day. You know to expect this, therefore you can relax a bit and realize that this is a part of their developmental stage, it is okay. Children need boundaries and you also need to set expectations for them. Laying some ground rules are also a good idea to help keep situations calm. If my little one is in the sandpit and she throws sand out or up in the air, I will remind her that we don’t throw sand, as it can land in your eye, and we need to keep the sand in the sandpit. How about drawing? Is she tempted to draw all over the furniture, of course she is, Do I allow it? No, I do not. I tell her over and over again, we only draw on paper. I also only give her washable markers and paint that will wash out because I know she will draw on something she is not supposed to. I don’t get mad because I am expecting it, yes, it is annoying but hopefully it will wash out and I will talk to her about it and life goes on. This is what children do. They are learning so much all the time and they are only little for so long. I feel they should have this time to be exactly who they are.
As much as we do not want them to make a huge mess, let us also remember what we are asking of them. It is a lot of pressure on a little one to say, “Don’t make a mess!” and then they make a mess, and they are not sure how to feel about it and will most likely feel bad. We don’t mean to make them feel bad and so it is important to watch what we say. Rather than say, “Don’t make a mess” let us show them and help them, for example if they are wanting to pour liquids from one large container to a very small one and you can see this is not going to end well, go get a bigger bowl for them. Simple intervention that could help curb some of the mess. As an adult I often spill and make a mess so if a grown adult sometimes makes a mess, then it is reasonable to accept so will a child.
Let us look at another toddler stage, potty training. Every child is different as we know, some potty train early and take to it easily, others only later. Children like to play with the roll of toilet paper. Who knows why, but my little one was always unraveling it, tearing it into pieces. Normal behavior, carry on. Would it be reasonable to expect them to never have an accident? No, they are still learning, get caught up in playing and are distracted, realize too late they need a wee and it happens. If you know that is a high possibility then you can prepare for it, always have extra clothes on hand when you go out, and if it happens, put on dry clothes and carry on.
Tantrums. It is difficult enough for adults to control and regulate their emotions, why would a toddler be able to do it? Tantrums are a way of expressing their emotions and that they need help in some way. If we know our children are going to push boundaries, have tantrums, cry when they do not get what they want, then we might not be so surprised when it happens and hopefully help us keep our cool. Not always possible because these things tend to happen at the worst possible times. That’s life.
So, what I am trying to say is don’t forget to examine your expectations of your child every once in a while. It might help the both of you. No parent is perfect and we do not always get it right, we are learning about parenting just as they are learning about being a toddler.
The same goes for the general stages that your child is in, if you are not sure if what your child is going through is age appropriate, I would suggest consulting a professional. If you would like to see some developmental milestones, check out these resources.
https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-02/DevelopmentalMilestonesEYLFandNQS.pdf (page 12 for ages 2-3 and page 14 for ages 3-5 years)
https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002013.htm (3-6- year old’s)
Please do not forget that your child is 2 until the day they turn 3. You can’t expect them to meet a 2 -year- old milestone the day they turn 2, they are still 2 years old for an entire year. If a milestone has not been met and you are concerned, please seek medical and professional advice.