Embracing nap time, putting on their own shoes, and sitting for 15 minutes in “circle time” at preschool: Are these behaviors really too much to ask from our 1- to 3-year-olds?
The short answer is yes—sometimes.
Many parents are guilty of overestimating their child’s ability to control themselves. In 2015 the early childhood resource group ZERO TO THREE conducted a survey of parents around the country. The resulting report, Tuning In: Parents of Young Children Tell Us What They Think, Know and Need, found that most parents think their kids should be able to do more at their age than they actually can. They referred to this as the “expectation gap.”
ZERO TO THREE’s executive director, Matthew Melmed, elaborated on the results, saying that having realistic expectations of your child’s abilities “is critical for supporting healthy development and minimizing stress for both parents and that child” and that unrealistic expectations can have detrimental effects. He says this expectation gap “can lead to frustration for the parent and possibly more punitive – rather than supportive – responses.”
Not only is there a gap between reality and parents’ expectations, but children develop differently and on different schedules. So what is appropriate behavior for a toddler?
Here are some of the normal behaviors for this age group.
Will do things (like biting or grabbing toys from other kids) without intention.
Will follow curiosity and do things like throw toys and pull things down just to see what happens.
Unable to share. Anything they are interested in or think is theirs is seen as an extension of themselves.
Love saying “Mine!” and “No!”
Hate hearing “Mine!” and “No!”
Often wake up during the night.
More likely to play alongside other kids as opposed to with them.
Around 2, might become more defiant as they start to experiment with independence. Tantrums may be caused by frustration with lack of words and their lack of ability to communicate.
Tantrums may also be brought on by experience with big emotions (sadness, fear, anger) that they don’t have words for.
Want increased control. This can lead to tantrums.
Will seek out independence. May lead to tantrums. Will also switch between wanting independence (“I do it!”) and wanting help.
When frustrated, may become disappointed.
Will say “no” often, even when they may mean “yes.”
May call you back after they are put to bed.
Will try to get out of naps even though they still need them.
Might get jealous when parents give attention to other kids.
Self-control develops between 3½ and 4 years old, but it takes longer to be used consistently.
Emotional control also comes between 3½ and 4.
Will likely learn how to share (better) during this time.
May act out in classroom because they don’t have the one-to-one interaction they are used to having at home.
When you have a better idea of what to expect from your toddler, you will likely get less frustrated and you’ll be better prepared to weather the toddler storm. And as Melmed says, “When parents have realistic expectations about their child’s capabilities, they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.”