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From Baby to Big Kid: Month 33

FBTBK Month 33

As your toddler becomes better able to control her body, you may notice that she is more excited than ever to show you what she can do. Browse the information and links below to see what your little one is experiencing and learning this month.

What It’s Like for You

Sean, father of 33-month-old Sophie, explains what his mornings are like: First, Sophie HAS to pick out her own outfit. She’s got the polka-dot shirt, the flowered skirt, the tights with reindeer on them, and the big purple headband. Then—and only then—are we ready to pick out shoes. Will it be the red sparkle shoes or the butterfly rainboots? My buddies laugh and say she learned how to dress from me. But the way I see it, as long as her clothes are okay for the weather, who cares. There’s so much other stuff you have to put rules on with toddlers, why fight with her about clothes when she’s not hurting anyone? She thinks she looks great and she’s so proud of herself. Tthat’s good enough for me.

When you let your child make some decisions, you are letting her know you think she is smart and capable and that you respect her individuality. This nurtures her sense of confidence and positive self-esteem. Age-appropriate choices, like what clothes to wear, which children and what toys to play with, give children the chance to establish their own opinions and feel some control over their lives. This sense of control is very important to a growing toddler, who feels the need for independence so strongly but is still very dependent on caregivers. This still means setting limits, but offering some choices within acceptable boundaries. For example, select three or four choices of clothing that are acceptable to you and lay these out for your child to choose from. Otherwise, get out the camera and be sure to commit some of those more “memorable” outfits to film….these are the perfect photos to show your child’s friends when she’s 15!

What It’s Like for Your Child

I was driving my garbage truck (the plastic laundry basket dad gave me to push along the carpet). Every time I stopped, I pretended I was at a different house and I picked all different kinds of garbage (piles of my toys) and tossed them in my truck. I said, Garbage truck here! Get your garbage! When I backed up, I never forgot to say, beep beep beep beep. Then my garbage truck filled up. The toys started to fall out when I put them on the top. I got really frustrated. But then Dad asked me where the garbage trucks bring the garbage when their trucks fill up. I said: I know—the dump! So I drove the truck to the dump (my bedroom) and dumped it all out! Then I drove back carefully through the town, honking and making the sound of the truck crushing the garbage: Grrrrrrrrrunch. All this work was really tiring. Daddy must have seen I was losing steam and asked how I was doing. I told him: I doing garbage. I be the garbage man. Dad said: Isn’t work done yet? How about we sit outside and have a popsicle? Sounds good to me! I carefully parked my garbage truck at the garage (the coffee table with a blanket over the top) and headed out the kitchen door. I love hanging out with Daddy.

What Your Toddler Is Learning

Social-Emotional Skills:

  • To see the world from another person’s perspective as he role-plays what a garbage collector does
  • Independence, when he is happy to play on his own for a while
  • Relationship-building skills as he connects with his father
  • Empathy, when his dad sees that he must be tired from all his hard “work”
  • To manage frustration when he calms himself down—with Dad’s help—as the toys start falling out the top of the laundry basket

Language and Thinking Skills:

  • To use language to tell his story about the garbage truck, to play out the role of the garbage collector, and to bring the garbage truck to life by beeping and honking
  • Problem-solving and logical thinking skills when, with Dad’s guidance, he figures out what to do when the laundry basket won’t fit any more toys
  • Symbolic thinking skills—the ability to make one object stand in for another—when he uses the laundry basket as a truck and creates a “garage” out of the coffee table and a blanket

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…

Between 22 and 33 months of age, self-control increases considerably? However, your child’s mastery of self-control may be influenced by gender. This research found that 33-month-old girls showed greater self-control than did boys of the same age. And another study found that children’s temperaments have some influence on the development of self-control. Children who were more emotionally reactive (responding with more intense behavior and feelings), and those who tended to jump right in to new situations, also tended to show lower levels of self-control. More emotionally even-keeled children (kids who don’t show extreme fluctuations in emotional expression) and children who had more difficulty with change (in routines, caregivers, etc.) tended to show higher levels of self-control.


  • Kochanska, G., Murray, K. T., & Harlan, E. T. (2000, Mar). Effortful control in early childhood: Continuity and change, antecedents, and implications for social development. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 220-232.
  • Kochanska, G., & Knaack, A. (2003, Dec). Effortful control as a personality characteristic of young children: Antecedents, correlates, and consequences. Journal of Personality, 71(6), 1087-1112.

What the Research Means for You

Children, based on both gender and temperament, will have varying abilities to show self-control as they near age 3. But there is a lot that parents can do—with patience and guidance—to help children develop this important skill:

  • Recognize your child’s feeling or goal. Use words to show your child that you understand his goal: You want to dig in the dirt, but you cannot dig up the houseplants. Let’s go outside and you can dig in the sandbox.
  • Redirect your child. Help your toddler express her interests or meet her goals in an acceptable way. I know you love pretending to talk on my cell phone. Let me get my old one—that’s a good one for you to play with. Then you can pretend to call me and we can talk!
  • Teach alternatives. Show your child acceptable ways to channel his energy. Without an acceptable alternative, the behavior is likely to continue as most toddlers are not yet able to identify other (more acceptable) behaviors on their own. So for a little one who loves to climb up and stand on his chair at the dinner table, pile up a few pillows and let him jump onto the floor (with close supervision of course.) Or, take him to the park and show him all the ways he can climb at the playground.
  • Be consistent. Consistency with rules is key to helping children learn to make good choices. If every time a child throws a toy it gets taken away, she quickly learns not to throw toys. But when the rules keep changing, it is hard for young children to learn how to make good choices.

Spotlight on: Your Toddler’s Growing Thinking Skills

During this third year, you will see a big jump in your child’s thinking skills. She will start to use humor and make jokes. She will be especially amused when things are not as they should be, for example, putting underwear on her head or socks on her hands. Her growing thinking skills mean that she will also be able to come up with solutions to more complex challenges. And she is starting to develop empathy—understanding how another person is feeling. She knows others have thoughts and feelings that are different from hers and she can imagine what these thoughts and feelings might be. She may give you a hug when you are sad. You may see her help another child who is struggling. All of these changes and milestones are proof that your little one is learning lots through her everyday interactions with you. Below are some of the key skills that emerge in the third year and suggestions for what you can do to nurture your child’s development.

Your toddler is beginning to notice patterns and connect ideas.

Toddlers can use their memories to apply past experiences to the present. They see a cloudy sky and know that this might mean rain is coming. This also helps them understand how the world works—that rain comes from the gray clouds. You see this new ability to detect patterns and connect ideas when your child:

  • Laughs at funny things
  • Asks grandma for a cookie after mom says no
  • Tells you it is raining and that he will need an umbrella

What you can do:

  • Make connections between past and present. Make the logical connections in your child’s life clear to him: He has to wear mittens because his hands get cold if he doesn’t. He needs to bring a towel to the pool so he can dry himself off.
  • Use everyday routines to notice patterns. Using language to explain these patterns helps your child become a logical thinker and increases her vocabulary. Do you notice that every time the dog whines he has to go out to do his business? When the buzzer goes off, the clothes are dry.

Your toddler is interested in sorting and categorizing objects based on how they look, feel, or what they do.

Older toddlers can sort objects by their characteristics (all the toy fish in one pile, all the toy dinosaurs in another). They are also beginning to understand more complex concepts of time, space, size, and quantity. You will see evidence of these new thinking skills when children:

  • Organize objects in a logical way (plate next to cup; car next to dollhouse)
  • Ask questions like, How many? Or, When?
  • Sort beads by color or size
  • Act out stories in their play, especially everyday moments they experience at home (like giving a doll a pretend bath)

What you can do:

  • Sort and categorize through the day. Do laundry together. Your child can separate shirts in one pile and socks in another. He can help set the table and organize the forks, plates, and spoons. At clean-up time, ask him to put the cars in one place and books in another.
  • Help your child grasp a sense of time. Use an egg timer to help her put together the concept of time with the experience of time (to help her know what 5 or 10 minutes feels like). This also gives her some sense of control over knowing when a change will happen. She can look at the egg timer and see the arrow moving closer to the “0,” which is when she has to stop playing and get in the car.

Let’s Play: Activities That Nurture Bonding and Learning

Pompom Popcorn

Purchase a variety of pompoms in different sizes and colors from a craft store. Place the pompoms on a dish towel and let your child hold one end, while you hold the other. Sing (to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat): Pop, pop, pop the corn, shake it up and down. Popping, popping, popping, popping, soon they’ll all fall down! When the pompoms have all dropped to the floor, pick them up together and sort them by size or color. Games like this help your child develop language skills, and the math skill of categorization.

Veggie Painting

Offer your child a potato half, a carrot, a celery stick, a lettuce leaf and let him dip each item in paint and “stamp” it on a piece of paper. If you’d prefer that your child not play with food, offer him a selection of other interesting “objects” to paint with—a spoon, a leaf, a small square of sponge. Activities like this build your child’s creative thinking and early writing skills.

What’s on Your Mind?

1. My 2-year-old son is suddenly afraid of the dark. He wants us to leave the light on when he goes to sleep, and if we turn it off after he’s asleep, he awakens in the middle of the night screaming. What should I do?

Fear of the dark is quite common, especially at this age. In order to understand why this is happening now and what you can do, consider where your child is developmentally. By 2 ½, most children are very engaged in the world of pretend and imagination, and they don’t fully understand the difference between fantasy and reality. In their minds, anything can happen at night: the dragon from the bedtime story or the clown from the party could suddenly appear out of the shadows to scare them.

Next, think about any recent changes in his world. Has there been, for example, a separation from a loved one, a new baby, a new babysitter, a recent move? Any change can cause a child to feel insecure and fearful.

Finally, your child’s temperament is important to consider. Children who are by nature more fearful and cautious, or, who get overstimulated easily, are more likely to develop fears.

To help your child overcome his night fears:

  • Don’t tease him about the fear (even in good humor), or try to talk him out of it. This can prolong the fear as well as erode his trust in you.
  • Try to control any anger or frustration you might feel. This can increase your child’s distress. It also makes it harder for you to respond sensitively.
  • Make one of your child’s special stuffed animals his “protector” and include it in his bedtime routine. During the day, act out stories where the protector watches over others.
  • Let him sleep with a night light or leave the hallway light on with his bedroom door open. Using a dimmer may also help. Let your child decide when he’s ready to darken his bedroom. If your child wakes up in the middle of the night, resist the temptation to bring him into your room. This sends the message that he really is not safe alone in his room. Instead, go to him to reassure him that the monsters aren’t real.

Most children outgrow these fears in a few weeks or months. Your best strategy for now is to be sensitive and patient with your son and know that this, too, shall pass.

2. My 2-year-old can’t get enough television. I limit what he watches to educational programs, but he freaks out when I try to turn off the TV. Other than getting rid of the television, what are my options?

While the tantrum here is about TV, what’s really at issue is helping your child learn to cope with life’s rules, frustrations, and disappointments. No one gets everything they want, and it is one of a parent’s most important jobs to help their children deal with this fact of life.

Start by deciding what rules you want to set and stick to around TV watching, such as amount of time and acceptable programs. Then, during a calm moment, talk with your child about the rules. Let him know you understand how disappointed he is when you turn the TV off. You can help him adapt by having him choose, in advance, which show(s) he wants to watch that day and which he will watch the following day. Then brainstorm with him what he can do when TV time is over. See what ideas he comes up with and offer some of your own (suggest a few activities you know he enjoys). You might create a poster listing these ideas with a related picture (i.e., reading a book can have a picture of a book) so that your child can easily choose another activity when TV time is over. Choosing gives him some sense of control.

The next day, when it is TV time, remind him of the family’s rule about viewing time and help him make choices about what he wants to watch. Then give him a warning when TV time is almost over to help him prepare. When it is time to turn the television off, remind him of the choices he has for what activities to do next. (You also might want to suggest that he turn the TV off as this can help some children cope better with the transition.)

If he does lose it, don’t give in as this teaches your child that having a fit gets him what he wants. Instead, get down to his eye level and let him know that, while you know he is mad, it’s time to for him to choose another activity (remind him of the chart you made). Let him know that if he can’t pull himself together, then he needs to go to a safe place to take a break. When he does calm down, give him lots of praise as this is a very important skill—learning to soothe oneself when upset: You were soooo angry but you calmed yourself down. That’s great. Now we can build that castle with blocks.

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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