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The Barnard Toddler Center Celebrates 40 Years

In celebration of the Toddler Center's 40th Anniversary, Barnard presents a video capturing the center's dual role as a positive, first school experience for toddlers, and an educational facility for early child development research.

On Monday, February 24, join Prof. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, for a lecture at Barnard, where she will discuss her new book,  How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2 to 5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success

Prof. Tovah Klein has spent the last two decades studying the psychology of two- to five-year-olds. Her new book offers parents and educators a window into this unique part of childhood. Here, she talks about how the toddler years serve as a “lab for later,” and shares some of her most counterintuitive findings about early childhood.

How did this book come about?

For many years, parents and colleagues have encouraged me to write a book. So after many years of saying I would, I finally decided it was time! In truth, if it weren’t for the Toddler Center, this book never would have come into being. Over the years, I’ve learned a tremendous amount by observing and working with toddlers, by listening to the questions that parents ask and helping them navigate through these years, through my research, as well as the ideas and observations that my undergraduate students bring to the classroom. What I repeatedly see is that although there is so much information out there about young children, parents are thoroughly confused and uncertain about how to give their toddlers the right kind of guidance and attention. They have trouble sifting through it, which I can understand. This book is meant for parents and early childhood educators and professionals, and really for anyone who’s going to be interfacing with this two- to five-year-old population. It’s not just intended as a how-to guide, but I hope that it can help adults to look at world from a toddler’s seemingly peculiar and unique point of view.

One of the ideas you present in the book is that the toddler years are really a "lab for later." Can you elaborate on this concept?
The toddler years are a time of incredible, rapid change: there is so much brain development happening, a child is acquiring language, physical, and thinking skills and experiencing new, intense emotions. It’s a time of turmoil, but it’s also an incredible window to set down the foundation for lifelong development—in that way, this phase of life is truly a “lab for later.” For example, one of the biggest struggles for parents is getting out the door in the morning. There’s the immediate need for a child to get through the routine, in order for the family to get to work and school and wherever else they need to go. But it’s also an opportunity to help them learn to be self-sufficient (in the long run) and guide them toward the self-regulation and sequencing that they need to function in their daily lives. So by stepping back and giving a child the cues that they need—‘put your socks on first, then your shoes, now I’m going to help you with your coat’—it does help them get out the door, but equally important, these repeated routines, day in and day out, serve a longer term, more deeply-rooted purpose in their development. It is practicing skills they will internalize over time.

In the book's introduction, you mention the overload of information available on the web. How has this changed the experience of parenting toddlers? What has been most surprising to you about this cultural development?
With an endless stream of information available, from countless blogs and online resources and video tutorials and message boards, it’s hard to distinguish “right” and “wrong” ways to deal with every imaginable situation that parents face. And it makes it hard for parents to trust their own instinct. The result is that parents are constantly worrying if they’re doing it right, if their children are normal, if they’re making the best choices for their kids. The parent/child relationship is a private dance, but for many it’s taking place in a very public forum. Parenting has become a competitive sport, when in fact it’s really a very intimate relationship that needs to take into account that children are individuals. In many ways, all of that information and the anxiety of trying to get it “right” is a distraction from the more specific, in-the-moment questions: who is your child, and what does your child need right now?

With that competitive mindset, there’s a huge emphasis on lessons, sports, learning languages, and other classes. It’s surprising to me how often parents and even other adults forget that these are babies and their expectations of the toddlers can be very high, out of line with who they are. There’s almost a “hurry up and grow up” attitude. But these are big kid things, and these are very little people. Toddlers are still in their very early years of life, and their job is to figure out who they are, which is very tricky if they’re already being molded into someone else’s expectations.

The book also offers the "Fifteen Seeds of Success," which offer some philosophical guidance for raising children. Which tips do you think parents would consider the most counterintuitive? 
One thing that’s very counterintuitive for parents is that children need to be selfish first. They need to learn to hold on tight and get what they need at these young ages, if they’re going to become caring and generous people later. The ability to genuinely share and be empathetic requires that your own needs—for safety, and feeling secure in yourself—are taken care of first. And for a toddler, who is just figuring out who they are, these needs include possessions.

Along the same lines, there’s a misconception that if a child is not willing to share their possessions, they’re going to be rotten and selfish for the rest of their lives. We live in an era where sharing has become a flashpoint, and it can be embarrassing for parents—everyone wants their kid to be thoughtful and compassionate. That comes later. A child who has trouble sharing is just trying to figure out what they need and how to get it. My advice to parents is take two of each toy—two shovels, two buckets, two trucks—to the playground, and let their kid hold onto what is theirs at this age. Once they feel safe in having what they need, they become generous. Then they share.

Also, it can be very hard for parents to take a step back and let children figure things out, even if their way of figuring things out is riddled with mistakes and stumbling blocks. But if parents really want their kids to be resilient and able to handle life, that trial-by-error is what actually helps children become prepared for life. Toddlers don’t see mistakes as errors. It is part of learning.

How has the experience of writing this book impacted your teaching?
The process of writing this book pushed me to read and engage with a lot of the latest research in early childhood development, particularly concerning the neuroscience of what’s going on for toddlers in these early years. I returned to the classroom this fall a better teacher, with more streamlined and thorough knowledge to share with my undergraduate students. The goal is for them to connect the theories we discuss in class with their hands-on work in the Toddler Center, where they spend one morning per week. The information I brought back from my research and writing definitely helped me convey concepts with renewed excitement and expertise, and this past semester I could see evidence of that in my students’ observations and written assignments.

An interesting part of writing this book is that one of the experts in the field of developmental neuropsychology is a former student of mine. Nim Tottenham did her senior thesis in the Toddler Center during my first year at Barnard, and then went on to get her PhD. I relied on her throughout the process of researching and writing, to bounce ideas and to talk about particular studies. Working with her has been a full circle experience: first she was a Barnard student, then later she was a mother of a child at the Toddler Center and taught Developmental Psychology at Barnard. Now she’s a professor at UCLA, and soon, she will join the faculty at Columbia and do research at the Toddler Center, which we’re very excited about.

Visit Prof. Klein's website for more details on her book and upcoming speaking engagements. For information on her lecture at Barnard on Monday, February 24, visit Barnard's events page