How Toddlers Thrive: Interview with Tovah Klein, PhD

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Dr. Tovah Klein is child psychologist and director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development- which is the leading center for studying toddler behavior and development. She has been an advisor on Sesame Street- which I grew up watching.  She released an incredible book She cracks the “toddler code” and  makes the experience of raising a toddler not so complicated. Having advised actress Sarah Jessica Parker (who wrote the foreword) on parenting and helping her come to the realization that “…there is no right way to parent, and no right way for children to experience childhood” Tovah is setting a new paradigm for parents to follow that is all about fostering healthy development and understanding what’s really going on in the mind of your toddler.

Now that my little guy is in middle school and approaching his tweens I am reading this book from a distant perspective. I have tremendous respect and support for parents navigating this stage of life for the first time. I connected with Dr. Klein to discuss her new book and get answers to some of those questions we all want to ask.

New book demystifying toddlerhood!

Tovah Klein’s book demystifying toddlerhood!

Mama Glow: As the director of the Barnard Child Toddler center you are privy to a world of “toddlerdom” that most of us would never get to observe. What are some of the most interesting misperceptions our culture has about toddlers? 

Because of the rapid changes and ‘turmoil’ of this stage, our culture mischaracterizes it as selfish, terrible, defiant, and perhaps terrifying. Toddlers do all kinds of things that are raw, such as expressing emotions ranging from glee and excitement to rage and upset.These are mischaracterizations because they are a view of the toddler that does not take into account the context of their development.

Tovah Klein, PhD: Why might it be a bad idea to tell your toddler to share? Is there something about the autonomy of a toddler we need to keep in mind? I know adults who can’t share so maybe you can’t give some insight.

Toddlers are at a  stage in life where they are first figuring out who they are.  Their sense of self (who am I?) is just forming.  Figuring out self includes getting their needs met.  Once they figure out what they need and can have, LATER they become generous.  Toddlers live in the moment and are focused on self. They don’t yet fully understand that other’s have desires (as in- someone else may want what I have). First they get to know themselves, and that their needs are met.  After this happens, they begin to think about others, understand that others have thoughts/feelings separate from their own, and they want to play with peers.  All of that gives them a frame to begin sharing.

When we insist a toddler share, we are asking them to give up what they need in the moment.  They are literally being asked to give up a piece of themselves.  Because at this age, getting needs met includes having the objects they are holding or desire.  So when we force them to give it up, it makes them hold on more, to feel they are being deprived.  They feel ashamed for desiring something. And as long as they feel this way, they remain selfish.  Sounds odd, but by letting them hold on to what they desire, they slowly, over time, feel fulfilled.  Only then do they begin to want to share.  ‘My needs are met, I can turn to thinking about the needs of others.”

How do parents negotiate wanting to problem solve for their children, and allowing their children to figure things out and thrive? 

Most of parenting is about balance.  And that is the case here.  When we let our children struggle and get frustrated and support them through it, we are helping them for life.  Life is about hurdles.  And having the confidence that they can handle these hurdles, that they will be ok even if things are not easy right away, is one of the biggest gifts we can give our children.  But we have to back off and allow our children to stumble and fall and make mistakes, and get up again, with our comfort and support. It is not a tough love approach, rather an acceptance that life is not always smooth, nor should it be. I think parents jump in too soon because they are worried their child will get upset or not be happy.  Our children need to feel some frustration in order to persist, to want to figure things out, to desire a goal. So it is about us at parents, recognizing that it is ok for children to not be happy at every moment, to struggle, and to get through it.  Mistakes are part of the process.

We all want well behaved kids but how do can we transform a punitive moment into an educational one, and avoid shaming them and their along the way? 

Again, if we see stumbling and mistakes as part of a process of learning and growing up, then moments that seemed punishable before may look different.  I find that parents get punitive when they themselves are upset or feel powerless- their child is not listening, or the child has refused a parental request or demand.  There is a reason for their behavior, and when we see that reason, we tend to back off, or handle it differently.  For example, a child may refuse to wear an outfit the parent wants them to wear.  The parent digs in and insists the child get dressed, the child digs in and won’t do it.  Do you punish them for not listening?  Instead of making them feel bad for having their own desire, the parent could give them a choice and let them pick one of two shirts.  Why? Because the child wants control, to decide what to wear.  So a simple shifting to offering one of two shirts shifts the power play.  The child gets dressed, and the request is followed.

We have all experienced the “melt down” hour where toddlers get tired, irritated and it’s clear the play date has ended. What are your tips for playdates and how to keep them harmonious? 

Playdates should be with one other child- only.  Toddlers (and most children) can handle one other playmate at a time.  Keep the playdate short and simple, an hour for the younger, up to 2 hours (but no more) for kids closer to 4-5.  That way you end it before the children wear out and melt down.  Being outside is best, neutral territory.  If it is indoors and children need a change of pace, give them a snack, or set up an art activity that they can do together so there is less need to share. Most importantly, if your child is having a hard time- tired, whiney, cranky- don’t blame them- just cut the playdate short and schedule another time.  We’ve all been in that situation!

What about the potty? I remember feeling anxious about potty training and then I was thrilled once my son was going to the potty on his own. What are your tips for potty training?

Parents get particularly anxious on this one, but in reality all children get it- eventually.  No one stays in diapers forever.  It is just that using the potty is one of the few things a toddler can control.  They don’t necessarily get potty trained on our schedule. So don’t make it a control battle.  Follow their lead on when they show interest and the ability to get to the bathroom and pull down their pants without help. Before then, they are too dependent on the adults. Summer is easier time to do it, as they have on less clothes and changing wet layers is easier.  The main point to remember is to make it about them, and not you, and never, never shame a child for having an accident or refusing to use the toilet.

Parents get really concerned about their toddler’s eating habits as many little ones are “picky eaters” what tips do you have for parents who might be anxious about toddler mealtime?

Toddlers become picky because this is one of the few places they can exert control, decision making power, and figure out what they like (rather than what mommy or daddy wants them to eat).  So they exert their control.  Best to avoid any control battles around food as you are setting up eating patterns now that they will take with them as they get older.  The guidance a parent provides is that parents decide what food to buy and bring into the house.  I see that as the ‘parameter’ that is set up.  Buy and serve basically healthy foods and that is what your child has a choice of.  Don’t want them to eat something?  Don’t have it in the house to tempt them, it will only become a battle.  Serve a few items at every meal but be sure there is something you know they like (which is usually carbs- bread, rice, pasta).  Then let your child decide what to eat and don’t even comment on it.  Sit together to eat– mealtimes should be social.  Chat about the day, talk about what you remember from the day with them.  This teaches them that there is a routine, and meals are about socializing and connecting.  The focus is not on the food. Toddlers can feed themselves, don’t force them to eat. And don’t make anything a forbidden fruit by insisting that it is a treat or forbidding it all together.  It becomes much too desirable then.

There is a lot of controversy around toddlers and technology- when to introduce it, how much and how long they should be exposed to it?

At times it can be a helpful and necessary distraction but if used too much there are some drawbacks, can you give some insight on ways we balance integrating technology with toddlers?

This is a huge area of discussion with no short answer. But I will try for a short answer.  Technology is here to stay.  It can be one part of life, without being the central part of life. Toddlers learn through relationships, and relationships are with people.  Technology takes away from eye contact, from reading each others social cues, and from tuning in to people.  Toddlers learn through all their senses- touch, sight, smell, very interactive with their environment.  That means they need to be interacting with people and their full surroundings as much as possible.  Toddlers are also observers, and they take in information by observing what goes on in their surroundings. Be aware of how much you, as a parent, use technology.  You are their role model. Being mindful of how much and when we, the parents, use it, is the first step toward keeping a balance and setting good role models.  And finally, technology can be used as a pacifier- give it to the child to occupy them or keep them quiet.  This can be a very slippery slope.

Is there anything else you would like to share? 

Remember that life is messy, and parenting cannot be about perfection. Parents are under a lot of pressure these days, and that can raise their expectations of young children and what they can do. That leads to trying to control their behaviors and actions. Keep in mind how little toddlers are, how much they need to know we (parents) are there for them.  Our role is to set  guidelines with routines, limits and boundaries, and to let them figure out how things work.  This translates into backing off more, intervening less, and giving children the path to figure things out for themselves, however messy that may be at times.  Then add a lot of humor to this- laughing (with them, and at ourselves) can go a long way with children.

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Tovah_P_Klein_hi_res

Professor Tovah Klein At the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development (Toddler Center), Professor Klein and her research team study children’s social and emotional development, the influence of parents on children’s development and the experience of being a parent in the early years. In the parenting work, the research focuses on mothers’ and fathers’ transition to parenthood and on work and family issues.

She has served as a developmental advisor for Sesame Street and is on the advisory boards for Room to Grow, Rawanda Educational Assistance Project and NYC Voices of Childhood. Her advice has appeared in The New York Times, Redbook, Parents and countless other publications. She is the mother of three boys in lives in New York City.

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