When I tell people I have a toddler, they always assume I need a pep talk. They give me a sympathetic look or a reassuring pat on the arm, and say something along the lines of, “It gets better,” or “This too shall pass.”
I get it, toddlers are difficult. They are demanding, volatile, and irrational — but, they’re also great teachers if we choose to learn from them.
Here are five things I’ve learned from my toddler:
1. They do something new every day
These days, I feel like I spend most of my life on autopilot. I’m trying so hard to keep my head above water with work and motherhood that I reach for what’s easy. I go to the same park we always go to. I raise my hand for the work assignments I know I’m good at instead of the ones that will challenge me. I even order the same thing when I go out to dinner because I don’t have to think about it. While there is something to be said for the comfort of routine, it can also dampen our curiosity and cut us off from learning new things.
Toddlers, though, constantly scan their environments for the unfamiliar so they can explore it. Every day is a new adventure, quite literally. Their brains are growing at an astonishing rate that our grown-up minds can no longer mimic. We can, however, ensure that we’re continuing to grow and learn by seeking out new experiences in the same way they do (just maybe not by putting everything in our mouths).
2. They are present in the moment
The other day, my normally blur-of-motion child sat and watched a construction site for over 20 minutes. He was utterly focused. I, on the other hand, can’t remember the last time I did one singular thing for that long. Multitasking has become a way of life for me. I check email while I eat lunch. I listen to podcasts while I exercise, meal plan while I’m in the shower, and the other day I caught myself researching sippy cups on Amazon while asking my husband about his day (sorry, honey!).
Toddlers, on the other hand, just do one thing at a time. Unlike us, they aren’t focused on maximizing productivity, they are focused on maximizing enjoyment. Whether they spend 30 minutes or three seconds on something, they are all in. Then they move on to the next thing, again with 100 percent focus. I long for this ability to be fully present, instead of spinning into the future and missing the moment.
3. They show their emotions
I was a creative, expressive kid, but as I grew up I learned that expressing my feelings as a woman quickly got me labeled as “hysterical” and “dramatic.” Like many women, I’ve learned to stuff down my feelings of anger and frustration because I don’t want to be judged. Even when it comes to motherhood, which is inherently emotional, we learn to put on a brave face. We assume that everyone else is happy because that’s what we see on social media, so we act that way and don’t show the world how we’re really feeling.
Toddlers, though, have no poker face. They can go from laughing to crying to laughing again in 60 seconds. They have a tantrum and let it all out, and as soon as it’s over, they’re back in your lap singing the Itsy Bitsy Spider like it never happened.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we all start pounding our fists on the floor and crying when something doesn’t go our way. However, expressing emotion instead of bottling it up can help us bounce back to a positive mindset more quickly.
4. They are inclusive
Toddlers will play with anyone — and I mean anyone. If you have a pulse, my child will approach you on the playground to see if you want to play. Being a different age, differently-abled, or speaking a different language aren’t things that register in their brains as being potential roadblocks in friendship. To them, life is one big game and everyone’s invited. Each new person they encounter represents a potential new friend, whether for life or just the afternoon.
As much as I like to think of myself as open-minded, the reality is that I have a whole set of unconscious biases within me. Sadly, my first reaction when I see someone is not to welcome them with open arms, it’s to automatically scan through our differences and similarities so I can figure out how we relate (or don’t). I’m grateful to have a daily reminder in my toddler that I can and should do better than that.
5. They ask for what they want
As a Midwesterner who struggles to overcome her passive-aggressive roots, I sometimes have trouble expressing my opinion. My toddler does not share this problem. I am diplomatic and try to read the room before speaking. He freely shares his thoughts on everything, from where people should sit at the dinner table to whether he wants to wear pants that day. He makes it clear what he wants, often in a very loud, bossy voice, and I never misunderstand him. He doesn’t worry about being liked or how he comes across.
Of course, there is something to be said for the verbal filters that keep us from getting fired or starting fist fights in the grocery store. I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t at least a little jealous of his ability to directly ask for what he wants.
Being a toddler mom is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Some days I’m counting the minutes until bedtime before it’s even noon. There are also lots of good days, though, where I’m able to watch and learn and be amazed by what I see in my growing boy.