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Toddlers as Teachers: 5 Things We Can Learn From Our Little Ones

Toddlers as Teachers: 5 Things We Can Learn From Our Little Ones

Oh, those crazy-making toddlers! Right?

What if their frustrating way of keeping us on our toes is actually an unexpected paver on our path to a more conscious, loving existence? “Waking up” to the present moment, as some Buddhist teachers call it, evokes lasting presence of mind— true sanity. 

And what better to wake us up to the present moment better than a pile of freshly folded clothes dropped from the balcony, or a stop-you-in-your-tracks spontaneous squeal,“I love you, mommy!”?

I offer here my own reflections on the ways my toddler helps me to stay present, joyful, and perhaps sane. Can you relate?

1. Instant feedback
Imagine (or remember) getting up late (single, childless), literally running through the Monday morning routine, rushing with bags and keys and coffee in hand to the car, then speeding off to that 9 am meeting. For me, I’d reliably burn my bagel, stub my same two toes on that same couch leg, and watch in disbelief as something precious (hopefully just the coffee) went flying off the roof of the car as I sped away; all a result of mindless distraction.

My toddler is like that squishy yummy bagel, my sensitive toes, my precious cargo, and then some (times a million, of course). When I’ve got my eye on a prize other than her (the clock, for example), there is always a proverbial stubbed toe reminding me to slow down. It reminds me to consider her in her full human personhood and center myself so that I can guide us in a beneficial way each moment. Whether the wake-up call is in the form of my own disappointment or her flight into a loud flailing objection, being with her offers a vivid reflection of my own state of mind.

This goes for the joyful bits, too. When I am present and available, whether focusing solely on her or getting things done with her alongside me, we both have a really good time. Her face beams my own love back at me, and mine, hers. When I’m in the moment, giving her full consideration, it’s a pleasure to be where I am, with who I am. 

I adore my toddler’s instant feedback because it reminds me to be present.

Click over to Three Keys to Staying Present with Children for some tips on how to really be there with a toddler.

2. Unstoppable curiosity
I haven’t yet gotten used to my daughter’s always-evolving investigative impulses. Her surprises still surprise me. She finds the most mundane things fascinating. She’ll watch a box elder bug slowly make its way across the living room, prodding it gently with a stick or feather or whatever is nearby, calling for fellow witnesses—“Oh, loooooook! Look! Look!” 

This same curiosity opens the Tupperware in the fridge. It spills the sock drawer onto the floor. It rearranges my laptop browser windows. It sets all the lights and alarms going in the car. It pulls me towards a, “No!” but if I look closer, it calls me to a reverent “Wow!” and a joining in. It calls me to be grateful for my toddler’s spry mind and how it is growing by leaps and bounds. She is brilliantly, naturally driven by curiosity to learn, learn, learn.

I love my toddler’s curiosity because it reminds me of the everyday gifts all around me.

I found this article by Missy Willis, M.Ed. helpful on the topic of embracing and supporting toddler curiosity: Born to Explore

3. Boundless joy
Hand-in-hand with her curiosity is my toddler’s ever-ready glee. She can go from serious and studious to Tigger-proportioned bounce in t-minus two seconds. She is going through a two-year-old phase of literally jumping all the time. I let her jump on the bed because she enjoys it so much. She asks for visits to our friends’ houses with trampolines. She holds our hands and jumps “Hop! Hop! Hop!” down the steps. She loves the pages in Guess How Much I Love You where Little Nutbrown Hare is demonstrating his love by hopping and hopping as high as he can. From the jumping to the bursts of giggle to the singing at the top of her lungs, my daughter visits the land of pure joy more than most beings I’ve ever met. Thank goodness she invites (insists for) me to come along! It reminds me that joy is woven generously into the fabric of our being.

I adore my toddler’s boundless joy because it helps me see the world from a joy-filled place.

Have you read Katie Hurley’s 7 Secrets of Highly Happy Children on HuffPost? It’s a good one. 

4. Sensitive connectedness
“Oh! What’s happening with Daddy?!” she says when he hollers over a hammered thumb. Same goes for crying babies and sad-looking street kittens. She's deeply empathetic and wants everyone to be happy. She immediately notices shifts in her environment and the movement of others. It affects her deeply, and she responds openly in her concern. 

I sometimes feel like her whole being is permeable. Perhaps we adults have grown a harder shell around our intuition and emotional sensitivity than our toddlers have yet to develop. Not that I want her to toughen up. I'm just surprised how sensitive my girl is sometimes. In a way, she calls me to question why I am not.

I appreciate my toddler’s sensitivity because it reveals the kind open heart that we all have in common, even under our shells.

While I haven’t labeled my toddler a “Highly Sensitive Child”, I found these 17 tips for the highly sensitive toddler on the Attached to Parenting blog to be very thoughtful. I think they could apply to all toddlers.


5. Unbridled heart 
You cannot forcefully pull my toddler’s mind in any direction. Not one, not ever. We have tried. We have tried lovingly. We have tried reasonably. But in our force, we fail. We’ve been learning to give up the learned belief in the importance of authority for authority’s sake. Instead, we choose to protect her freedom as a full person while protecting her from environmental dangers. Sometimes though, even when we give ample room and adoring attention, the gorgeous unbroken stallion inside her will rear up and unleash a wild wind on the world, full-gallop. 

Poetic references to loud displays of upset aside, my daughter (like most toddlers I’ve heard of) can simply be a force to be reckoned with.  She has not learned to hide her impassioned ideas to “make room” for others. She has not taken on the cultural demands to be nice and pretty and let’s face it, quiet. She has not given up the brazen for the subtle in order to look worldly or intellectual. She is two. Two thousand volts of pure life! It’s not always easy, but I love this about her. I believe in her innate brilliance, so my experience of even the most explosive moments is marked by (mostly) calm admiration. I also use her intensely emotional moments as a reminder of no. 1 above. That helps, too. 

I prize my toddler’s unbridled heart because it is a display of color, power and freedom I’d never want her to stow away.

I reference this article by Richard Grossman, PhD for its potent message about supporting a child’s confidence: Giving Your Child “Voice”: The 3 Rules of Parenting

Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve seen a wise reminder on a sticker around Boulder, Colorado where Boba is headquartered and where I used to live. It says, “Motherhood: The Shortest and Steepest Path to Enlightenment”. Indeed. What else can we do in the presence of such reflective, powerful, loving beings but evolve? I guess she’s my little Dalai Lama boot camp drill sergeant. I sure feel like a more conscious person for having been around her these 28 months. Maybe she will turn me into a Dalai Lama. For now, enjoying the whirlwind instead of fighting it is prized peace enough for me.

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