Loving the Toddler You Have
It is a wise father that knows his own child.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice Babies Revisited
In the course of writing this second book, my coauthor and I held a class reunion for some of the babies who had attended my groups. Infants between one and four months old when we last saw them, the five alumni were now in the thick of toddlerhood. What a difference a year and a half had made. We recognized their slightly more mature faces, but physically the tiny dynamos who poured into my playroom bore scant resemblance to the babies I had known—sweet helpless things who could do little but stare at the wavy lines on the wallpaper. Where once holding up their heads or “swimming” on their tummies was a feat, these children were into everything. When their mums plopped them down, they crawled, tottered, or walked, sometimes holding on, sometimes on their own, desperate to explore. Eyes aglow, babbling sense and nonsense alike, their hands reached here, there, and everywhere.
Recovering from the shock of seeing this miracle of instant growth—it was like time-lapse photography without the middle stages—I started to remember the babies I once knew.
There was Rachel, sitting in her mum’s lap, cautiously eyeing her playmates, a bit fearful to venture out on her own. It was the same Rachel who cried as a baby when presented with a stranger’s face and who balked during the class on infant massage, letting us know she wasn’t ready for so much stimulation.
Betsy, one of the first of the babies to actually reach out and touch another child, was clearly still the most active and interactive of all the children, curious about every toy, interested in everyone else’s business. She was extremely frisky as an infant, so it didn’t surprise me when she began clambering up the changing table with the skill of a monkey and a nothing-can-stop-me look on her face. (Not to worry: Her mum, obviously used to Betsy’s athletic feats, kept a close eye on her and a ready hand near her tush.)
Tucker, who had reached every baby milestone on cue, was playing near the changing table. Every so often, he’d glance up at Betsy, but the brightly colored forms of the shape box were more intriguing to him. Tucker was still right on track—he knew his colors and was able to figure out which shapes fit into which holes, just like “the books” said a twenty-month-old could.
Allen was in the play garden by himself, set off from the others, which made me think of his serious-looking, three-month-old self. Even as an infant, Allen always seemed to have a lot on his mind, and he had that same concerned expression now as he tried to insert a “letter” into the play mailbox.
Finally, I couldn’t take my eyes off Andrea, one of my favorite babies because she was so friendly and adaptable. Nothing fazed Andrea, even in infancy, and I could see that she was her old unshakable self as I watched her interact with Betsy, now down from her perch and tugging mightily on Andrea’s truck. In turn, this self-possessed toddler looked at Betsy and calmly sized up the situation. Without missing a beat, Andrea let go and began playing contentedly with a dolly that had caught her eye.
Though these children had grown light-years ahead of where they had been—in effect, they were six or seven times older than when I last saw them—each was a reflection of his or her infant self. Temperament had blossomed into personality. Babies no more, they were five distinct little people.
Nature/Nurture: The Delicate Balance
The constancy of personality from infancy through toddlerhood comes as no surprise to me or others who have seen scores of infants and children. As I stressed earlier, babies come into this world with unique personalities. From the day they’re born, some are inherently shy, others stubborn, still others prone to high activity and risk taking. Now, thanks to videotapes, brain scanners, and new information about gene coding, this isn’t just a hunch; scientists have documented the constancy of personality in the lab as well. Particularly in the last decade, research has proven that in every human being, genes and brain chemicals influence temperament, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes.
One of the most hopeful by-products of this latest research is that it has cut down on parent-blaming—a once-fashionable psychology. But let’s be careful not to swing totally in the other direction. That is, let’s not al- low ourselves to think that parents don’t matter at all. We do. (Otherwise, luv, why would I share my ideas for being the best parent you can be?)
Indeed, the most current thinking about the nature/ nurture debate describes the phenomenon as a dynamic, ongoing process. It’s not nature versus nurture. Rather, it’s “nature through nurture,” accord- ing to a recent review of the research (see sidebar). Scien- tists know this from analyzing countless studies of identical twins as well as research on adopted children, whose biology is different from their parents. Both types of cases demonstrate the complexity of the nature/nurture interplay.
Twins, for example, who have the same chromosomal makeup and the same paren- tal influences, don’t necessarily turn out the same way. And when scientists look at adopted children whose biological parents are alcoholics or have some type of mental illness, they find that in some cases a nurturing environment (created by their adoptive parents) provides immunity from the genetic predisposition. In other cases, though, even the best parenting can’t override heredity.
The bottom line is that no one knows exactly how nature and nurture work, but we do know that they work together, each influencing the other. Hence, we have to respect the child Nature has given us, and at the same time, give that child whatever support he or she needs. Admittedly, this is a delicate balance, especially for parents of toddlers. But following are some important ideas to keep in mind. It’s Nature and Nurture
“The studies [of twins and adopted children] have important practical implications. Since parenting and other environmental influences can moderate the development of inherited tendencies in children, efforts to assist parents and other care givers to sensitively read a child’s behavioral tendencies and to create a supportive context for the child are worthwhile. A good fit between environmental condition and the child’s characteristics is reflected, for example, in family routines that provide many opportunities for rambunctious play for highly active children, or in child care settings with quiet niches for shy children to take a break from intensive peer activity. Thoughtfully designed care giving routines can incorporate helpful buffers against the development of behavior problems among children with inherited vulnerabilities by providing opportunities for choice, relational warmth, structured routine, and other assists.”
—from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000), From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development. Jack P. Shonkoff and Deborah A. Phillips, eds. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Commission of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
You first need to understand—and accept—the child you have. The starting point of being a good parent is to know your own child. In my first book, I explained that the infants I meet generally fall into one of five broad temperamental types, which I call Angel, Textbook, Touchy, Spirited, and Grumpy. In the next sections of this chapter, we’ll look at how these types translate into toddlerhood, and you’ll find a questionnaire (see pages 21–24) that will help you figure out the type of child you have. What are her talents? What gives her trouble? Is she a child who needs a little extra encouragement or a little extra self-control? Does she plunge willingly into new situations? Recklessly? Or not at all? You must observe your child impartially and answer such questions honestly.
If you base your replies on the reality of who your child is, not on whom you’d like her to be, you will be giving her what I think every parent owes their child: respect. The idea is to look at your toddler, love her for who she is, and tailor your own ideas and behavior to do what is best for her.
Think of it: You wouldn’t ever dream of asking an adult who hates sports to join you at a rugby game. You probably wouldn’t ask a blind person to join you on a bird-watching expedition. In the same way, if you know your child’s temperament, her strengths, her weaknesses, you’ll be better able to determine not only what’s right for her, but what she enjoys. You’ll be able to guide her, provide an environment suited to her, and give her the strategies she needs to cope with the ever more challenging demands of childhood.
Suomi’s Monkeys: Biology Is Not Destiny
Stephen Suomi and a team of researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development purposely bred a group of rhesus monkeys to be “impulsive.” In the monkeys, as in humans, a lack of control and high risk taking is associated with low levels of the brain chemical serotonin (which inhibits impulsiveness). It seems that a recently identified serotonin-transporter gene (found in humans as well) prevents serotonin from metabolizing efficiently. Suomi found that when monkeys who lacked this gene were raised by average mothers, they tended to get into trouble and end up at the bottom of the social hierarchy. But when they are assigned to mothers known to be exceptionally nurturing, their futures are far brighter. Not only do the monkeys learn to avoid stressful situations or to get help dealing with them (which, not surprisingly, raises their social status in the colony), the extra nurturing actually brings the baby monkeys’ serotonin metabolism into normal range. “Virtually all of the outcomes can be altered substantially by early experiences,” says Suomi. “Biology just provides a different set of probabilities.”
—adapted from “A Sense of Health,” Newsweek, Fall/Winter 2000.
You can help your child make the most of whoever he is. It is well documented that biology is not a life sentence. All humans—and even other animals (see sidebar)—are a product of both their biology and the world into which they’re born. One child may be “born shy,” because she inherits a gene that gives her a low threshold for the unfamiliar, but her parents can help her feel safe and teach her strategies for overcoming her shyness. Another child might be “a natu- ral risk taker” because of his serotonin levels, but his parents can help him learn impulse con- trol. In sum, understanding your child’s temperament enables you to plan ahead.
Your child’s needs aside, you must take responsibility for what you do, too. On the stage of life, you are your child’s first acting coach and director, and what you do to and for her will shape her as much as her DNA does. In my first book, I reminded parents that everything they do teaches their babies what to expect from them and from the world. Take a toddler who whines constantly. When I meet such a child, I don’t think he’s being willful or spiteful. He’s just doing what his parents taught him.
How did it happen? Every time their little boy whined, they stopped their adult conversation, picked him up, or started playing with him. Mum and Dad truly believed they were being “responsive,” but they didn’t realize the lesson their child was learning: Oh I get it. Whining is a surefire way to get my parents’ attention. This phenomenon, which I call accidental parenting (more about it on pages 235–236 and in Chapter 8), can begin in infancy and continue into early childhood, unless parents are aware of the impact of their own behavior. And believe me, the consequences are increasingly serious, because toddlers quickly become proficient at manipulating their parents.
Your perspective about your child’s nature can determine how well you deal with it. Of course, some children are more difficult than others, and it’s also a well-documented fact that a child’s personality can influence a parent’s actions and reactions. Most people find it easier to be even-tempered around a child who is malleable and cooperative than around a child who’s a bit more impetuous or demanding. Still, perspective means everything. One mother might respond to her headstrong daughter by saying, “She’s incorrigible,” while another might see the same nature as a good thing—a child who knows her own mind. It will be easier for the second mum to help her daughter channel her aggressive tendencies toward more suitable applications—for example, leadership. Likewise, one father may be very upset to realize his son is “shy,” while another sees the same reticence as a positive trait—a child who weighs every situation carefully. The second father is more likely to be patient rather than push his son as the first probably would—a strategy that would only make his boy even more fearful (examples of this can be found on pages 35–37 and 311–313).
Who Is Your Toddler?
In a way, temperament is an even greater consideration in toddlerhood, both because your child is now truly growing into his personality and because this is a time when every day presents new challenges to your child. Temperament determines your child’s ability to handle unfamiliar tasks and circumstances, her “firsts.” You may have already determined what type of baby your toddler was—an Angel, Textbook, Touchy, Spirited, or Grumpy child. If so, the following questionnaire will only confirm your perception. That means that you started tuning in to your child early—and that you’ve been telling yourself the truth about her personality.
Get two clean pieces of paper, and working independently, both you and your partner should reply to the questionnaire below. If you’re a single parent, ask the help of another caretaker, the child’s grandparents, or a good friend who knows your toddler well. That way, you at least have another pair of eyes and can compare notes. No two people see the same child exactly the same way, nor does any child act the same way with two different people.
There are no right or wrong answers here, luv—this is a fact-finding exercise, so don’t argue if your answers are different. Simply allow for a broader view. The goal is to help you understand your toddler’s makeup.
You may question the outcome, as did many parents who read Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, by saying, “My child seems to be a cross between two types.” That’s fine, just use the information for both types. However, I’ve found that one aspect is usually dominant. Take me, for example. I was a Touchy baby, a rather reticent and fearful toddler, and I’ve become a Touchy adult as well, although some days I can act like a Grumpy person and other days a Spirited. But my main nature is Touchy.
Keep in mind that this is just an exercise to help you tune in and become more observant about your child’s natural inclinations. Believe me, you and other elements in her environment will shape your child as well—in fact, this is the time when every encounter is an adventure, and often, a test. This questionnaire is meant to give you an idea of your child’s most significant behavioral traits—how active she is, how distractable, intense, and adaptable, how she deals with the unfamiliar, how she reacts to the environment, how outgoing or withdrawn she is. Note that the questions ask you to consider not only what she is doing now, but also what she was like as a baby. Mark the answers that reflect your toddler’s most typical behavior—the way she usually acts or reacts.