Dear Toddler Mom Who Feels the Pressure,
It doesn’t happen all at once, does it? It’s more of a gradual mixing of equal parts pressure and mild panic. It starts when you see Johnny’s mom post a sweet little video clip of him singing his ABC’s. Well that was cute! Maybe we can incorporate the ABC song into our bedtime routine. I know that one. One day at dance class you overhear some moms talking about how their daughters recently mastered counting and identifying all the numbers from 1-20 in preschool. Hmmm. That’s pretty impressive. They can identify them, too? I bet at least one of them still calls it ‘five-teen’. At a family gathering your mother-in-law pulls you aside asking what your plans are for little ole Bennie because she plays Bunco with this woman who’s cousin’s wife’s best friend just taught her three year old how to write his first AND last name with all letters facing the right way. What the fuck? Isn’t his last name Lombardozzi? My kid only enjoys writing so he can see how much pressure it takes to snap the lead. Then there’s the hair on the camel’s back. While at a play date with some of your mom friends, one of them shares her daily schedule for her 2.5 year old. Which is fine, except for the fact that includes a 35 minute block at 9 a.m. during which they use flash cards to practice sight words. WHAT?! Too far, Karen. TOO FAR.
This gradual mixing of pressure and panic has eventually gotten you to question the very competency of your role as mother.
My kid isn’t doing any of these things yet. Should I start looking at preschools already? But I’m not ready. Do I need flashcards? Yes, flashcards. Ok. But of what?! I don’t want little Bennie to fall behind. What do they even need to know before kindergarten? I have no idea. Can I google “shit to know before kindergarten”? Why can’t I get Bennie to sit for more than four freaking seconds to learn from me, anyway? Where do I start? Upper case letters or lower case letters? WHY ARE THERE TWO COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CASES OF LETTERS? Should I send him to a private preschool to catch him up? I mean he’s clearly already fallen behind. That’s it. In the morning, I’m hiring a tutor. Now where do I find a tutor for a two year old? I wonder if that Lombardozzi kid can come over before nap time?
Oh Momma, I feel you. I feel you because some days I am you. My education and work experience is in elementary education, a lot of which has been working with at risk students. Teacher Erica knows better than to feel this way, but Momma Erica understands the pressure. For the past few months I’ve watched mom friend after mom friend send their littlest tots off to preschool with their adorable little backpacks, and I’ve internally struggled over when to send my own. It can be a challenge to drown out all the noise around me and really get to the root of what is right for MY kids. But no more. Teacher Erica knows better.
Please don’t misunderstand me, or feel offended by my words. If you’ve stopped by here before you know me well enough to know that I wholly and completely respect your choices. Maybe you’re starting preschool early so you can have some time to actually work your part-time job from home. Maybe you don’t know anything about how to teach them when they’re that little and sending them off is what feels right for you and yours. Maybe you can’t afford a preschool you feel good about, and sending them isn’t even an option. Maybe your tot hasn’t been able to make any friends and you want her to gain some social experiences. Whatever your situation – whatever the reasoning for your choices – they are yours, and I support you whole-heartedly. We all just want the best for our kids, right?
But to the Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure, I want you to let it go. Let it go with me. Put on your blinders, follow your gut, and know it will be alright. You want to know how I know?
Because they are toddlers. Toddlers who learn everything they need to learn right now through play.
They are toddlers who joyfully transfer water at the water table or sift sand through their hands for hours on end. They are toddlers who love to jump, crawl, spin, climb, and sprint down aisles at the store. They are toddlers who carefully watch everything you do, and tell you “I do it!” one hundred times a day as they begin to explore their new independence. They are toddlers who are learning to share, and desperately trying to regulate their emotions when it doesn’t go their way. They are toddlers. And this is how they learn.
Before ABC’s and 123’s, they need to time and opportunity to think critically, apply, play with cause and effect, flirt with boundaries, communicate emotions, experiment with their physical capabilities, and workout their social muscles. They need time to be bored so their imagination can fire. They need opportunities to question, to examine, observe, negotiate, be let down, learn responsibility, and gradually build their attention span. They need time to watch you do all these things, as well. Academics will always be there, I promise. There will always be books to read, teachers to listen to, and curriculum to follow. Preschools today keep moving from play based to academic based, and while that helps us feel like we are giving our children a leg up in the short term, it is not always beneficial in the long term. So if not preschool right now, then what? Right? The good news, momma? Most of this can happen authentically in your day to day life, and often times with little to none of your help. They are toddlers. And this is how they learn.
Let them develop their fine motor skills through play so when they do get to school, they are able to hold their pencil with ease and cut with scissors like it’s nobody’s business. Bust out the chopsticks, syringes, spray bottles, and tweezers. Encourage them to use their utensils at meal time correctly. Wring out sponges full of water, rope Cheerios on a string, and transfer beads between bottles. Build wobbly block towers, and let them hammer golf tees into the soft grass (with supervision!). Let them put coins in the parking meter, push pipe cleaners through holes in boxes, and let them pick up their peas at dinner using their pinchers. Keep those little hands busy.
Take the time to teach them about their emotions and how to appropriately navigate them. Emotional control is a growing concern with today’s youth, and putting in the work in this area is essential. Guide them to recognize the differences between anger, frustration, sadness, joy, and empathy. Name the emotions, and talk about your own feelings as you feel them. Practice cool-down techniques, breathing techniques, and phrases that allow them to communicate these emotions. Equip them so they don’t grow into adults who lack emotional control and struggle to succeed in the workplace and in relationships.
Give them opportunities to practice patience and delayed gratification. Our world is so ‘I want it now therefore I need it now’. Don’t give in the toy request just because they asked for it. Put it on their wish list instead and let them earn it. Teach them that sharing follows this concept too. Sharing isn’t so much “I want it now, so you must give it to me”, but more of a “when you’re done using it, I’d really like a turn”. When they demand your attention in the middle of you talking to someone else, teach them a signal or phrase that says, “I see you, and I will listen in a minute when I’m done talking”. Aside from emergencies, not all of their wants and needs will be met exactly when they would like them to. And that’s OK.
Let them explore and develop their gross motor capabilities so when they get to school they can sit upright in their chair with a strong core, and physically keep up with a full day of school. Toddlers are made to MOVE. Its what they do and how they learn. It is quite literally what keeps their brains going. So provide those opportunities. Let them climb rope ladders, walk a balance beam, bear crawl up a hill, jump on a (kid friendly) trampoline, and climb up to the big slide. (And only when there’s no one else at the playground, let them climb up it, too 🙂 ). Teach them how to jump on one foot, skip, shuffle, do somersaults, dance, walk backwards, swim, kick, ride a bike, throw, and spin. Don’t always catch their fall so they can learn their physical capabilities and boundaries. Let them scrape up their knees. Let them PLAY and MOVE. They aren’t built to sit yet. They are toddlers and this is how they learn.
Teach them social etiquette and manners. The ‘please’s, ‘thank you’s, ‘nice to meet you’s, and holding the door open. The ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean it’s, ‘excuse me’s, ‘no thank you’s, and respecting personal space. Teach them how to wait in a line, how to say hello and goodbye, and how to wait their turn to speak in a conversation. Let them order their own meal at a restaurant, and teach them how to start a conversation with new friends at the playground.
Let them be bored and let them learn to play independently. Boredom can fuel imagination, as does being left alone to play with toys in whatever way you see fit. They don’t always need to be entertained, nor should they always look to you for their entertainment. Give them some toys or tools to engage with and let them do their thing! And when they are done, join in on the imaginative fun and spend a morning walking and talking as real life pirates exploring uncharted waters.
Give them opportunities to practice independence and self sufficiency. I know, they are our babies and sometimes its so darn hard to give up, but if you’re wanting to raise capable and well adjusted adults – let them do it. Let them attempt to get dressed on their own for as long as it takes for them to nail the difference between the neck and arm holes. Tying their shoes, cutting their food (with kid friendly cutlery), washing their hair, brushing their teeth, preparing meals, making their bed, feeding the dogs, buckling themselves into the car seat (which then gets checked! 🙂 ), and cleaning up after themselves. Our lives are so go go go these days that slowing down and taking the time to allow them this independence can be painstakingly brutal. But its worth it one million times over. Slow down, and let them do it. They will still need you plenty, I promise.
Don’t always give them the ‘effect’ in cause and effect. Let them discover that on their own sometimes as they exercise decision making abilities. When you jump off the stairs one step too high, it will hurt. When you drop food off the table, the dog does get it. When you refuse a jacket in the winter, you will get cold. When you avoid dinner at all costs, you will go to bed with a hungry tummy. When you’re mean to friends, they won’t want to play with you. And when you won’t listen to mom and dad, there will be consequences. Let them be teachable moments, and let them discover what good and bad decisions look like.
Set a strong foundation for kindness, compassion, and tolerance. Teach them how good it feels to be kind and helpful to others. Show them how rewarding it can be to be a good helper. Demonstrate how to comfort someone who is sad, how to think of others’ feelings (this one takes a long time!), and how ALL people deserve kindness and love. Recognize and celebrate differences between yourselves and family and friends. Read literature with diverse characters and cultures. Give them experiences that teach them gratitude for what they have and inspire a desire to help those less fortunate. The world needs more of this, and you have the opportunity to be a catalyst for it.
This stuff doesn’t all show up on a preschool report card, but I promise you… its worth it. These are the kinds of tools that need to be taught at this age so when it is time for academics, they will be ready to learn and thrive.
Still hung up on academics? That’s OK. I am sometimes too. We can’t fault ourselves for wanting to exercise those little brains. And I’ve got more good news for you Momma. You can teach age appropriate academics within the nuances of your everyday life – you just have to take advantage when they arise. Teach counting with one-to-one correspondence at the grocery store by letting them put the tomatoes in the bag. Count toes before putting on pajamas, birds at the bird feeder, slices of apple that still need to be eaten, and pennies they’ve earned for their piggy bank. Teach directional words like over, under, bottom, and top while playing at the playground. Teach them how to tell stories and elaborate on their day by Facetiming grandma and grandpa. Slowly build up teaching them multi-step directions. Start with one (“Put your cup on the table”), to two (“put your cup on the table and take your plate to the sink”) to three (“put your cup on the table, take your plate to the sink, then come here for a hug!”). Point out colors in natural surroundings as you explore. The greens of the grass, the blues of the sky, the red of the stop sign on your way to the park and the firetruck that squeals by, and the yellow leaves of fall. Read fun counting and rhyming books. Build critical listening skills by closing your eyes and listening closely for the differences between a plane and a helicopter flying by. Play memory matching games, and recognize numbers as you play hopscotch, dial a phone, or read a clock together. Let them count money to pay the cashier. Incorporate talking about the weather in your morning routine. Read read read, and read some more. Better yet, focus on their relationship with books and make it one of comfort, happiness, and joy. (Their future teachers will thank you!). And no, a little Sesame Street never hurt anyone. 🙂
Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure, you’re doing a wonderful job. Your concern and care over the best for your child shows it. If you feel overwhelmed, that’s OK. I do, too. We’ve got plenty of curriculum right here at home, huh? Let the pressures of ABC’s and 123’s roll off your strong shoulders for the moment, and remember its OK for life skills, playing with friends, and exploration to be your focus right now. They are toddlers, and this is how they learn.