Are Toddlers Truly Terrible?

toddler tantrumFrom two Whole Foods aisles away, I could hear him screaming. It was head-splitting, even at that distance. There were no words; just the angry, piercing screams, over and over. The only breaks seemed to be for the purpose of pulling in new breath for the next scream. My diagnosis from a distance: toddler tantrum.

Moments later, I rounded the end cap into the aisle that contained the source. Sure enough, I saw two red-faced parents, desperately trying to ignore their child's screams. Now, I could also see that the screams were paired with powerful body language, as the child reached with both arms and desperately flailing hands toward some item on the shelf. 

Toddlers in a nutshell: possessive, demanding, and self-centered. Right? Well, let's see.... They are certainly:

  • Fiercely protective of what they define as theirs...which could be anything--anything they want, anything they wanted a few minutes ago or ever wanted at any time in the past, and anything they might want in the future.
  • Loudly expressive of their feelings, interests, and passions.
  • Totally self-absorbed and blissfully unaware of what others are doing, feeling, or wanting.

Now let me give you one word for these characteristics: egocentric. Not egotisitical, like adults who think they're better than everyone else. Egocentric: ego-as-center. Toddlers don't think they're better than the rest of us. They're just not yet clear that there IS a "the rest of us."

Egocentrism is a normal stage of development for toddlers. They can't yet distinguish their interior world of feelings, thoughts, beliefs, needs, and interests from anyone else's. In fact, they think we all share in that world. Whatever they feel, we feel it right along with them. Whatever they think or remember, we share the thought and memory. Whatever they want, we want for them...and with the same intensity that they want it. So how could the little guy in Whole Foods possibly understand his parents' refusal to give him what he wanted? Surely they feel his longing as intensely as he feels it?

Can you see how this temporary toddler perspective of egocentrism creates all those characteristics we label with adult words like possessive, demanding, and self-centered? If you met an adult who acted like a toddler (and many of us have), then those words would be appropriately applied. With toddlers, those kinds of words just get in the way of our best efforts as parents and teachers.

An egocentric toddler is on the verge of finding her boundaries -- the edges that define who she is. He is starting to learn that his thoughts and feelings are his own, not shared by others. She is awakening to the reality that others want something different from what she wants...or they want the same thing she wants, which conflicts with her being sure she'll get it. This stage of development may bring shocking and disruptive changes to the developing child's life. You can't remember this change in your own life, but can you imagine it?

Suddenly, you discover that the cherished adults who care for you every day don't know what you are thinking, wanting, or feeling...and you were certain they did. WHAT? No wonder there is so much screaming at this age. 

Helping the toddlers in your life to move past this egocentric stage is as simple as supporting their development of mental and emotional boundaries--what I call the Childhood Treasure of Independence. For those of us who didn't get that help when we were toddlers (which, frankly, is most of us), that simple job gets a whole lot more complex. Now you can find your own boundaries as you help toddlers find theirs, with Parenting 911 and "Building the Foundation" (for teachers of infants and toddlers), or with Relationship 911.

For now, try this shift in thinking on for size: toddlers truly aren't terrible. They're just discovering the shocking truth, that the rest of us aren't part of a "hive mind" with them. So, go gently, eh?

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Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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