There’s no perfect formula
Most, if not all, of us, have children in our lives whom we love dearly. We work hard to teach them the values, skills, and strengths that we hope will take them far in life and bring them every success they could want. We try to protect them from danger, make them feel better when they get hurt, and do everything in our power to give them good, happy childhoods so they can grow into good, happy adults.
And we’re all just muddling along at it the best we can. Many of us use some combination of tools we learned from our upbringing, the guidance we get from experts on how to raise kids or self-help books and blogs we read on what works best for kids like the ones in our lives. The truth is, none of us know for sure exactly what the kids we love will need to grow up happy and healthy because we can’t predict the future or read their minds. But a close second best option is to give them the tools to know themselves well enough to make good decisions along the way.
It’s often said that there’s no one right way to parent a child, and when you think about how many different types of unique needs different children can have, this makes a lot of sense! So rather than talking about specific routines or guaranteed tricks to ensure your child gets a perfect future, let’s talk about the traits of successful, well-regulated adults and what can help a child develop those traits over their developing years! While we love to see these skills developed during childhood, it is never too late to learn. Maybe this article speaks to you because of a child in your life, or because your own inner child needs more support. Either way, read on for more!
Birth – 3
These can be beautiful, terrifying years for adults in a child’s life, full of first moments as exciting as they are bursting with anxious energy. Kids at these ages are learning about everything. While they may come into the world with personalities and preferences (Sonya hates broccoli and carrot baby food, and Luke simply adores watching the city trash collectors come by through the window), kids are still learning what words mean, learning about new kinds of plants and animals in their world, and importantly, about how they can and should interact with things and people around them.
We know that it’s important for their development that kids hear a lot of words during these early years from the adults in their lives. Talking to your kids about anything and everything can make a huge difference to their understanding of the world around them. But what you talk about matters too! For example, when you get Stevie ready for a walk around the park, explaining why it matters that everyone puts on their coats and gloves may not seem important – Stevie’s young, not even talking yet! But Stevie’s listening. And the more kids hear us explain why we do the things we do, the better they can perform their own reasoning down the line when the decision is up to them.
Similarly, they learn more about important tasks like why we wash our hands for dinner, why we don’t grab the cat’s tail, why we don’t run out into the street without looking and holding an adult’s hand, or why we stop playing when our friend starts crying. Kids are listening, even when we think they’re not, and they internalize more than we think. Providing clear, straightforward explanations for rules and expectations, even when they’re very young, not only allows us to fill up those airwaves with more words at a time when they most need to hear them but also gives us a chance to explain our reasoning for the things we do as adults that keep them safe – and hopefully head off those frustrating “why’s” in the future.
Another significant element at this stage is naming. Kids are learning what everything is called, from cats to dogs, to friends and meanies, sunshine and rain. So when they start learning about naming words, teach them about naming their body parts. Teach them where their eyes are, their nose, mouth, legs, arms, and teach them about hair and nails, toes, and fingers. And, yes, you should also teach them about penises and testicles, vaginas and vulvas. It’s important to teach kids, even young ones, the medically appropriate names for their body parts. Part of the conversation should be about “good touch/bad touch,” otherwise known as when someone is touching you somewhere they shouldn’t or in an unwanted way or after being asked to stop. Bath times and diaper changes can be natural activities to integrate these conversations, but books are also made for kids of all ages that help parents begin the conversation.
The last thing to know about kids this age is far from the least. They’re building attachments, which is pretty formative for kids and helps create one of the foundations through which they’ll view the world in the future. Helping kids develop secure attachments isn’t necessarily easy, especially since many of its aspects are likely beyond our control. Adults have to work; kids will experience change and distress as toys break or skinned knees occur. But the responses they get from the adults around them when these events occur will make a big difference. If kids in your life need daycare because parents work, see if they can take a comfort item along with them like a small stuffed animal, a charm bracelet, or a special hat that reminds them of the adults that they might be missing. If not, maybe work together to write a short poem or song they can use when they miss their adults at childcare. Reminders at drop-off such as “Don’t forget Iggy, I’ll be here at 5 pm to pick you up!” can also be helpful, as can drop-off and pick-up routines that create familiarity and consistency.
Above all, let the child in your life know that you love them, in whatever form they respond to best – whether that be quality time spent with you, verbal affection, hugs and cuddles, arts and crafts, or whatever the case may be. It’s going to go a long way towards developing a strong relationship with them. That relationship will be the bedrock of the work you do as they get older to help them cultivate skills of emotional regulation, social and interpersonal skills, healthy boundaries, and self-efficacy.
The takeaway for toddlers
Children are far from blank slates when they come into the world, but there’s so much they don’t know yet. Infants and toddlers are like sponges for information, patterns of behavior, meaning-making, and both verbal and non-verbal communication. Consider the ways you can model consent, respectful boundaries, emotional processing skills, and other interpersonal and intrapersonal skills the children in your life will need in order to thrive. The more they see and hear you model this behavior, the better they will be able to replicate it themselves.
Additionally, ensuring that you maintain open communication with clear, direct, non-shaming language can help children learn to express themselves and self-advocate. The best way to help your child become self-sufficient is to give them the tools they need to voice when they are struggling or need additional support. When possible, do not penalize the children in your life for disclosing vulnerability to you, and work with your own support network to regulate your own emotions when they disclose things to you that are difficult to process. Their ability to reach out for help in times of emotional need is beginning cultivation in these early years. So even though we may not fully understand the importance of that toy car they’re crying over, helping them express their feelings about it is good for everyone.
This article is part 1 of a series. You can read part 2 now.