The Art of Being a Toddler

‘For a moment she gazed fearfully at the cliff. Then she got bored. The cliff, the sea, the rocks: They never changed, never moved. Boring. A dog appeared. “A dog!” we both said.’
– ‘The View’, Orhan Pamuk

I suspect there is an art to the business of being a toddler, so this little entry is an effort to celebrate that, in between the inevitable moments of quiet despair in which I wonder how life turned into quite such a mess of battles. 

Detecting, Copying

Suddenly, she thrusts into the light a quirk I didn’t know I had. “Right,” she will say, as we turn to go up the stairs or move onto another activity. This is an announcement: we’re doing this now! It also means: I’m choosing to make this happen. Now, of course, I can hear the echo from my own voice and realise this often arises from my eagerness at leaving the house or finally managing to do something. It sounds so much better in her voice; she’s rather stolen my trick of confidence! 


This is the talent most often on display: finding what I didn’t realise was there to be found. The odd curled-up, once-wriggly “worm’ (a tiny version of such), knocked to the very edges of the kitchen floor by our passing feet, which she greets with delight: “oh, a worm!” A feather on the grass, but not just one feather only: each feather is a reminder to look out for more. And stones: mostly they need to be small enough to fit in the hand, but they can be as tiny as they come. Any new location or destination offers a chance to look for stones. They look as if they had been waiting all along for someone who knew just what to do with them.

Rearranging, Repurposing

This seems to be one of the main tasks of life. Mummy has her jobs, and I must find my own out of whatever has been left behind / made available. The tins, for example, can be taken out of the cupboard and positioned in a nice semicircle. The pans can be pulled out, and used as containers for anything small enough to form a collection inside: potatoes, onions, treasures from the garden and magnets from the fridge. But it doesn’t end there: there is always life in this game, and it can be begun again tomorrow as if it had never been completed.

Revising the Command System

This has happened so gradually and surreptitiously that by the time I realised how unprepared I was, the process was well underway. But though I can’t say I enjoy trying to reverse it, it does make me smile to note the sheer mastery of the thing. Her latest phrases, “Get it,” and (my least favourite) “Fetch it,” show a command of language and its purposes, at the very least. 

Interestingly, she knows, already, how not to put herself in a position of weakness. Though there often seem to be multiple reasons why she doesn’t want to get into the highchair, the fact that once she is in she can’t safely get out again by herself must be high amongst them. Likewise with the trolley and the car seat. But this instinctive assertion of self does give me pause. It is what I feel I have doggedly forgotten how to do, frankly, and perhaps this is all to the good in an adult universe where we have to find a way to get along. Perhaps much of the time, self is not the thing that most needs asserting: there are other things that we individually represent. And yet something about seeing this untamed, fresh-hewn instinct enacted in front of me reminds me of what I found also in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. While the consequences seem unsightly, it is possible to determine to be someone who doesn’t back down.  

Setting the Pace

I came across a sentence unexpectedly in a book that put things into place for me somewhat. The comment was simply made that toddlers prefer to take things slowly. It made me stop short because it doesn’t often feel like that: it feels like there is constant energy and activity. But I notice now that the energy is directed towards the doing itself: there is little focus on getting the thing done. So we can do as much or as little of it as we want, and take as long as we want over it, because time is not an issue. As R.S. Thomas says in his poem ‘The Bright Field’: life is not in the ‘hurrying on’, ‘it is turning aside’. 

Listening, Always (though not in the way one might have planned)

That evening, there was a tempest in my head, but as far as I know, no real indication of this in my expression. She reached over from her highchair, and started stroking my arm with her thumb; real, genuine stroking. “It’s OK,” she said, repeating herself, as she’d heard me do so many times before. A few minutes later she spoke of “feeling better”, patting me in various places and noting that I’d been “stressed”. I had no particular sense that she knew what I was thinking, or that this was an early sign of empathy in action, but rather that it occurred to her, almost on a whim, to give me some special treatment all of a sudden, much as she does for her cuddly bunny. All that listening she has been doing has built up to something in her, I realised, and here it is, re-forming and coming together. But it is miles away from what I thought I was telling her to listen to, and certainly when she is asked to listen it could go either way. 


At this stage, we are not quite two. The toddler years have just begun. 

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay


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