Q+A with Tovah Klein

With Tovah Klein, Director, Barnard Center for Toddler Development

By Gabrielle S. Balkan ’97


When babies become toddlers, parents often discover they know as little about their children’s world as 2-year-olds know about grown-ups’. To help close that knowledge gap, the Barnard Toddler Center has conducted influential research on early childhood development for more than 40 years, helping adults understand toddlers’ worlds, as well as the ways young children think and act. The Center’s director, Tovah Klein, shares her expert advice about how best to navigate life with a toddler. Consider these pointers the ABCs of the 2s and 3s.

What do parents and caregivers need to know most about toddlers?

Tovah Klein with a toddlerThe first thing is that the toddler world is so different from the adult world. Part of that is brain development. Part of it is language. And part is that toddlers have to figure out themselves first. They're also just figuring out the world and how it works. So, they’re different from anything we’d consider adult or socialized.

Young children, by their nature, are self-centered. Not selfish, but self-centered. A little child is thinking, “Hey, I’m me, and I’m going to celebrate that.” They don’t know their family’s rules and society’s rules, and we shouldn’t shame them for that. You really have to see the world from their point of view and appreciate that it’s so different than what we expect of adults.

The second thing adults should know is that development takes time. We adults always want to rush children to grow up. I try to get people to slow down and appreciate where a child is right now and see the beauty in that. The more we look at toddlers and want them to be like us, the more trouble we run into.

Tell us about little kids and shame.

Many cultures, religions, societies, and families use shame to keep people in line. But if you shame a child — if you tell them or imply that they’re bad or wrong — you’re actually hurting their foundation. If they’re riddled with shame and insecurity, then it’s very hard to grow up. Instead, when we treat toddlers with empathy and kindness, they learn empathy and kindness.

That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t say no to them and you can’t put a limit on them. That’s where parents get confused. You can say, “I wish we could go out and play right now, but it’s bedtime. Tomorrow we will.” That’s empathic while you’re saying, “I’m still putting you to bed.” Even when the child is in a phase of hitting — give them a place to hit. A pillow. Stomp their feet. People get so nervous that kids are going to keep doing it. But it’s a phase. They think shaming is going to stop them, and it’s the opposite: “You think I’m bad? Let me show you how bad I am.”

What are some other ways toddlers are developmentally butting up against grown-ups?

There are two biggies: One is no sense of time. Whatever a toddler sees or can touch or can think about in this moment matters tremendously. The fact that you’re trying to get [them] out the door is completely irrelevant.

The second is something that I find very delightful, which is endless possibilities. You give a young child something very simple, like buttons or a couple of boxes to play with, and they can come up with unbelievable possibilities.

Adults have very clear ideas about what objects are for. A spoon is for serving yourself food. Shoes are for putting on your feet and walking. Young children don’t see it that way. They approach everything with, “Hey, what’s that? What can I do with it?” They could throw it. They could bite it. They could stack it. That’s a big clash with adults.

So what’s a parent or caregiver to do?

You have to be able to let go of your expectations. You think, “We’re going to get from point A to point B this way.” And your 2-year-old’s thinking, “Actually, I’m going to pick up every single pebble on my way.” It’s not going to go the way you want.

Adults need to let go of our own rigidity and try to figure out what are reasonable expectations. Is it reasonable to expect your 3-year-old to sit through dinner with the grandparents at 7 p.m. at a nice restaurant? Probably not.

One way to deal with this is with lightness and humor. Seeing their world makes it much more enjoyable. Be there with them, and don’t take things too seriously. We tend to take toddler behavior as if it’s the end of the world. A child hitting is a way of communicating. Do you want them to hit all the time? No. But give them a teddy bear to hit instead. Realize that this, too, shall pass.

Also, because toddlers have no sense of time, you have to have routines. Literally, toddlers’ brains and even young elementary school kids aren’t good at it. Routines help them organize and be able to predict what comes next. If every day after dinner, you have your bath, then the child — they can protest it, but they know, “Oh, dinner’s done. I know what’s next.” Young children are basically in a disorganized state all the time, and it’s the adult’s job to say, “Oh, I’m going to help organize you.”

Toddlers also need to know that in their worst moments — when they’re throwing a tantrum, when they’re in a new place and clinging to a parent — the parent is there for them, is going to accept them and love them, no matter what. Their emotions are just huge at this age. They have big emotions with very little ability to manage them. It’s so scary! It’s scary to the children. It’s Where the Wild Things Are.

That’s what that book is really about: “I get so upset, and are you still there for me if I show you my worst side?” And a toddler needs to know, no matter what behavior they show, and no matter what limits the parent puts on them, that they’re still loved.

toddler playing with legos

Why is play so important?

Play is toddlers trying to figure things out. And it’s where they try on different identities: “I can be Mommy. I can be Daddy. I can be the dog.” They also work out emotions. They figure out what they can do. Let’s say they’re building or they’re squishing soapy bubbles in water — it becomes a science experiment.

They’re also figuring out what they can’t do. Maybe I’m able to build a tower this way, but not this other way that I envisioned. They’re facing their limits. They’re facing frustration tolerance. Play is also about ideas: “I have an idea, and I’m going to figure out how to do it. I want to make pancakes out of the Play-Doh; how am I going to do that?” There’s a lot of decision-making. That’s the foundation of all learning.

What do you think we need to do to facilitate toddler development?

We need to take a look at their environment and say, “What does this child need? What does the world look like from their point of view?” They need stability, security, safe places to play. Pretty simple, right? They need to be held when they’re upset. They need for us to know that this is the most important time in a person’s life. And every child needs to know that somebody is there appreciating them and enjoying them.

Need more help? Klein’s 2014 book, How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success, functions as a bible for parents and caregivers of all kinds. And to learn more about these young children and the research about them on campus, visit toddlers.barnard.edu.

Gabrielle S. Balkan is the author of Book of Flight and other books for children.

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