Toddlers are wired to explore, investigate, question and be curious so that they may come to understand what things are, how they work and to find creative ways of using things.
Child psychotherapist and author Dr Margot Sunderland calls this ‘the seeking mechanism’ and she explains the importance of this fundamental drive to development of our children’s sense of self, creative thinking capacity, resilience building and problem-solving.
That all sounds really fantastic.
However when your toddler has flushed your mobile phone down the toilet, exclaiming loudly “all gone!”, or when they have unravelled several rolls of loo paper and blocked up your plumbing,or when you find Vaseline has been applied to every surface in your bedroom … you may struggle to view these actions as highly creative!
So often we see these wonderful journeys of exploration through the lens of being naughty, bad, annoying, frustrating and infuriating.
Often we reprimand and discipline in the hope it will stop such events happening again.
Sadly if we continue to view these learning opportunities through the lens of children behaving badly, children can simply shut down their seeking mechanism and stop questioning, seeking, and being creative thinkers.
So next time your child demonstrates their wonderful juicy curiosity in a way that you may fail to appreciate, I urge you to pause and use my four steps to managing the situation.
- Pause and become present.
- Lean towards your toddler and with a very positive voice, ask them “did you do that all by yourself?” (This acknowledges how clever and creative they have been.)
- Then offer some constructive feedback – for example if it is any performance in the toilet, say something like “We don’t play in here because we do poos and wees here and there are germs.” Or “We don’t use these like this!”
- Then tell your intrepid little explorer that they will be cleaning up the mess they have made. Make sure the clean up takes quite a while as this becomes a natural inhibitor to them doing that exact activity again.
I received an email once from a mother (let’s call her Pam) who had been to one of my seminars and had taken my three steps on board.
Pam said she had arrived home loaded up with shopping accompanied by her 3 ½-year-old daughter. After placing the shopping bags on the kitchen floor Pam told her daughter she was popping next door to give her unwell neighbour a script she’d picked up. Her visit took a few more minutes than she’d anticipated and as Pam opened the front door she could see there was some form of chaos reigning in the kitchen. Her daughter called out to her those words no parent of a toddler wants to hear:“Mummy I’ve got dinner ready for us!”
Pam immediately suspected she may not enjoy her daughter’s attempt at getting dinner ready. As she came down the passageway it was confirmed. There was milk everywhere.
Her little treasure had found a large platter and put lettuce and broccoli on it. She had then been able to open a packet of muesli and pour that on top. She prised open the lid on the yoghurt and poured it onto the plate.
The piéce de résistance involved 3 litres of milk, carefully poured onto the platter but which then overflowed and spread the whole wonderful meal across the floor.
Pam said as she stood there taking in all that had happened, she noticed the look of accomplishment on her daughter’s face and took a deep breath knelt down beside her and asked “Did you do this all by yourself for me?”
Her daughter’s shining little face looked up and she said “I did” . In that moment Pam said it felt like three Christmases rolled into one.
She thanked me for this insight which allowed her to appreciate her daughter’s initiative, her desire to help and her creative culinary skills instead of screaming at her, which Pam said she ordinarily would have done.
Pam had changed the ‘naughty lens’ and replaced it with a lens of ‘how clever and how thoughtful’. Her daughter was delighted to help clean up the mess.
Often we see things through our adult eyes and we miss the innocent intention of our little ones. We need to celebrate their wonder, exploration and curiosity.
One of my sons once tried to eat a dried kangaroo poo and after he spat it out I’m pretty sure he made a decision that he wouldn’t eat another one in this lifetime.
So to those out there in toddler land, I invite you to see the world through your toddler’s fresh and curious eyes knowing that a healthy seeking mechanism will help your child cope with life, be more resilient, play better and possibly achieve more in our classrooms.
Oh, and I do suggest you keep a digital record of these moments for the 21st birthday … priceless.
A slightly different version of this article (featuring 3 steps… Maggie’s added one since then) was originally published at Essential Kids.