On Communicating with Toddlers

Bobby recently took a three hour nap, and when he woke up, he was inconsolable. He came down the stairs crying, upset, and I had no idea what he wanted. Bobby will be two this summer, so communication is still a challenge. I tried picking him up and asking him what he wanted, but he cried and thrashed, so I put him down. I tried offering him all the things he usually wants—his pacifier, his sippie cup, a snack—but he rejected all of it.

Having failed to console him, I decided to let him cry until he calmed down. Bobby laid on the kitchen floor and sobbed. I was frustrated. I was trying hard not to take that out on him, but I had also stopped trying to figure out what he wanted. I felt I’d tried to help him, and it hadn’t worked, so the ball was in his court now.

I was also painfully aware that Bobby was a filthy mess. He had fallen asleep in the midst of eating chocolate ice cream, and I’d put him straight in bed rather than risk waking him by cleaning him. His face was covered with chocolatey smears, as were his chubby little hands. I knew he wouldn’t like me cleaning him, but I figured if he was already crying it wasn’t like it would make things worse. So I got a warm washcloth, picked Bobby up, and thoroughly cleaned his face and hands.

When I put Bobby down, tears and all, after I had finished cleaning him, he reached towards the counter, and seemed to want something up there. So I handed him a small brown paper bag of cookies from earlier, thinking maybe that was what he wanted. He then tried to wipe off his now-wet face with the brown paper bag.

And at that moment I was reminded of his basic personhood.

Bobby doesn’t like me to clean him, but if he drips ice cream on his shirt he wants a napkin to wipe it up. If he spills milk on the floor, he wants a rag to clean it up. If he spills pretzels, he picks them up and puts them back in the bag. When I’d wiped Bobby up, I’d left him with a wet face. He wanted to dry it. Even upset and crying, he was still distinctly Bobby. I handed him a paper towel, and he promptly wiped his face again, this time much more effectively.

Bobby was still crying distraughtly, but I decided to make another attempt to figure out what he wanted. I picked him up. He cried more loudly and struggled, but this time I tried harder to listen. He pointed to the stairs, so I walked up the stairs with him. He pointed to the master bedroom, so I went in there with him. Finally, after some trial and error, I figured out what he wanted. He wanted me to cuddle with him on my bed and read him a book—and he was very insistent that the main light be off.

Bobby had woken from his three hour nap discombobulated, and he wanted me to help him adjust by cuddling him and reading to him in a darkened room. But I wouldn’t have understood any of that if I hadn’t tried again to listen.

Imagine, for a moment, what it must be like to be Bobby. If I find understanding what Bobby wants frustrating, how much more frustrating must Bobby find my difficulty understanding what he wants and his own difficulty communicating it? When I grow frustrated with Bobby’s (understandably) limited verbal skills, I need to remember how much more difficult this must be for Bobby.

And I need to try harder to listen.

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