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who are these people, anyway?

Mother Nature really is so damned smart to give you your child in infant form first: There might not have been quite so many takers if she were handing out toddlers. Not that toddlers aren't adorable and captivating; it's just that it's hard to imagine devoting your life to a person who breaks your things, eats with her hands and hurls herself onto the floor if she doesn't get her way if you aren't already hopelessly devoted to the little tyrant. It was awfully nice planning on somebody's part to give you about a year to get to know your baby in a somewhat calm and orderly fashion.

As an infant, she may have wreaked havoc with your sleep patterns, she may have nursed till you thought your breasts would fall off, and she may have left you with ten pounds you have no use for but she probably cooperated most of the time. You dressed her how and when you wanted. You put her in her bouncy chair or on a blanket or the floor. You fed her what you felt was best for her and she generally accepted it graciously. But did you get down on your knees and thank your lucky stars every day that you had such a gift? Oh, no. You, like all the rest of us, just wouldn't keep the lid on Pandora's box.

the race to walk

You were probably getting so confident about your mothering abilities around the ninth or tenth month that you started hungering for bigger challenges. All your little one had to do was push to a stand one day while you held her in your lap, and ZOOM, you were off to the toddler races.Her walking not only seemed like an exciting new developmental stage for your child, it became your personal goal, too.

Admit it, Girlfriend! You may not have pressured her; you may not have let her know in any overt way that the exhilarating feeling of achievement her first two steps gave you rivaled that of any climber to reach Everest. You and your mate may have tried not to squeal and slap high fives every time she bravely let go of the coffee table to tumble toward the middle of the living room; nonetheless, she got the message she was doing something that rang your chimes.

Think about it; isn't your lower back out of whack to this day from all the mileage you put in walking bent over behind your toddler and holding her upright hands while she swayed about on pigeon-toed feet? You may have taken the consumer's digest advice against baby walkers, but I bet you bought at least one push-along toy that helped her stay balanced while moving upright (you know the ones, shaped like mini shopping carts-like babies have so much marketing to do).

walking separates the toddlers from the babies

Sure, the other baby milestones were fun, especially if sleeping through the night was one of them, but really, how many of us sent telegrams when our kids rolled over for the first time? Walking, however, is the lollapalooza of baby achievements. Even if you didn't know that when you first signed up for this parenting job, you learned it soon enough; every parent of a baby over ten months of age is asked, "So, how's the baby? Is he walking yet?"

As the mother of four kids who preferred sitting to walking for at least a year each, I felt a stab every time I was asked that question. With the first two kids, I lied and told anyone not likely to visually verify my statement, that they were ready to take off "any minute now." I guess I felt that my baby's failure to walk early was an indication that the mothering I was giving him wasn't nearly as enriching and, well, good, as I thought it should be.

By the time the other two came along, however, the older toddlers had robbed me of my innocence about the beauty of walking. If anyone asked me then if my babies were walking yet, I was just as likely to snarl, "They would be if I ever took them out of their blanket sleepers.... "But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

When your baby did finally master two-footed locomotion, either in spite of or because of your encouragement, it was a transcendent event. Angels were heard to sing on high, grandparents were called (as were a couple of the other mommies in your baby group; okay, maybe you gloated a little), videos and photos were shot! Your little darling had achieved his destiny and fulfilled your wishes and dreams for him-he crossed over from the world of baby to the world of toddler, ON HIS OWN TWO FEET! What on earth were you thinking?

which years are the toddler years?

Child development authorities differ greatly on what exactly constitutes a toddler. This is understandable because a one-year-old waddling around in a diaper doesn't appear to have much in common with a lightning-fast three-year-old preschooler (even if he, too, is still wearing a diaper). Keep in mind that at the beginning of this little life era known as toddlerhood, your child won't yet be able to talk, but by the time he is ready for preschool, he will probably be fluent enough to share all of the most intimate details of your home life with all the kids at preschool.

At the beginning of toddlerhood, he will probably walk with his arms held out to the side or up in the air for balance, as if all walking surfaces were tightrope wires, and by the end he will be a perpetual motion machine, running, unlocking, opening and closing, jumping and falling until he passes out. If you end up with a three-year-old like my Girlfriend Shelly's son, Bentley, you won't only be chugging after a runner, you'll be calling the fire department to get your climber down from the top of the pergola at the community center.

the girlfriends' definition of toddlers

For the purposes of The Girlfriends' Guide to Toddlers, we will focus on those little people whose abilities range from just learning to walk unassisted (about one year old) to those who are negotiating the challenges of preschool (three-year-olds in all their glory). In other words, most of our anecdotes and advice will focus on those fascinating creatures between the ages of one and one day shy of their fourth birthday.

Pediatricians and other authorities will certainly have more exacting criteria, but my Girlfriends and I have noticed that even a one-year-old who is barely toddling can exhibit those charming particular personality quirks of toddlerhood, and some of our most cherished three-and-a-half-year-olds are still reluctant to let go of such toddler souvenirs as binkies, bankies and Pull-Ups. After years of watching all our babies enter toddlerhood and come out on the other side, the Girlfriends and I have identified what we think are the behaviors and concerns that make toddlers toddlers:

1. The struggle for independence is the hallmark of this entire age group. Walking is the first step in that direction (yeah, pun) because it manifests the child's very real ability to leave its mommy or other symbol of safety and security. Your little one spends much of his toddlerhood experimenting with leaving you.

Don't cry, Mommy; they almost always come back! Whether they have just toddled into another part of the house where you can't see them or they have just waved goodbye to you for their first unchaperoned day of preschool, they are learning to separate. We Girlfriends will remind you now and several more times in the Guide that the goal is to raise a child who can eventually enter the world without you in tow-that's why they invented Miami-the all-American reward for a parenting job well done.

The universal toddler declaration of independence is the phrase "I do myseff!" You can be late for the most important appointment of your life (like getting your tubes tied), and your usually compliant toddler will pick that moment to demonstrate his ability to squeeze toothpaste onto his toothbrush and clean his teeth ALL BY HIMSELF.

This desire for mastery, terrific though it may be in concept, can be counted on to add a good five to ten minutes to the task of getting out of your driveway. This, too, is part of that independence business, and it is sure to affect your life in several ways (like migraines and chronic tardiness, in my case).

2. The most dramatic bursts of development you and your child will experience occur during these three years. Think of it this way: Like a flower, an infant grows and blossoms in a sort of slow, constant progression. Its muscular development is greater with every day. Its hair gradually thickens and grows longer.

Even the acts of rolling over and sitting up tend to be progressive and predictable to us eagle-eyed mommies. (But that doesn't mean you are guaranteed a divine prediction of when that first roll will be, so for you moms of toddlers-to-be who are reading ahead, NEVER leave your baby unattended on the bed or changing table.)

On the other hand, a toddler can best be compared to a box of fireworks with a spark loose inside. One minute the two of you can be quietly reading a picture book about animals together, and the next a Roman candle seems to go off in his head and he becomes a kind of animal himself, one that scratches and bites.

For six straight days he will spend all his play hours with the Little Tykes kitchen you bought him, then, on the seventh day, he will move the entire kitchen across the room and place it directly under the cuckoo clock your grandmother gave you, and you will walk in to find him balanced on one foot on top of the plastic microwave with his fat little hand around the poor cuckoo's throat.

Cause and effect, at least as we overtired and overwrought mothers know them, have little relevance in the toddler world. Their minds seem to jump around so quickly, usually dragging their moods with them, that their little brains should smoke from all the short-circuiting going on in them. When it all gets to be too mind-bending for even your toddler to tolerate, she will blow a gasket altogether and flip out with one of those tantrums that her generation is so famous for.

This is also the age when a toddler, like Cro-Magnon Man, learns to use tools. Don't hold your breath waiting for him to build you a new deck or kitchen cabinets, but be prepared for your VCR to be "repaired" several times, for all bureau drawers to be liberated from their tracks and for your car keys to end up in the sandbox, where they were employed for digging tunnels for your automatic garage door opener to drive through.

Whether you are the mother of a younger toddler, who would stick a fork in a light socket on sheer whim given half a chance, or of an older toddler, who is able to hit a ball with a bat or connect all the flowers in your wallpaper with a box of push pins, you will find that "tools" are a defining aspect of toddlerhood. And, if you'll excuse this bit of gender bias, if you have a boy toddler, he may find that his most favorite tools are those that can be used as weapons, which includes nearly everything.

3. Children in this age group are "changelings." Stop by any parent-tot gathering, and you will be sure to hear a mother declare that her toddler has more personalities than Congress. Are they babies? Are they children? Are they human? Well, the answers to these questions are yes and no. What they really are are creatures petitioning to become children, but who haven't given up their membership in the baby world.

First of all, just look at them to see how truly in-between they are. Their feet are almost perfect rectangles and their toes look like decorative fringe rather than functional balancing appendages. They often use their hands as if they were brooms or shovels, swiping and grasping things like a bear going through a picnic basket.

It's only toward the end of toddlerhood that most kids can control their fingers accurately enough to pinch their baby sister's cheek or use scissors to give themselves a haircut. And speaking of hair, at the beginning of toddlerhood, many of these little tykes still have that wispy growth that sentimental mothers hate to cut, but by preschool most of them actually have enough "human" hair to snarl, tangle and be the final resting place for cookie crumbs and finger paints.

With really young toddlers, this period of being neither fish nor fowl is usually only moderately confusing because you can be pretty safe treating them like big babies most of the time. But by around eighteen months, your luck generally has run out. By then, they are such an amalgam of curiosity, energy, frustration, boldness and insecurity that they don't know whether to spit or wind their watch, as my father used to say. (Or Something like that.)

And there you stand, just dying to help in some way, and not knowing how to get in. Is a hug the answer? Is a firm "no" the answer? Or should you just turn and run the other way? The Girlfriends and I maintain that this critical period is second only to pregnancy in the amount of brain damage a mother sustains. It's a constant source of wonder to me that you don't see more mothers lying on the floor of Costco, kicking and screaming right alongside their toddlers, since their frustration levels must surely be just as high.

Simplistic as it sounds, the time of day can be a big factor in whether your toddler is a child or a baby. In my household, toddlers were all grown up and full of fun and "I do myseff" when they were well rested, like in the morning or after a nap. Then, as the day dragged on and the frustrations mounted, my toddlers would start disintegrating right before my eyes.

That often results in the one-two punch that takes all mothers out at the knees: the needs of a cranky baby colliding with Mom's need to make dinner. Even though I'm not raising toddlers these days, I still feel my shoulders tighten as the sun goes down and the local news comes on TV. It can only mean that the dinner-bath-story-drink-of-water-back-patting-stay-in-your-bed obstacle course has begun.

4. These little people need to be guided into society (euphemism for discipline). For the first several months of life, a baby isn't faced with the burden of making decisions. She is pretty much a creature of cause (e.g., hunger) and effect (e.g., crying till somebody gives her something to eat). Walking, along with the bigger brain that comes with being a person who can do it, creates a whole new set of circumstances that can all be lumped under the heading of Choices. This is why discipline was invented by the cavewoman, to make sure that most of the choices made were acceptable to the mother.

Parents of toddlers are constantly torn between being gloomy control freaks and being completely bulldozed by their child. We want them to be free-spirited, but not near the deep end of a pool. We want them to be creative, but not to blame the pet bunny for writing with Sharpies on their shirt. We want them to delight in discovering the magic of the universe, but we want them up, pottied, dressed and breakfasted before we have to leave for work.

How does one accomplish this? Well, to be completely candid, with very mixed results, especially when this is our first run through the toddler gauntlet. Toddlers are so impetuous and unpredictable that we mothers are usually found reacting to one crisis after another rather than methodically training them to understand and adhere to a planned behavioral code. If sports analogies help you, think of yourself as playing defense against a mini Michael Jordan; it's all reaction, not action.

If you occasionally feel that your best-laid plans for reasoning with your little person and helping him to cultivate a sense of freedom within a context of respect have collided head-on with a reality in which you yelp before you leap, don't take it too hard. That's usually how it goes for all of us who mother in the toddlerhood trenches.

5. During these three years, little people learn to join the community of big people. By the time a child turns four, she is officially no longer a baby. (Even though, as all mothers recite to our children, they will always be our babies.) Most of these little darlings have an active social life, leave the house for several hours a day to do fun stuff without parents, have decided that they are going to marry Daddy and know precisely why there is a day in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heck, put a briefcase under a four-year-old's arm and put him on the subway, and he'll blend in as just another, albeit much shorter, commuter.

Toddlers are not yet there. In order to reach that kind of competence, they have to master certain behaviors like sleeping in a bed, using the potty, and, hey, knowing how to use a fork and spoon wouldn't hurt. In the combined experience of my Girlfriends and myself, none of these milestones is achieved in a day. Not only that, once they are achieved, they can be forgotten entirely and have to be taught again, and again and, well, you get the picture.

6. During these three years, your child gets a social life. No longer just adorable little koala bearlike appendages hanging on the mama marsupial, toddlers are literally thrusting their way into the world. It's as if there is some irresistible force pulling them away from all that is known and safe, and toward everything that vigilant mothers try to protect them against. There is something achingly symbolic about a baby's learning to walk because with that first step, they are free to walk to whomever they choose. Up until that time, we parents get to make all decisions regarding where they go and who they will meet when they get there.

Particularly compelling to toddlers are other people, especially other very small people, and this is the source of great fun for us parents. For some reason, we moms are drunkenly enthusiastic about our babies' interest in socializing. Like manic campaign managers of miniature politicians, we become strategists for these barely verbal socialites-spending hours finding playmates for them, scheduling playdates (when in the world did that word come into vogue?), wooing the parents of potential playmates, and getting positively giddy over the giving and attending of the countless birthday, Halloween, Valentine and Groundhog Day parties that are the toddler traditions.

As attractive as being "one of the gang" might be, learning to coexist with other little heathens can be tough for toddlers. Some kids are as gregarious as game-show hosts, and others have to be pulled screaming from their mothers and pushed into interacting. Some are naturally patient and placid, and others simply can't resist pounding on any kid within reach. Most disconcerting of all, toddlers can morph from being one kind of kid to the exact opposite, so you never know whether it's Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde you'll be letting loose on the playground.

Helping your toddler adjust to civilization may be the hardest task you will face as a parent. It's just all so personal; love me, love my child. If our child is rejected in any way, we are usually the ones who feel the pain. If our child is the one who is careless about the feelings of others, we are the ones who feel we've failed to teach them any sense of morality. Take it from me, it's particularly difficult with your first toddler because you are so easily shocked by the assaults the world can throw in your darling's path, usually in the form of someone else's little darling.

My Girlfriend Karen once called me from her car as she was speeding away from a two-year-olds' gymnastics class. One of the other gymnasts had bitten her little girl right on the face, and Karen didn't know what to do first: call the police or rush for a rabies shot. The bite alone was not what made her mental (although it would have been an acceptable defense for homicide in any mommy court in the land); it was the remark she overheard the biter's mother tell the gym teacher, "She's just overreacting because it's her only child and she doesn't know any better."

The implication was clear that a more seasoned mom would take this episode in stride, apply antibiotic cream and ice and get over it. In a way, the other mother had a point, but I didn't think that our car phone conversation was the appropriate time to tell Karen. Instead, I encouraged her outrage and judged the obvious lack of parental supervision of the little heathen. It's only right that we Girlfriends should tell you; the first cut really is the deepest.

7. Kids this age believe in magic. Reality is a very amorphous concept for a little person who is stepping out into the world for the first time. For example, few things are more wondrous to a toddler than bubbles. They really see these soapy spheres as much more fantastic creations than most adults do, and bubbles never fail to elicit screaming and laughing in a gaggle of two-year-olds. They also think blimps are creations of some wizard, as is whistling or the fact that red and blue paint mixed together makes purple.

Not coincidentally, this is also the age when we parents start weaving our mythologies about everything from Santa to the Easter Bunny to Mommy the Monster Killer. Getting to participate in making magic is one of the greatest satisfactions of being the parent of a toddler because it wakes up and dusts off our old innocence as true believers. I'm pretty crazy about keeping up the myths, but my husband's even more obsessed than I.

He actually goes outside on Christmas morning to bring in snow to sprinkle in front of the fireplace to show Santa's footprints. Normally, you couldn't get him outside in freezing predawn weather even if the house were on fire. He also tells our kids that the jelly beans on the floor on Easter morning are Easter Bunny poops. You gotta love a guy like that.

Since the true nature of things is still largely unknown to toddlers, even ordinary phenomena like vacuum cleaners, escalators and toilets can look like big scary monsters. You only have to spend a few hours introducing your child to the toilet to be introduced to all sorts of toddler concerns, from a fear that flushing sucks children in to a worry that their beloved poo poos will drown in there and ultimately disappear. This is also the time when struggling actors dressed up as Big Bird or Barney at a toddler birthday party can send some kids running for their therapists. My daughter used to repeat like a mantra the words "It's only peetend, it's only peetend" just to endure the time all seven of Snow White's dwarfs followed her around Disneyland.

Another aspect of this belief in magic is that toddlers affix special, feel-good powers to otherwise ordinary things, hence the devotion to the blankie or other lovey. Only a mother of a toddler can know panic in its most urgent form: when we have arrived home after a day of at least a thousand errands with toddler in tow, only to discover that the precious magic item has disappeared somewhere along the line. I have literally ripped apart the Yellow Pages in my frenzy to call everyone from the dry cleaner to the beauty supply store to the pediatrician's office to find the missing blankie before bedtime.

*By the way, take this veteran's advice and try to have doubles of any items your toddler has invested with magical powers. It can save your little darling a lot of distress and keep you from going totally gray in an afternoon.

8. Parents of these little changelings are constantly bewildered. The stakes of rearing a human being are enormous and overwhelming for any thinking person. We frantic mothers can't help but worry that every little decision we make concerning our toddlers will cement their fate as either the next Bill Gates or the next Unabomber. There are so many bizarre child-rearing philosophies floating around that we live in abject terror that we will fail to nip thumb sucking in the bud in time to protect our baby from a future of antisocial behavior.

Here's the news: Toddlers will learn to accomplish nearly all of the milestones that signify a successful passage through this stage all by themselves. (I know we've told you that already, but we will again, so either sigh a breath of relief or just ignore us.) You can demonstrate the function of a spoon for weeks or you can keep all spoons hidden in the drawer, and when his personal DNA says he's ready for a spoon, he'll quickly figure out how to use a spoon. Really try to hear me when I tell you that you need not teach your child to walk, to climb stairs or to drink out of a cup. There is a force of nature that compels a healthy and stimulated toddler to figure this stuff out on his own. It's that box of fireworks concept again.

Does that mean you're not needed? Of course not. But your job is not so task-oriented as you might believe. Think of yourself as a sort of cruise director, like that bouncy woman from The Love Boat. Your job is to provide an attractive array of activities or experiences for your toddler. Taking the analogy further, you can show him where the shuffleboard is played and where the sticks are kept, but it's not up to you to repeatedly teach the proper flick of the wrist in making the shot. In fact, if your little cruiser decides to use the shuffleboard pucks as cymbals instead, that's his business. What's needed here is your applause, your encouragement and your best efforts to ensure that the voyage is as safe and loving as possible.

Please don't think I'm suggesting that toddlers aren't paying attention to you. They are watching you with such intensity it's a wonder you don't catch fire. And here's a little parenting secret for you: they not only watch you, they WORSHIP you. This will not always be the case, so now's your window of opportunity to imprint on your little one's mind all your best habits and behaviors. They'll pick up on all that and much more. Just wait until you catch a glimpse of your toddler pretending to be you in an imaginary phone conversation-it's a hoot! But you do your best toddler teaching through being present, loving and as consistent as possible. This is something quite different from playing "Hooked on Phonics" tapes every time the two of you are in the car (as I confess I did with my oldest).

Even if your toddler isn't delivering bon mots with the timing of Oscar Wilde, or even stringing two words together, it's time for you to learn the age-old lesson: "Little pitchers have big ears." I may not fully understand the meaning of that cliché, but I can vouch for its truth, which is: Your little one might not be talking, but she sure as heck is listening, and understanding a lot more than you know. In the big picture, it means your toddler is sponging up your "gestalt," the way you feel about her, your level of respect for your mate, the way you address tasks and your disposition. So if your darling's first complete sentence is "You're an ass!" and she says it to her father, don't spend too much time wondering where she learned such trashy talk.

Later in toddlerhood, your little big-eared pitcher will freely march into preschool and announce that Mommy is just like Luke Skywalker because she is going to the doctor to get her face lasered. The teachers and other moms just love inside scoops like that. I, by the way, have made a pact with my children's teachers not to believe what my kids tell me about them if they promise not to believe what my kids tell them about ME.

Kids may listen and actually understand many of the words used, but that doesn't mean they pick up the correct nuance or significance. For that reason, you have to be careful not to speak of potentially alarming topics in front of any toddler, even those who can't yet talk. Once, when my oldest was a toddler, my husband and I decided to rent the old surf movie Endless Summer. What a disaster that little trip down memory lane proved to be. Since we live near the beach, I had to spend the next month promising that no big waves were coming to get us.

perpetual motion machines

Until you have a toddler of your own, other people's stories about how traumatic it was chasing their little wobblers around sound just a tad hysterical. I mean really, how hard can it be to keep up with a tiny person whom any grown-up can outrun in a race? It's when you become the warden of a toddler yourself that you realize speed isn't the issue, it's the length of the race and the unpredictability of the terrain.

The parents of toddlers are creatures of reaction. When the toddler is in their care, meaning not with a sitter, the grandparents or some very tolerant boarding school, the parents can do little more than run a defensive line around her; after all, she is completely capable of killing the pets, you and herself if left to her own devices. Sure, we all know the delicious moments when they cuddle in our laps to read a picture book or when they learn to sing their first song. But on any given day, most parents of toddlers will agree that a disproportionate amount of time is spent averting a disaster or cleaning up after one. This is called "spontaneity" by people who are so old that they don't really remember their own children as toddlers, but to those of us living it, it's called psychological warfare.

born to be wild

As someone who would almost always prefer sitting to standing and lying down to sitting, I'm astonished at how compelling the urge to move is in a person who has only recently learned to walk. Once they have felt the wind on their faces and the road beneath their feet, these little scramblers have two speeds, fast asleep or moving quickly. They may sit occasionally, perhaps to eat or to pull everything out of the bottom drawers in your bedroom, but even then their hands are in motion and their eyes are scanning the terrain to see where the next thrill lies.

My husband and I are still recovering from the L.A.-New York flights we made with little people who were obsessed with walking. Traveling with babies seemed like a day at the beach by comparison. How in the world do you explain about consideration for your fellow travelers or about sudden turbulence to a child who views sitting still on a par with illegal imprisonment? Up and down the aisles we'd walk, constantly apologizing indiscriminately to everyone we met along the way. Even during those few precious moments when we succeeded in getting them to sit in a chair, they would tap their little Stride Rites against the seat back in front of them like a podiatric form of water torture.

How we yearned for a child who did nothing more distressing than cry for five straight hours.

Copyright © 1995 by Vicki Iovine

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