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From Baby to Big Kid: Month 32

FBTBK Month 32

Trying to reason with a toddler at bedtime is unfortunately not a very effective strategy. Browse the information and links below to see what your little one is experiencing and learning this month.

What It’s Like for You

Tamara, mother of Tyrell, dealt with the bedtime blues for the first time recently:

Tyrell flat out didn’t want to go to bed. He was screaming and carrying on. That hadn’t happened before. Usually he takes a bath, we read stories, and he pops into bed. It was like all of a sudden he realized that he wanted to keep on playing. And he was determined to have it his way! There was no reasoning with him, even though we tried, explaining how it was dark and time to rest so he could feel good and play tomorrow. He wasn’t having any of it.

Trying to reason with a toddler at bedtime is unfortunately not a very effective strategy. While toddlers are now showing some ability to think logically, their emotions still overwhelm their ability to understand and respond rationally. At the same time, your child is trying to figure out what is and is not acceptable so your reactions to his behaviors have a big influence on his ability to learn and follow rules.

Start by validating your child’s feelings: It’s hard to go from playing to bedtime because we’re having so much fun. Then set the limit: But it is time for sleep. You need your rest so you have energy to play again tomorrow. Move forward with the bedtime routine. If he protests, repeat your understanding of his feelings but stay firm. Let him know his choice is to continue with stories and lullabies or to just go to bed. It can also help to start to wind your child down about 30 minutes before bed with slower, quieter games (puzzles, blocks, coloring, etc.).

Make your son’s bedtime ritual loving and soothing—experiences like a bath, a lotion “massage,” and a few stories or a lullaby help get him on the road to dreamland. Of course with the busy days you have with a toddler, the challenge always is, as one parent puts it, “keeping my eyes open long enough to get my daughter ready to close hers!”

What It’s Like for Your Child

Sandra and I were playing on the tricycles. We were riding next to each other and then following each other. It was fun! Then I got up for one minute to pick up some mulch and scoop it into a bucket to make soup. When I turned around to get on my red tricycle, Sandra was riding it. I didn’t want the blue one, I wanted mine, the red one. Miss Kathy said that she understood I was upset but that the tricycles belong to the school and we had to share and take turns riding them. But I was so mad! I was riding it first and so it was mine! I ran after Sandra and tried to pull her off. Miss Kathy said that wasn’t okay, and that I needed to sit with her until I could calm down. She put her arm around me but I was still really mad. She got me my favorite stuffed animal and I cuddled it for a while. I felt better and stopped crying. Then Sandra got up! I ran over and grabbed that red tricycle. I was so happy! I shouted, “Yay! My bike!”

What Your Toddler Is Learning

Social-Emotional Skills:

  • To build friendships as these two toddlers enjoy playing together
  • To share, a skill that takes a lot of time and practice to master
  • To accept limits, when the teacher stops her from pushing and helps her learn that it is not acceptable
  • To express and cope with strong emotions
  • To soothe herself, when she cuddles the stuffed animal

Language and Thinking Skills:

  • The concept of ownership: For toddlers, “first holder is the owner” is an idea that persists through childhood (“It’s mine!” “No, I had it first!”). * Grasping the notion that there are “rules” (however unspoken) about ownership shows complex thinking ability.
  • To use language to express emotions and ideas
  • To play pretend as she prepares the mulch “soup”

Physical Skills:

  • To coordinate her legs and arms to hold the handles and pedal the tricycle
  • Fine motor skills (using the muscles in her hands and fingers) to scoop and stir the mulch soup

What to Expect From Your Child’s Development

As you read the chart below, keep in mind that development is not a race and that every child grows at her own pace and in her own way. Your child may develop skills faster or slower than indicated below and still be on track. If you have questions or concerns, talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted professional.

Your Child’s Development From 30 to 36 Months

What Your Baby Can Do What You Can Do to Connect With Your Baby

My body lets me do “big kid” stuff now!

I may be able to:

  • Pedal a tricycle.
  • Dress myself with your help.
  • Draw a line.
  • Turn a knob or unscrew a cap.
  • Let your child scribble with markers and crayons. This builds early writing skills.
  • Give your child chances to practice new physical skills like pedaling and climbing.
  • Child-proof again so that your child’s new ability to open caps and doorknobs doesn’t lead to danger.
  • Limit TV time and head outside. Take nature hikes, walk to the playground, or throw a ball around.

I use language to express my thoughts and feelings.

  • By 3, I might use as many as 900 words.
  • I understand sentences with two or more ideas (You can have a cookie when we get home).
  • I ask questions.
  • I am learning my first and last name.
  • Use new, longer, or more difficult words to build your child’s vocabulary: Is your snack scrumptious?
  • Read books, sing songs, and play rhyming games with real and nonsense words that you and your child make up.
  • Ask questions that require more than a yes or no answer: Where do you think the squirrel is taking that nut?
  • Be patient with your child’s “Why” questions. Ask him for his ideas before you answer.

I am using my new thinking skills to solve problems.

  • I can remember what happened yesterday. I understand the meaning of now, soon, and later.
  • I’m becoming a logical thinker. That’s why I ask Why? all the time! I want to know the reason for things.
  • When I am pretending that it is bedtime for Teddy, I put a blanket on him and sing him a lullaby.
  • Talk with your child about her day before bedtime. This builds memory and language skills.
  • Ask your child about her ideas. When she asks, Why do dogs bark? Ask her what she thinks before you provide the answer. This builds thinking skills and creativity.
  • Encourage your child to use logic in everyday situations: It is raining. What do we need in order to stay dry?

I can do so many things by myself!

  • I may help get myself dressed, brush my teeth, and wash my hands.
  • I love to help out around the house. It makes me feel strong and important.
  • Encourage your child to help in caring for himself, if you want him to be independent. Taking care of oneself can build self-esteem.
  • Give your child lots of chances to help out. Together put away clothes, set the table, pick up leaves in the yard.

I am starting to notice similarities and differences in people.

  • I might comment on different skin colors or body shapes.
  • Help your child understand and appreciate her own culture and background. Talk respectfully about others who are different from you.
  • Use embarrassing moments as chances to explain, without judgment, that people are different in many ways—size, skin color, style of dress, and so on.

My friends are very important to me.

  • I like playing with other children. I may have one or two favorite friends.
  • Help your child deal with conflicts around sharing or turn-taking: There is only one train. I will put the timer on and you will each have 5 minutes to play with it. While you wait for you turn, you can play with the cars.

Did You Know…

Your toddler now knows whether he or she is a boy or a girl? He is also likely to prefer toys considered “typical” for his gender and to seek out playmates of the same sex.

As children near age 3, they have developed an awareness of how boys and girls, men and women, look different. And they know whether they are a boy or a girl. Children are also noticing what the typical toys and clothing are for their gender (thus, the requests for princess pajamas or toy bulldozers). Your child may also share her view of gender-appropriate rules and activities—for example, she may explain to you that mommies can never drive garbage trucks, only daddies.

Reference: Poulin-Dubois, D., Serbin, L. A., & Derbyshire, A. (1998). Toddlers’ intermodal and verbal knowledge about gender. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 44, 338-354.

What the Research Means for You

Many parents hope that their children will not be bound by common gender stereotypes, and often make choices that support this goal—for example, providing children with toys associated with both genders, reading stories with characters who defy gender stereotypes, etc. It’s important to remember, however, that understanding what gender they are is a very important milestone for children and important part of forming their identity. This self-knowledge comes at a time when children are also becoming increasingly skilled at categorizing, or understanding what goes with what. For example, you may see your child put all her plastic animals in one pile and all her trains in another. For young children, understanding what gender they are is a kind of sorting process. They start off with very strict “rules” about what is “boy-like” and what is “girl-like.” Over time and with experience, children develop a more flexible view of gender roles.

Think of this as a learning process where your child is “trying on” what it means to be a boy or a girl. Allow your child to explore “boyness” and “girlness” in his or her own way—be it with tea parties or bath-towel superhero capes. If your child is interested in doing things typically associated with the opposite gender, for example, a boy who wants his toe nails painted, and you feel comfortable letting him do it, you are giving him the message that exploration is okay and accept him no matter what.

By offering a balanced selection of toys and books and giving children opportunities to play with both boys and girls, they gain a greater understanding of themselves. Most importantly, avoid turning the issue of gender identity into a power struggle because it can complicate the important process your child is going through in forming his or her own identity. Children need the chance to figure out who they are as individuals. The more comfortable with and accepted they feel by you in this process, the stronger their identity and self-esteem will be.

Spotlight on: The Power of Pretend Play

Have you come home one day to find that your child has turned into a kitten, crawling on the floor on all fours, meowing, and asking for a bowl of milk? The ability to pretend marks a big leap in the development of thinking skills. When children pretend, it means that they understand symbols—that a block can become a car, a shoebox can become a home for stuffed animals, and that a word stands for an object or an idea. Understanding symbols is important for the development of skills such as math, logic, writing, and science.

Language and literacy skills are also developing as children make up stories and tell them (or act them out) to one another. They are sequencing events—what logically comes first, second, third—a skill that children will use later for reading comprehension, math, and science. You will also see your child’s logical thinking skills at work in her pretend play. When you suggest that she put her stuffed giraffe, who feels sick, to bed, she may agree and add that her giraffe might need some yucky medicine, too.

Toddlers build important social-emotional skills through pretend play as they act out stories in order to work out difficult situations or ideas they are struggling with. For example, after a new sibling is born, you may see a toddler play a game in which he repeatedly tells the baby to “go away.” Or a child may play “child care” by asking his parent to be the baby while he is the daddy who says bye-bye, I’m going to work now. Toddlers are also practicing empathy through pretend play, as they take on the perspective of a character in their story, including that person or animal’s emotions. For example, you may see your child pretend to be a puppy. You might ask: How are you doing, puppy? Your child responds, I’m sad…I lost my bone! Your toddler is now able to understand the world from a dog’s perspective and imagines what would make a dog feel sad. Interactions like these show that your child has a greater ability to understand the feelings and motivations of others (including those who walk on two legs, not four.)

Here are some ideas for enriching your child’s pretend play:

Let your child be the “director.”

When you follow your child’s lead, you help him develop his own ideas. This approach also strengthens his thinking skills as he makes logical connections in his stories: The dog has to go back in his house because it’s raining. You can help him develop his ideas by asking questions like, What is going to happen next?

Offer some “props” to help your child act out the stories she’s creating.

This can include hats, dress-up clothing, take-out menus, pads and markers, toy dishes, child-sized brooms, blocks, play food and household objects like big cardboard boxes, blankets, pillows, etc.

Build on your child’s play.

If you see your toddler stirring a pot with a spoon, ask him what he’s making for dinner and if you can have some. If your child is pushing a dump truck, ask her where her truck is going or show her how to build a tunnel by leaning two pillows together. Interactions like these expand your child’s pretend play and thinking skills.

Notice themes in your child’s play.

One parent was distressed when her almost-three-year-old played a game with her dollhouse where the “big sister” doll repeatedly hit the “baby” doll. (Not surprisingly, this game emerged after the birth of a new brother.) When toddlers are playing a game that we find upsetting, the temptation is to shift them to a new activity: Let’s read a book …now! However, pretend play can be a very healthy way to cope with difficult feelings. Pretend play can also reduce the need to “act out” these feelings in “real life” as children use play to work through and manage these difficult emotions. After watching her child at play, the parent above joined her and validated the “big sister” doll’s feelings about how hard it can be to have a new baby doll in the house. Within a few days she saw her daughter’s “hitting game” end. However, if your child repeatedly plays out a theme that is upsetting or worrying to you, and seems upset herself during the play, talk it through with your pediatrician or a child development specialist.

Let’s Play: Activities That Nurture Bonding and Learning

Visit Colortown

Cover four or five shoeboxes with different colored construction paper. Cut a small doorway in each one, just the right size to roll a toy car through. Get a few toy cars and trucks and play Colortown with your child. Ask which cars will park inside which garages: Can you park the red car in the blue garage? Or, Let’s park the school bus near the yellow house. Or, Can you put the dump truck between the green and orange houses? Games like this help your child learn new words, understand concepts like near, between and inside, and learn colors. Pretend play games can also spark your child’s imagination as the two of you make up stories about your adventures in Colortown.

Find the Pair

Gather together five sets of items that go together—for example, two shoes, a metal pot and wooden spoon, umbrella and rain coat, dust broom and dust pan, cereal and plastic bowl, etc. Mix these items up and place them in a row. Play Find the Pair with your child as you take turns selecting one item from the group and then choosing what it goes with. Games like this build your child’s logical thinking skills.

What’s on Your Mind?

1. My 2 ½-year-old is suddenly insisting that I feed him all his meals, even though he’s done really well using a child-sized spoon and fork for almost a year now. What should I do?

This kind of behavior is actually fairly common. While it may seem like a contradiction at this age when most children want to be independent and do everything “by myself,” the ability to do more on their own can sometimes lead to regression and a desire to be taken care of in “babylike” ways.

Although it may seem like taking a step backward, meeting your son’s need makes it more likely he will give up this demand more quickly. Once he sees you will let him choose how he wants to be fed and knows you will be there to take care of him, he will likely move on. You are not giving him anything to rebel against. If you resist meeting the need and “make” him feed himself, you run the risk of turning this situation into a power struggle that may make him more determined to be fed by you.

So long story short, avoid making a big deal about it. Be very matter of fact in your approach. At each meal, assume he is going to feed himself. If he asks you to feed him, go ahead while maintaining the rest of your mealtime routine. Also, you can fulfill his request with some limits, for example, explaining to him that you are hungry and would like to eat a little bit and then will feed him. This lets him know you will meet his need, but also gives him an incentive to “do for himself.” During mealtime, talk about what he is eating, what you have done or will be doing that day, etc. Make it as normal as possible. I think you will find that by taking this approach, you’ve removed the power struggle from the interaction and soon the spoon will be back in your son’s hands.

2. I started giving my 2-year-old a cookie once in a while when he would help me put away his toys. But I’ve created the Cookie Monster! Now he expects a treat every time. Should I always give him a reward for good behavior?

Most of us have grappled with this issue of rewards when struggling to get our children to cooperate. The concern about material rewards is that they motivate children to make good choices in order to receive a prize, rather than for the pleasure of “doing the right thing” and feeling cooperative and helpful. Another concern is that children begin to expect a reward for even the smallest task. (You say, Time to brush teeth. He says, What will you give me?) And, when they don’t receive a reward, they wonder what they have done wrong.

It is important that children experience a positive outcome for good behavior. But the key is that it is logically connected to the behavior, and that it happens as close as possible to the event; for example, getting 5 more minutes of playtime right after he cooperates with dressing to go to child care because he saved you time chasing him around to get his clothes on. Giving a child a cookie for helping to clean up his toys is not very useful in the long run because there is no connection between chocolate chips and neat shelves. On the other hand, reading an extra book before bed because he cooperated with tooth-brushing and getting pajamas on can be a powerful incentive. It helps to reinforce to your child that good things happen when you cooperate, take on responsibility, and make good choices. Just be sure that your expectations are in line with your child’s developmental age and stage.

Of course, the best reward is to boost your son’s self-esteem by telling him how proud you are when he has made a good choice and pointing out how his actions were helpful and important. You put all the clothes back in your drawer. You are doing such a wonderful job keeping your room clean and helping Mommy, too! Thanks.

Expert Reviewers

  • Terrie Rose, PhD, President and Founder, Baby’s Space
  • Ross Thompson, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis
  • Robert Weigand, MS, IMH-E, Director, Child Development Laboratory, Arizona State University

This ZERO TO THREE newsletter series was made possible by generous funding from the MetLife Foundation.


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