In my daily work with toddlers, I fully embrace the technique of giving them choices to both embrace and encourage their autonomy and competency. In my experience, things flow along much more smoothly with toddlers when they are shown this respect, within reasonable and consistent limits. For example, we have a limit that restricts climbing on the fence that encloses our play yard, as this is dangerous. When a toddler begins to explore climbing there, I may say to them, “I see that you’re feeling like climbing today! Would you like to climb on this structure or would you like to climb on top of the tunnel?” Climbing the fence is not a choice, which can be clearly expressed without using the negative or restrictive language (and tone and body language…) that tend to be hot button issues for these little ones. Often, the appeal of the structure or the tunnel, coupled with a pleasant and positive tone, is enough to bring a toddler right down from the fence. Other times, a toddler may decide to test the implied limit and will continue to climb the fence. I may offer the child the choices again in a slightly different way: “Are you going to climb on the structure or are you going to climb on the tunnel?” The child may glance over their shoulder and continue climbing the fence (are they pushing my buttons yet?). At this point, the choice becomes, “Will you please come down from the fence or do you need help to put your feet on the ground?” There is about a 50/50 chance now that the child will scurry back down safely. If they don’t, they will most likely come down immediately when I move a bit closer asking again, “Do you need help to put your feet on the ground?” (It is generally at between ten and eleven months of age that the children in my program start responding, seemingly overnight, to this tactic.) If they don’t, I will lift them off of the fence while saying, “I’m going to lift you off the fence. I’m helping you down because this isn’t safe.”
This isn’t a script to be followed — while these scenarios play out, which they do with astounding frequency in an average day with numerous toddlers, I’m observing the child’s responses and body language and varying my communication accordingly. We’re caregivers, after all, not robots. Sometimes I’ll be laughing to myself at the awesome persistence of toddlers. Sometimes I’ll be marveling over their gross motor skills. Other times, I’m internally gritting my teeth and reminding myself to relax (oh my goodness, toddlers can push your buttons).
I’ve had many conversations with the parents in our program about offering their children choices. They’re individuals, after all, with thoughts and opinions of their own! They’re increasingly independent people who are still so reliant on us for reassurance and guidance. This is why choices need to be small, real, and clear. Choices need to be offered within reasonable limits. Children need to feel safe and, in my experience, toddlers feel this way when they know that adults are in control of situations and circumstances (please note the difference between being in control and controlling the child).
As more and more parents embrace the idea of offering choices to their toddlers and encouraging their autonomy, they seem to sometimes forget that not everything is a choice (for example, climbing on the fence is never a choice because it’s not safe). Things that are not choices most likely include: riding in your carseat in the car, holding hands with Mom or Dad when walking on the street or in a parking lot, and leaving places — even super fun places — when it’s time to go. When things are not choices, they need to be especially clear and concise. Mom and Dad need to be calm and unflinching. It’s not necessary to ignore a child’s passionate feelings on these issues: “I understand that you don’t want to hold hands right now, but I am holding on to you to keep you safe. I’m sorry you feel upset,” but it is necessary to remain consistent.
I often hear from parents who have their children in childcare that they hate to tell them “no”. They lament that they don’t get to spend time with their child all day, so when they’re together they want their child to be happy and to have what they want. Unfortunately, toddlers who don’t have limits or expectations don’t feel safe. Often, they will keep on testing to try to find the limits until things reach the point of chaos for all involved. I think that sometimes, in their hesitation to make waves, parents miss important cues from their children. Sometimes your child really does just want you to pick them up and say, “Let’s go,” but they’re too little to figure out their own message, let alone make it clear.
Tonight I watched a mom waiting for more than ten minutes for her toddler to follow her to the door. “He doesn’t want to go,” she told me helplessly, “He only does this to me, never to his dad. I don’t know what to do.” Her toddler was crawling around in circles on the ground more than ten feet away from where she stood, slumped and discouraged, no longer even calling his name. I walked over to him and said, “Hey, it’s time to go. Let’s go! Do you want to walk to the door or do you want to use your marching feet?” (He generally loves to march, this boy.) He responded by rolling onto his back and beginning to kick his legs, almost halfheartedly, as if saying, “Do I have to throw a tantrum for you people?” I leaned down and looked him in the eye. “It’s time to go now. If you don’t come with us, we’ll have to carry you.” At this, his whole body stilled as if with a sigh of relief, and he looked up at his mom and I, looking down at him. I picked his limp body up from the ground and said, “Let’s go. We’ll walk to the lobby and then we’ll lock the door. I’m going to get in my car to go home and you’ll get in yours.” By the time we reached the lobby, he was on his own two feet and happily opened the door and then held it open for his mom to follow him out.
Toddlers are more spiritedly independent than anyone in the entire world apart from teenagers, but they’re also very little. Sometimes what they want, after a long day of going about the business of being toddlers, is for someone to scoop them up, tell them exactly what’s going to happen, and head for home.