Ages 0-5: What Toddlers Know (That Adults Don’t)

Toddlers have their own view of the world. They are playful, imaginative and extremely inquisitive. The barrage of “whys” and “nos,” coupled with an unwavering desire to put anything and everything into the DVD or VCR player, can leave the most resilient parent scratching his head. To make the most of your child’s toddler years and understand his enthusiastic flair, consider his perspective. Look at the world through his eyes to more clearly see him – and maybe even learn a thing or two about the world.

There really are monsters.
The next time your child deploys the “I’m scared of the dark” routine at bedtime, take a moment to see his room as he does — in the dark. Silhouettes may seem terribly frightening. The whirring ceiling fan and humming air conditioning easily become monsters hiding in the closet or under the bed. It is not instinctive to walk calmly into the unknown and, to a toddler, going into a dark room is scary. Age and maturity usually ease his fears of the dark, but adding a nightlight or checking the drawers for monsters can be the difference between bedtime tears and pleasant dreams.

There isn’t always an answer.
Have you asked your toddler why he did something only to be stonewalled with a wide-eyed “I don’t know”? “The painful truth is toddlers really don’t know,” says Sue Chrystal of Radisson, N.Y. As the mother of four children and a preschool teacher for more than 20 years, Chrystal offers frustrated parents insight into some of their child’s actions.

“Toddlers don’t know why cutting their bangs two days before the family portrait or giving the cat a mud bath is appealing. They just know it is,” she explains. Acting impulsively is typical in children, and your toddler is no exception. His curiosity overpowers any reason that he is developing. While he may know he’s not supposed to cram a waffle in the VCR, his curious nature is urging him to find out if it can actually fit.

Bugs are cool.
The widespread fascination society has with aliens and “Big Foot” is similar to a toddler’s interest in crawling critters. Bugs are fascinating to young children because they seldom see them in their house. When he’s playing in the garden or at the park, it’s tempting to unearth creatures as he realizes that he’s not the only species in existence. A toddler’s innocence usually prevents him from developing the fear, phobia or disgust of insects, and his intent to please sends him running to show you his latest discovery.

To ask is to learn.
Although a toddler may occasionally pursue the “why” line of questioning just to be adorably testy, more often than not he isn’t trying to be irritating. He actually does wonder why. Questions that are not easily answered without a lengthy scientific explanation such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why can’t I fly like the birds?” are genuine issues your toddler is struggling to understand. Quite simply, he’ll persist in asking because he doesn’t understand the answer. Answering him honestly instead of quickly can often satisfy his interest and end his interrogation.

Imaginary friends do drink tea.
“I felt horrible for my husband when he inadvertently forgot to pour one of our daughter’s imaginary tea party guests hot cocoa,” chuckles Tess Petrofski of DePere, Wis. A toddler’s limited social experience is enhanced through a variety of interaction. Subconsciously mimicking social scenarios in his play helps him gain social confidence. If your tot takes the time to set up a luncheon only to have one of his guests slighted, he feels he’s failed at hosting a good party. Serving and occasionally drinking multiple cups of imaginary tea help him develop his social skills.

Specific instructions work best.
Exact words and explanations can be critical to toddlers. “Children are surprisingly quite literal at this stage of development,” reinforces Kaufman. Saying not to put doll clothes on the cat but omitting not to dress the dog can be interpreted as the freedom to do exactly that. Taking the time to completely explain in age-appropriate terms helps everyone understand the boundaries.

It is that bad.
Coming inside to take a bath, sitting patiently waiting for the pediatrician and taking medicine are acts that adults methodically perform. When toddlers have to exercise control over their emotions or be redirected to focus their behavior, they are aware they don’t have full control over a situation. Expressing his emotions through crying or verbalizing how unfair your decision is temporarily gives him back control. Acknowledging that you understand he thinks it’s horrible to wash his hair shows you respect his feelings.

The bathroom is a playground.
To your toddler, the bathroom is a room full of billowy paper, blocks that smell fresh and enchanting, and a perfectly sized swimming pool for soldiers, dolls and building blocks, all strategically placed for his enjoyment. He doesn’t use an entire roll of toilet paper to mummify his teddy bear to be disobedient. His creative imagination sees the toilet paper as the perfect wrap to heal his bear’s broken arm.

Setting aside your adult perception and maturity to see a toddler’s point of view allows you to experience the world that your toddler sees. Accepting that he has a unique perspective helps you cherish this stage. Embrace his curious spirit and tenacious nature because, before you know it, he’ll be asking to borrow the keys to your car.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer and licensed clinical social worker.