Toddler Lives in Adult Time

boy running away

You may not want to hear this.

But here goes.

Toddlers (and those on either side of them, infants and preschoolers) do not care about being somewhere on time.

They don’t care about what time school or day care starts.

They don’t care what time you have to be at work.

They don’t care what time you need to start making dinner.

They don’t care about shopping, or errands, or when it’s time to come inside.

They don’t care about when it’s time to “move on to the next thing.”

They’re not supposed to.  They’re toddlers.

And therein lies one of the greatest challenges of parenting young children.

No, I don’t mean the challenge of how to get them to care about or adjust to all of those things.

No, I don’t mean figuring out how to make them “listen” better or speed up.

I mean learning how to respectfully coexist with a person that we have invited into our families and homes whose reality and wiring and needs and timetable are often wildly different from our own.

Toddlers don’t rush.  They don’t like rushing. They don’t like people who rush.  They don’t like the energy of rushing, the idea of rushing.  They dawdle, they resist, they insist.  Rushing is an adult concept, a feature of “adult time.”  Trying to teach them to rush, or insist that they rush calls to mind this valuable lesson,

teach a pig to sing
which, for some reason, we completely understand.  Well, of course.  How utterly futile.  What a funny, even ridiculous, notion.  But I have to get to work by 8–how do I get them to cooperate?

See what I did there?

So now is about the time that you start to say “Not everyone is privileged enough to stay home and let their kids take as much time as they want!”  Or maybe you’re even saying the dreaded “This is life.  They have to learn!”

No.  This is not life.  This is your life.  There’s a difference.

Yes.  There will come a point at which they will need to adapt to more external schedules to, say, arrive to school on time.  The thing is, that’s then.  And this is now.

Right here, right now, this is not their world, their mind, their way of being, their life.  It’s our way of life, and we are expecting…or demanding…that they adjust to it.  We’re expending phenomenal energy trying to teach pigs to sing.  And paying for it dearly.

Let me ask you this. Try to answer quickly, without thinking too much.  How much time do you think needs to be allotted to get a toddler’s diaper changed and clothes on in the morning?  I’m not asking you how much time it takes.  I’m asking you how much time you THINK it should take, how much time you subconsciously plan for or allow, how much time you think is “reasonable.”

What’d you get?  10 minutes?  20 minutes?  30 minutes?

Ah.  I see why you’re having trouble.

I’m often accused of not giving practical enough advice.  I wax too philosophical about respect and reframing.  I know.  I hear you.  So here’s a practical tip for those of you who are having a hard time with your child in the morning or during transitions.  Take whatever number you came up with and double it.  Or better yet, triple it.  Try that for a week.  See how that goes.

But I don’t have that time.  I’d have to get her up an hour earlier , and she already doesn’t get enough sleep!

Yes.  Sleep is crucial.  It is illogical and downright impossible to be cooperative without enough sleep.  So maybe getting ready in the morning is not your problem.  Sleep is.  So what is your plan to address sleep first?

We’ve tried to address sleep, but he just won’t go to sleep–it takes him hours to settle down, and we know he needs to go to bed earlier but there’s dinner and playing and bath and brushing teeth and pajamas and time together and books and snuggles, and we don’t get home from work and day care until 7 pm.  And no, I can’t change my work hours.

Yes.  You’re not alone.  A lot of people are in this position.  This is when you have to get creative.  You have to think outside the box.  You have to have a determination of steel.  If it helps, you  might even have to trick yourself.

Try pretending that your child has some sort of serious physical disability or limitation.  Let’s say your child was, for whatever reason, not able to walk (or found it very difficult or painful) and so used a wheelchair for most of the day.  Would you tell people that there just aren’t adjustments that you can make, that your life MUST continue as usual, you have no flexibility around figuring out creative solutions for things that, say, they cannot reach?  Or would you feel as if you have no choice, that this is simply something your child needs help with, something which demands that you make modifications?

Yeah.  You have a toddler.  Or a preschooler.  Or both.  Their brains literally don’t work the way ours do.  They really are different people, with specific needs and limitations.  Yes, there are so many things that are really hard to adjust…or that we are convinced that we shouldn’t have to adjust, things that they “should be able to do” or “need to learn to be cooperative about.”

All I can say to that is that is that anytime we find ourselves saying “they should” or “they need to learn”, we are in an extreme danger zone  Time to pause and regroup.  Maybe a time for a hard reset.

Yes.  We have our lives.  We have our work.  We have our schedules.  Their day care has its hours.  We do not have to get rid of those things.   The only thing we need to is to accept that it is our job to adjust, not our children’s job to adjust.  These are adult choices and adult realities.  They’re not children’s problems.  And children’s  inability or unwillingness to adapt to them is not their problem, either.  It’s ours.

I know all of that.  But all of the other kids show up clean and dressed, and I’m the one walking int he door with the screaming child who is still in their pajamas and with a wet diaper.  It’s mortifying. Clearly I’m doing something wrong.

Maybe. Maybe not.  Every child is different.  Comparison is the work of the devil (if I believed in the devil, which I don’t, but you get that it’s an expression, right?)  You have no idea what goes on in their homes.  All parents have struggles.  All children test limits.  Maybe their struggles are different from yours.  Maybe not.  Maybe their children comply out of fear.  That’s not what you want.  Maybe they have more help.  Maybe they have a system.  Betcha a million dollars (if I had it, I mean, I work in child development, come on now) that if you said “Ugh, it is SO hard to get them ready and out the door in the mornings!”, you would find a whole heck of a lot of nodding heads and horror stories that would, well, probably make you feel a lot better.

Okay.  Fine.  So what do you suggest that I do to get them to move faster?

(What’s that cacophonous sound I hear?  Could it be singing pigs?)

I suggest that you make any and all modifications under the sun to make sure your child is getting adequate sleep.

I suggest that you consider whether low blood sugar upon rising in the morning is partially at fault, and consider bringing a little snack for a child to have immediately upon waking.

I suggest that you harness any and all available resources and help around you to make modifications.  If you don’t get home from work until 7 or pick up your kids at 6, is there someone who can pick up your kids at 4, give them downtime at home, and give them an early dinner so all there is left is closeness and bedtime when you get home?  Is there another parent?  Can you coordinate or juggle work schedules so that one of you is home either later in the morning or earlier in the afternoon.  Can you make dinners on weekends so that there is no dinner prep needed?  Can you skip baths some evenings?  Can you shorten bedtime routines?  Would your child fall asleep faster if you stayed or laid down with them?  When you first get home with your child, is the immediate task things that “have to be done” or can the first 15 or 20 minutes be pure, uninterrupted, connection time?  (same thing goes for the morning).  Can you get up an hour before the children so that you have already eaten, had your coffee, showered, dressed, etc., so that you are fully available to them when they get up?  Can you help your child with some of the tasks that they refuse to do?  Can you NOT help your child with some of the tasks that they want to do themselves?  Can you offer choices to give them some power in the routine?

These are our problems to solve. There’s always a way.  Yes.  Always. You have to reject the “nothing works” mentality.  Yes.  There are things that work.   No, I don’t have a way to help them to move faster.  It’s not their problem to solve, it’s not them that needs to change. It’s us.  As ever.

Toddlers have no agenda to get anywhere.  They have only two action items on their agendas:  play, and deep emotional connection with their parents.  If you’re struggling with behavior, their life is likely lacking in one of those ways.  Take that on.

Try this.

Do whatever you have to do to allow an hour for diaper changing and getting dressed.  Just for one morning.  Clear that entire hour so that you have NOTHING to do other than being with your child–no phone, no running around, no making arrangements, no putting on makeup, not looking at your to-do list.  Spend that hour with them, as if it is the most precious time on earth. This is your child–you love them with all of your heart, and you don’t get nearly enough time with them (nor they with you) and this is a rare opportunity for you to be fully present, not distracted, a chance to  get to really see who they are these days, what they like, how they think, what their “speed” is.   You’re not necessarily helping them, or talking to them, or trying to get them to do anything.  You’re just being with them.  And in that closeness, and being with them, let them know that their diaper is going to need to be changed and that clothes are going to need to get put on.  Let them help.  Or choose.  Or not, if they don’t want that.  Just be with them.  For an hour.  For one day.  In the morning.  With no agenda.  Even as it inches toward the time you need to leave (best to not have the hour run right into that leaving time…leave a buffer space in between).  Still be present.  As Magda Gerber said, “Do less.  Observe more.  Enjoy most.”

Try it.  Don’t expect it to be perfect.  Don’t get caught up in “but what about tomorrow, when I don’t have an hour??!?”  Don’t go there.  Just do it.  Try it.  See what happens.  See what you learn.  See what it is that your child has to teach you about how to do mornings.

This is not a burden.  This is not an inconvenience.  This is not a cop-out.  This is not “teaching them they can do whatever they want.”

This is you.  Giving your child the time with you that they so intensely want and deserve, so much so that they will keep you engaged emotionally by dragging out morning routines.  This is you, giving that to your child, with a full and open heart.  This is you, trying something new, and being open to what there is to learn.  This is you.

You can do this.