(My earliest professional work with children took place in a child care center, working with infants and toddlers. Part of my responsibilities included occasionally contributing to the center’s newsletter. I hung onto my articles, and am including a sampling of the more relevant pieces. Enjoy!)

Toddler Classroom, February 2005

Do you remember waiting anxiously for your child’s first word? As you looked down at his or her cherubic face, listening to the coos and babbles, did you wonder, “What are you thinking? What do you want to tell me?” When he or she would cry for hours at night, did you exhaust yourself trying to figure it out, “Are you sick? Are you hungry?  Did you have a nightmare? What?!” And then, slowly, inexorably, the words started to distinguish themselves: “Dada,” “Mama,” “go,” “bye-bye,” “diaper,” “banana” and a host of other words began to emerge. The words themselves may not have been clearly spoken, they may have had some funny variations that you may not be have been able to fully reproduce and maybe you were the only one who really understood your child’s dialect, but by golly, your child was starting to verbally communicate. What joy! What wonder! What excitement! Then, as all children do, your child said it:  “No.”

Welcome to Erikson’s second stage of Psychosocial Development: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt. Of course, that two-letter, one-syllable utterance that anybody can understand clearly isn’t really the defining element of this stage; it is more like a symptom, a verbal clue that your child is changing. What really ushers in this stage is your child’s adeptness with mobility, as well as her burgeoning sense of self. As discussed in January’s parent meeting, this is the time when your child is beginning to become aware that he is a separate person, that he can make choices about what he does and doesn’t want to do. Dr. T. Berry Brazleton tells us that “by walking, a toddler says, ‘I can walk away and I can come back. But what will happen if I do? I am in control of my destiny, but what do I want?’“ (Touchpoints, pp. 136-137). 

It is important to note that while children are struggling with the development of a sense of self, it is naturally not the same identity struggle they will encounter in later years. Child Development specialists call this initial stage the development of the “ecological self.” What that means is that “children first define themselves in terms of their ongoing actions” (The Child, p. 336). It is a sense of self that is still very much centered in the present. It is only as children get older, that the “extended self,” including memories of the past and projections about the future, will develop (The Child, p. 334). For now, your children are still living moment to moment.

Your child is constantly questioning herself and testing you. “No” is a very powerful word and an important part of the development of self. Think of all of the times you’ve modeled that power:  “No, you can’t eat o’s straight out of the box in the grocery store.” Well, now your child is experimenting with that power. You may find that your child will even tell you “no” to things that he or she enjoys. For instance, he may initially turn down a favorite food when you know he is hungry or refuse to engage in a favorite activity, just to see the power of the word and to give him some time to consider his options. Then again, she’ll often use “no” in situations where she really means it, like when it’s time for a diaper or nap or time to stop an activity she’s enjoying. In fact, you’ve probably noticed that your child is challenging you, and herself, in many other ways as well. Children of this age and stage attempt to do more and more on their own (like feeding themselves with spoons or climbing out of cribs). They are trying to see the limits of their independence and abilities. Since there are many things that your child cannot do yet (either because their skills simply aren’t there or because of safety or even time constraints), there are more opportunities for clashes with you.

And clash you will. Remember, we all save our most passionate and honest emotions and behavior for the ones we are closest to and your children are no exception to that rule. They feel the safest with you; they know you will still love them no matter how they act, and they trust you to be honest with them and show them where the limits are. This is a hard stage both for you and your children. They are sorting out who they are, learning their limits and figuring out how the world works and how they fit into it. You are faced with achieving that delicate balance between control and flexibility. “According to Erikson…parents must acknowledge their children’s increasing assertiveness but enforce limits on dangerous behavior” (Infants and Toddlers, p. 224).

As your children grow older, this dance will continue (the stage officially ends around the age of three, but children will always look for checks on their behavior). Most parenting books and Child Development texts focus on warning parents of the dangers of being overly controlling of children’s behavior because this can lead to the “shame and doubt” Erikson warns about. However, there is also danger in being too lax. It is scary not knowing where the limits are. It may seem easier to forget about rules; after all, children are constantly testing you, but that testing is your child’s way of figuring out what they can and can’t do. And since they are so rooted in the present, they test you again and again, gradually constructing their worldview. Maybe she smiles as she stands in that chair for the 5th time in as many minutes, but it is probably deeply satisfying to see that her experiment came out the way she expected. Other times, you’ll both be frustrated and angry. Sometimes you’ll make mistakes; sometimes they will forget the “rules.”  In short, it is your child’s job to try as hard as she can to do all that she is able, and it is our job as adults to help her to do that in a realistic way.