I ❤️ toddlers who have a mind of their own

A fellow toddler-mum recently commented on how often I say ‘yes’ to R. She admired how little I interfere with how he chooses to move through the world, outside of the usual limit-setting. I was grateful for her kind observation because possessing a mind of my own is a hard-won ability, and like so many of my interpersonal ethics, I am fiercely in favour of cultivating this capacity in R because individuating was so perilous in my own childhood. I think about ‘having a mind of one’s own’ as the license -the internal permission- to choose how to live and love and play. It’s a relationship to the self in which there’s either quite allot of looking over ones shoulder, waiting for some outside authority to swoop in and take the toy and explain how to play with it the right way- not having a mind of ones own- or else there’s a freedom to follow ones appetite and instinct and the world is your oyster and go out and explore and enjoy it as you wish. That relationship to self – this sense of freedom and permission- I think of as having a mind of ones own. And this sensibility is inscribed in us before we can even speak, its coded in the looks and gestures and attitudes of our caregivers towards us as we move through the world as infants and toddlers.

And it is so easy to steal this sense of agency from a kid. Compliance and rebellion are so easy to foster even though mutuality always feels like the richer relational option.

In response to my friend’s kind words, I thought I’d make a list of instinctive gestures I always want my toddler to own, that I’ll never take over or thwart, that are his territory. His signature way of being in the world that is entirely his, that has nothing to do with me whatsoever. These are things he doesn’t need my help thinking through or intervening in, that he can probably work out for himself, with my unobtrusive, attentive presence. I hope I provide the space to explore his own experience and to work out what it means to him- I think about the creative pleasure involved in puzzling something out by myself, like how to wallpaper a wall, or how to feel my way into a tricky yoga position, or how much more coriander I need for this dish- and how much fun process itself is. I love being absorbed like that. If someone were to come along- and sometimes they do- and take over, maybe tell me how to do it rather than let me figure it out for myself, I would find that extremely frustrating. Maybe humiliating. Definitely distracting. This kind of interruption happens all the time for toddlers though. There they are, grappling with and feeling their way through some crazy fun challenge like getting up a set of steps in a totally absorbed, embodied way, and some well -meaning adult comes along and tells them to be careful and this is how you climb stairs and yanks them out of themselves into the welter of abstract words and objective experience.

And it turns out, R doesn’t need me to tell him how to do something most of the time. He’s pretty confident. And it’s a bit bitter-sweet. Being not-needed means I’m writing myself out of his life, I’m making myself redundant. But maybe that’s the joy-sorrow paradox of parenting. Every time I let him figure something out for himself and invite him to make his own meaning from an experience, I’m waving goodbye:

Falling down (I process my own feelings of concern/guilt/worry while he examines his injuries) I try to wait for him to tell me if he is hurt and what he wants from me.

Putting a CD in the CD player

Informing me he was going to stick some glow in the dark stars on his ceiling by standing on a chair. I didn’t puncture his plan, I let him drag the chair into his bedroom and discover he couldn’t reach, which he informed me of and when I said, oh, instead of offering him a solution, he came up with an idea by himself.

How to make a mark on the page or what to draw

Riding on a different seat on the train, like the ones behind me

What to do with himself during quiet time

Being hit or pushed by another child. Sometimes he is upset, sometimes he’s not, it depends on so many things. I wait for his cue before I interpret the meaning. He gets to decide how he feels first

Riding a bike. It took a whole year of grappling before he worked out how to use his balance bike

Grappling with how to climb a ladder on the playground

Going down a steep hill. My heart is in my mouth in these moments, but if the result of my quick, silent risk-assessment comes back as ‘low’ I let him get on with the pleasures of puzzling out while I eat my feelings and stay vigilant

What conversational topics are interesting- silence breeds thought and his spontaneous observations are far more intriguing and surprising than anything I could elicit or extract from him with questions or guidance

Grating a carrot

Pointing out what is of interest en route to the shop: the contents of the bin, fluffy dandelions, butterflies

How to get to the shop (Shuffle? Walk on a wall? Scoot?) I try to leave enough time so he can genuinely make the decision without me feeling stressed. Sometimes if we’re in a hurry, I have to take the choice out of his hands.

Deciding to splash in a huge puddle

Choosing whether to shout at me while I prepare dinner or potter off to find something else to do

Watering his red wagon instead of the plants in the garden

Choosing the route

Deciding how much and what to eat on his plate at mealtimes

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

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