Discover the Child

Discover the Child
"There is a tiny light in the unconscious of mankind which guides it toward better things." "We must follow the child, but we must follow the child as his leader." -Maria Montessori

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Talking with Toddlers: Supporting Identity and a Developing Sense of Self


In this second installment of the Talking with Toddlers series focuses on a toddler's developing sense of self and his need to assert his individuality. We may not think of this need off hand, but it often rears it's head in moments of defiance and may be the source for the maligned label, "Terrible Twos." We can avoid many of these terrible moments by learning to understanding this need and finding a way to support a child's burgeoning sense of self in a positive way. We'll also explore useful strategies and phrases for negotiating some challenging situations with toddlers. 

The basic needs of toddlers include:

  • Movement 
  • Individuality
  • Relationships
  • Language
  • Cognition
  • Love and Security




It isn't until 18 months that a toddler even begins to develop a conscious sense of self, an "I." He began life complete linked, then in arms. Though he doesn't remember it consciously, he is still comforted by the implicit memories of synchronicity in the arms of a parent that brings flooding back that experience of perfect resonance and complete oneness that is his foundation for trust in the world. As he began crawling away as an infant with freedom of movement, he experienced an ability to transform his environment through reaching and grasping that formed the foundation for trust in the world. Now that he is 18 months old with this secure psychological foundation of trust in self and trust in the world, his brain, especially his left brain, is developing to such a degree that  he now has a conscious sense of self that never existed before. He has a real need to explore this identity and understand, "Where do I end and you begin?" Consider six ways you can support your child's developing identity. 



Supporting your child's self care unfortunately requires some work, flexibility and a lot time from the adult. Yes, we know you can do it better and faster, you've had a bit of extra practice. This step towards your child's growth and development takes buy in, and I hope you take my word for it- every opportunity you provide your child to care for himself is a huge investment in his self confidence. It also teaches your child, "I'm hear to help when you need it, but you are in charge of you." If an activity requires a sequence of steps, you can begin supporting your child's independence by completing the task collaboratively, allowing your child to complete more and more steps as he gains independence. Do the same thing in the same exact way every single time. Toddlers have a very strong sense of order, that is why they line up their toys and are compelled to close open doors. Toddlers do not think of the end product and analyze how to achieve the result, but a toddler can learn to complete a task with many steps through repetition. The adult must provide toddler sized tools. To allow your child to ultimately be able to squeeze his own toothpaste on his small toothbrush, he'll need travel sized toothpaste. The same thing goes for clothing. Get clothing with elastic waist bands that aren't too small, shirts that are loose enough to slip easily over her head and shoes with velcro closures that slip on easily. It is also important that your child's clothing is accessible. Hang no more than three outfits on a low rack or place in a low drawer. Your toddler must have a chance to make choices, as many choices as possible, but he can only choose from a limited number of choices. Limiting the number of items also means that he can put away his own clean laundry, at least those three outfits! 

The picture of a closet from "Spaces" on the amazing Montessori blog, How We Montessori.

While your child is exploring this new idea of identity and learning to understand where he ends and others begin, it's really important to respect his body. If someone walked up to you and grabbed you by the nose with a tissue or stopped to "fix" you every time she saw you, even before she looked you in the eye and smiled, you'd be pretty mad. You are still going to need to help your child wipe her nose or peel her off of the floor when she's gone completely boneless. You can ask first, "I see you have some mucous, can I help you wipe your nose?" or, "I'm going to help you with your body until you're ready (to control your body by yourself)" When you model respect for your child's body, she will learn to demand that other people respect her body, too. Yes, mom, you are the only person on the planet who might wipe your child's nose with your bare hands, and it's hard to conceive of a separation between you and this person that used to literally be connected to you, but that is exactly what your child needs. Your child needs to know that you are comfortable with the idea that his identity and your identity are separate. If you can't feel comfortable with the idea, your child certainly cannot feel comfortable with the idea. Fast forward to days of fragile adolescence when your child is trying to feel comfortable with her body, then think twice before you fix her hair, comment on her pants put on backwards, her shoes on the wrong feet or the paint on her face when you pick her up from preschool and say instead, "I'm so happy to see you!" If you feel the need to intervene with your toddler recklessly teetering with both of her legs stuffed into one pant leg you can say, "Are your pants feeling comfortable for you?" 


Developing a healthy sense of self as a toddler means that your child will grow to be a person that feels she can make a meaningful contribution to her family and her community in a way that resonates with her own strengths and passions. Giving your child an opportunity to participate in daily tasks around your house allows her to discover her favorite ways to contribute to her family, to develop concentration and stimulate all areas of functioning, to develop executive functioning skills, and learn to trust herself. Put out color coordinated cloths on a low shelf for wiping spills on the floor or table, a crumb sweeper for tables, a sweeper and dustpan for floors and see what happens! Place pet food in a small pitcher on a tray each day and allow your child to feed your cat, put out a creamer for watering plants inside or a caddy with small tools for window washing. You can read more ideas on previous posts like Practical Life and Integration or this post with pictures of Montessori Practical Life materials. 



With all of this exploration, purposeful work and self care, your child is well on his way to developing a healthy self concept. He has plenty of opportunities to actively asserting his will, and that means fewer power struggles when you need to make a demand. Bonus! The bad news, he still needs a lot of practice figuring out exactly where he ends and another person begins, especially the people he's closest to. He needs to practice making choices, tons of choices, seemingly inane choices. There is one very firm, never to be broken rule about these choices. Your toddler, under no circumstances, must be allowed to make a choice for another person. He may choose where he sits, he may not choose where you sit. He may not direct your actions or choose who drives or who reads or who helps. You can redirect his demands into a question by saying, "Do you remember how to ask courteously?" or you can say, "You may ask, 'Help, please?'" There is a very important reason for this rule. Your child is trying to discover for himself where his domain ends and yours begins. If he is granted control over his choices and yours, where does that leave him? Feeling responsible for your choices, too, leaves him feeling completely overwhelmed and hopelessly adrift. Give him practices making choices for himself and let him know, "You are responsible for you." 

Supporting your child's concept of control over actions and ability to choose must mean that she is ability to experience consequences of her actions in an environment with as much freedom as she can handle at any given time and very clear limits all of the time. Limits are clear and communicate what you DO want. Limits sound like: 
  • How do we do it?
    • We use gentle hands with friends. You may hit the drum
    • We keep sand in the sandbox. We handle fragile objects carefully.
  • Where do we do it?
    • We run outside. We yell outside. We only draw on the paper.
  • When do we do it? 
    • You'll be ready to go outside after you go potty and put on your shoes.
Consequences may look like punishment, but there are a few big differences. Consequences are linked to the behavior. If he behaves differently, the consequences are different. Consequences are also communicated so that the child understands, "I am the only one who can change my behavior." Allowing consequences actually empower your child, while punishment eclipses his sense of control over his actions. Consequences connect your child with his behavior and also help him make connections between his actions and the people around him. Consequences sound like: 
  • Time in
    • "You may wait here until you are ready to join us." or "You may wait here until you are ready to control your body."
    • If your child begins to manipulate time in you can say, "I see you're having a hard time knowing when you're ready. I'm going to help you. I'll check in with you when I'm available."
  • Loose the object. Loose the opportunity
    • I see you are done with the sandbox. 
    • I'll hold the shovel until you are ready to use your gentle hands.
When your child acts in a way that is not ok and you allow him to experience a logical consequence to his action, the outcome is naturally unpleasant. If your limits are clear and consistent and you remain calm, then it is fair and important. Even so, when your child cries, you don't have to like it, but you have to learn to be ok with this part of parenting if you want your child to be a person who has self-control, accepts responsibility for his own actions, and develops the ability to think before acting. When you begin to waver in your conviction, think of your toddler as an 18 year old at a fraternity party. That's not actually much of a stretch, college kids at a fraternity party might look and behave remarkably like toddlers. 

As your child is actively developing his personality and sense of self, she is very receptive to any message you give her about who she is. It is very important to remember to describe actions, not attributes or abilities. As an adult, you are a vessel and you may let words in, but the words never become a part of you.The child is an unformed vessel; she is creating herself. The words you give her and the sense of complete acceptance form a part of who she becomes forever. Clear limits tell your child what is ok and what is not ok, but your words reinforce she is valued and loved with complete acceptance. She will learn that a bad choice doesn't make her a bad person and that she is loved and accepted no matter whether she succeeds or fails. If you hear yourself saying, "You are so..." or "Be.." don't say it! Instead say, "Use your gentle hands," "Make a good choice." or "I see that you worked really hard on that!" When your child succeeds at a task and hears "You are so smart," she comes to hear, "You should be able to do things easily because of who you are." Studies show that hearing "You're smart." is detrimental to her performance in school. The child fears challenging tasks that result in failure, meaning she's not smart anymore. Smart means to her that she should be able to succeed without trying so it isn't rewarding to struggle and work hard on something challenging; it conflicts with her identity. Let your child experience struggle and failure without evaluation. Don't eclipse her own experience success with praise and reward, she just share in the joy with her if she reaches out to you. 

The love and security you provide are absolutely the most important thing that you can provide your child. You won't always remember to use the right words and you won't always be able to stay calm. Sometimes it helps to have phrases that you can use when you aren't able to be as thoughtful and responsive as you'd like. Try this list of useful phrases: