To the Toddler Momma Who Feels the Pressure

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.  

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Unpacking “Help” in Toddlerese

There are basically three definitions of the word “help” in the Toddlerese Dictionary.  You know them.

Help /help/

exclamation 

1. used as an appeal for urgent assistance.

“Help!” (as their head is firmly stuck in between deck rails).  “Help!” (as they are stuck planking between the couch and ottoman and are scared to fall in between).  You know this one as a toddler actually needing help, but for something usually pretty ridiculous and picture worthy.

verb 

2. request to offer your services or resources to make the toddler’s life easier – not as urgent.

“Mom. Please help.” (as she points to the kleenex box on shelf she can’t reach, wanting to take out every kleenex one at a time).  “Please help. Water.” (as he points to his water bottle on the floor of the car that you JUST picked up for him no less than 12 times already).

verb

3. an offering of assistance from your toddler to you – because through your own invitation or simple appeal of the activity, the toddler thinks their assistance will indeed be helpful.

 

THIS LAST ONE.  Numero tres.  The act of the toddler “helping” you.  This is the one.

No one talks about this act of toddler assistance, when some days I feel like it will surely be the thing that kills me one painstaking minute at a time. More so than the whining.  More so than the tantrums when leaving the playground.  And more so than alligator wrestling during each and every diaper change.  (I said some days).

If you’ve been around toddlers, you know all too well the “help” I’m talking about.  It can look like this:

Intention: help vacuuming.

Reality: toddler tries to hold and push your vacuum all on their own with NO help from you, resulting in a several minute struggle because its too heavy, and ending in tears because they couldn’t do it.  Hence, nothing got vacuumed, because your toddler now needs help coming down from their vacuum induced rage.  And if you’re thinking, “just remind her of her own play vacuum and you can do it together”, you are more than welcome to come over and tell her that.  I’ll be in the corner giggling.

Intention: help baking and cooking.

Reality: after bringing over a chair for toddler to stand on or bringing ingredients down to their level, you think you’ve got a firm grip on their hand that holds the mixing spoon.  Toddler refuses help, because after all, they’re the pro here? You calmly refuse to give them full reign, which incites immediate frustration from toddler.  Before you can say “here it comes”, that firm grip is not so firm, and there is food – everywhere. You swear under your breath as you clean up the unknown proportions of misplaced ingredients that that was the last time you let them help for awhile.  Until tomorrow. Blue berry muffins still turn out when half of the mix in your dogs mouth, right?

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Intention: help you go to the bathroom.

Reality:  Who knew that after being self-sufficient in the bathroom for 98% of your life you now needed help? You can’t say no – you want them interested in potty training and the process of going on the potty.  So, they help get you toilet paper to wipe with.  Which is fine, until you’re done wiping – but they aren’t done getting it for you.  Half a roll is on the ground, you’re stuck on the pot, and in frustration they quickly reach to flush before you tell them you’re ready.  All you’re left with is a few cold droplets of water on your butt and the shame in knowing your toddler just beat you in the bathroom.

Intention: help feeding the dogs.

Reality: This one is too easy to envision.  Toddler wants to dump food into bowls.  Gets distracted along the way (shocking).  Food ends up all over floor.  Some gets eaten by dogs.  Some gets eaten by toddler.  You don’t know how much food your dog actually got.  You find bits of dog food in kitchen over the next week.

Intention: helping unload the dishwasher.

Reality: They are playing nicely in the playroom, so you quietly open the dishwasher thinking you can quickly unload it sans “help”.  Your tot is the modern day version of Pavolv’s dog, however, and the simple sound of the dishwasher clicking open sends them running into the kitchen salivating with a thirst to help. You frantically get all the knives and deadly weapons up on the counter out of reach, and then proceed to let them help you.  Three dirty spoons, a broken plate, and 38 minutes later, the dishwasher is unloaded. How could you have possibly done it without them?

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Intention: help bringing in the groceries.

Reality: Most bags are too heavy to hand over.  You learned that when they tipped over sideways while trying to walk the bag through the garage and smashed into the wagon.  So now its a team effort between you and hubby. One sifts through bags looking for durable, non-breakable, non essential, light weight items to hand out. The other waits at the door to retrieve the items one at a time to avoid the toddler trying to walk up (and consequently falling back down) the stairs into the house.  If it was a large grocery shop, you know to run in the perishable fridge/freezer items first because they could easily go bad by the time your helper is done helping.

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To the parents of tiny helpers, I salute you.  Keep on keepin’ on.  Every day tasks take infinitely longer, the house can quickly turn dramatically filthier, and our patience meter can take significant hits when we are “assisted”, but we are determined to raise confident, independent, generous, and strong-willed young people. So we keep at it.   After all, are we really that important to take the extra time to teach them? We allow them to help us throughout our day because we know in the long run, the rewards will far outweigh the patience we put in.  And one day… one day… their help will in fact be our adult definition of help.  Right? (No seriously, some reassure me I’m right).

"Helping" me sweep out the garage.  Aka, stealing the good broom and sweeping our street.
“Helping” me sweep out the garage. Aka, stealing the good broom and sweeping our street.

 

 

 

Turkey Dogs for Life

I need to send out a hug.  A giant, heartfelt, bear hug to all of you parents that have ever dealt with a toddler that’s a picky eater.  Why? Because OH MY GOD.

Dealing with a picky eater wasn’t even in my peripheral vision.  Not even on my radar. I guess that was one potential challenge of parenthood I overlooked.  Maybe I just assumed because I’m such a good eater that my kids would be too.  After all, I read that moms who eat a variety of foods while pregnant pass those flavors to their baby, therefore creating a pleasant, adventurous eater.  So that must be true, right? Gahhh.

I even remember before I had kids and would see other parents of picky eaters.  The naive, young, head in her butt Erica would tell herself, “Come on! Its not that hard! Its either what you make or they don’t eat! Simple.  Problem solved”.  I love giving that Erica the, “Haha, ok, because you know it all” eye roll.

This one isn’t about advice, or a “what works well for us”. It’s simply a hug.  Because dealing with a picky eater can be so overwhelmingly frustrating and trying.  Even knowing that its a phase, and knowing I’ve never seen an adult only eat turkey dogs and cheese… when all you want is to be able to nourish your child with plenty of vitamins and wholesome goodness for the energy and growth they so deserve… its all too easy to feel defeated.

This one’s for you.

This is for the parents who have brought out the Brezza or food processor time after time after time, determined to make your own baby food, only to have a messy kitchen and a stocked freezer that will never get touched to show for it.  

This is for the parents who have tried steaming, broiling, baking, boiling, and grilling.  There’s bound to be a preparation method they’ll like, right? 

This one is for the parents who have gone out of their way to eat good foods with enthusiasm and passion in front of your children repeatedly to show that if they would just try it ONE MORE TIME, they’ll like it! We promise! 

This one is for the parents who after a long day, consciously prepare dinner with a lean protein, vegetable, and whole grain that you know are sure hits with your tot.  You just can’t deal with defeat.  Not today.  Until you sit down to eat, and this fab trio you prepared is met with an adamant, “NO! NO! NO!”.  

This one is for the parents who purposely take their kids to Sam’s Club for free samples. So they can try new foods without you having to buy or make them.  They love and eat up the cherries for the first time, so you happily buy a carton.  You get home feeling victorious, clean and cut some up, and then she acts like you’re trying to feed her feces.  

This one is for the parents who have resorted to acting like flipping magicians in the kitchen, hiding and covering up veggies in ways no child can detect.  Until they do, and that whole portion of their meal is now deemed inedible.  

This one is for the parents who have tried to wait it out. Leaving little ones in their booster or high chair for awhile.  Surely, she’ll cave.  She HAS to be hungry.  I WILL win this one.  Until you don’t.  

This one is for the parents who have made so many smoothies they should moonlight at their local Jamba Juice.  If they aren’t going to eat their fruits and veggies, you’ll be damned if they don’t drink them.  

This one is for the parents who know the anxiety that comes from knowing they only have one shot at introducing a new food at meal time.  And the WHEN during meal time is critical.  Too early – the entire meal could be shot.  Too late – the entire meal could be shot.  It’s an art form, people.  

This one is for the parents who have felt the repeated devastation of wasting food.  Oh, the wasting of food.  You consider eating it yourself, until you realize its not healthy for your mental well-being or waistline.  Breaks my heart one tiny piece at a time.  

This one is for the parents who have sat there at night, rocking their little one to sleep, replaying the day through their head and cataloging every thing their child ate.  Most days, it never feels like enough.  

This one is for the parents who rarely get to eat warm food.  You want to share meals together, and you want to set an example every day of what eating well looks like, but when you’re up and down repeatedly – the chicken is never warm by the time you get back to it.  

You know how important nourishment is for healthy minds and healthy bodies.  Your child deserves the best, and you so want to be able to give it to them if they just let you.  You envision the day when a family meal time will go smoothly, without disappointment, interruption, or requiring a short order cook.  You’ve read the books and articles.  You get the unsolicited advice.   And you know, like all phases, this too shall pass.   But in the moment, when you’ve pulled out all the stops, sometimes throwing up the white flag feels like your only course of action.

Some of my wonderful dietitian moms have recommended this Ellyn Satter site as a guide for setting healthy eating boundaries and sharing the responsibility of eating well between you and your children.  Hopefully some of you find it beneficial – I know I have.  A lot of great resources.

Until then, I feel for you.  We’ll get through this, one GD chicken nugget at a time.

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