Saturday, August 7, 1999
Fear of toddlers can be conquered
Author and mother Vicki Iovine sends dispatches from the trenches in her new bookBy Janice Turner
Toronto Star Life Writer
``Frankly, toddlers frighten me.''
With that line, four-time mommy (roughly two years apart) Vicki Iovine opens The Girlfriend's Guide To Toddlers (Penguin Putnam, $17).
The last time I read Iovine, I was more than seven months pregnant. Her Girlfriend's Guide To Pregnancy came to me a little late in the game, but was nonetheless highly entertaining.
In person - she dropped by The Star on a promotional tour back in 1996 - she really is funny. She hammed it up for a photo. She was sincere in her good wishes.
So, when I read her opening line to Toddlers, it caught me off guard. I thought if anyone can make light of that stage, this is the lady. My son is plunk, right-in-the-middle of the ter-rific twos and I could sure do with some comic relief. (Why, of course, he's a darling.)
Well, it turns out she has retained her wit and irreverence, and does manage to make light of pretty much everything - bless her - including the emotionally loaded (for parents) issue of potty training, eating (I think she occasionally mentions the word meal), discipline (firm but not stern), sleepy time (your toddler's), matters of preschool and beyond mothering (I told you, she's funny).
But back to the issue of fear . . .
``It was so much simpler when you could put the baby down in one general area and expect him to pretty much stay there safe and sound,'' Iovine writes.
``Now he's streaking from one peril-fraught room to another like a lunatic with a death wish and you would give anything for him just to be still. I'm beginning to find the humour in the situation now, but there were times when I felt like a fool trying to put a collar on a bumblebee.''
Sounds about right.
``I know what it is that is so scary about those little people between the ages of 1 and 4 - they are raw and uncensored examples of our human nature. They are the urges, frustrations, desires and fears that all of us feel, but they have absolutely no veneer of civilization to make them more palatable to their fellow human beings . . . I still don't like to sit still in my chair, eat my vegetables, share my toys or wait my turn to do absolutely anything. I'm just a lot better at pretending all those things come naturally to me.''
Oh, Iovine reassures, toddlers are cute. They're charming, curious and spontaneous, all right.
``Is toddlerhood something I'd like to relive?'' she asks. ``Yeah, right after I re-experience my own trip through puberty.''
Her guide - ostensibly a compilation of wisdom culled from other, not always like-minded mothers - is a breezy 264 pages. What follows are some hugely subjective highlights: basically, bits of wisdom and advice that jumped out at me. My comments are italicized.
- If you occasionally (mostly) feel that your best-laid plans for reasoning with your little person and helping him to cultivate a sense of freedom within a context of respect have collided head-on with a reality in which you yelp before you leap, don't take it too hard. That's usually how it goes for all of us who mother in the toddlerhood trenches.
- The stakes in raising a human being are enormous and overwhelming (if I could find a stronger word, I'd add it) for any thinking person. We frantic mothers can't help but worry that every little decision we make concerning our toddlers will cement their fate (other mothers I know usually refer to this as second guessing).
- Really hear me when I tell you that you need not teach your child to walk, to climb stairs or to drink out of a cup. There is a force of nature that compels a healthy and stimulated toddler to figure this stuff out on his own.
- Toddlers not only watch you, they worship you. This will not always be the case, so now's your window of opportunity to imprint on your little one's mind all your best habits and behaviours (and hide or suppress your worst).
- Do your best toddler teaching through being present, loving and as consistent as possible. Your little one might not be talking, but she sure as heck is listening, and understanding a lot more than you know. It means your toddler is sponging up your ``gestalt,'' the way you feel about her, your level of respect for your mate, the way you address tasks and your disposition (wow, that, too!).
- How hard can it be to keep up with a tiny person whom any grown-up can outrun in a race? It's when you become the warden of a toddler yourself that you realize speed isn't the issue. It's the length of the race (and the accompanying exhaustion) and the unpredictability of the terrain.
- On any given day, most parents of toddlers will agree that a disproportionate amount of time is spent averting a disaster or cleaning up after one. This is called ``spontaneity'' by people who are too old to remember their own children, but to those of us living it, it's called psychological warfare. (There probably isn't a night that goes by that I don't look at my spouse and with a - sort of - smile, say, well, THAT'S been quite a day, as if that will somehow make the next one a bit easier.)
- Our goal as parents is not to cinch the social saddle too tight by expecting toddlers to behave as little ladies and gentlemen. Remember, they are still way too far down the evolutionary ladder to satisfy Miss Manners and should be rewarded just for trying to resist the most barbarian behaviour.
- Outraged, terrified, grossed out, these are all emotions that any mother of a toddler feels. We aren't detached and professional in our mothering. We are deeply vulnerable, hopelessly devoted and slightly guilty that we don't know more about this mothering business than we do (which is why we keep buying books like this one).
- Toddlers do things on their own time and rarely is it the same rhythm as yours. They may cheerfully participate in your agenda for several months, but don't get spoiled or complacent, because sooner or later they will rebel. They don't do it to tick you off, they do it because they must. (I find repeating this to myself to be good therapy.) It takes time to master the zillions of things that people who are not babies must do.
They not only watch you, they worship you
- When your toddler has a meltdown based on having had it up to here with his life (this is a frustration tantrum, distinct from the tyrannical or premeditated tantrum, which Iovine also addresses), this is the time for you to don your asbestos suit and rush into the blaze. He needs your comfort as well as your help. If you think it's scary to watch a toddler have a tantrum, imagine what it must feel like from his point of view.
- When your child learns to use the toilet is no big deal in the scheme of things. (Iovine suggests training a 3-year-old can be even better than training a younger child. Most of life's lessons, she maintains, are easily taught when a child is old enough to learn by a combination of listening, observing and understanding.)
Chances are you will be involved in the potty process for several months, if not for a couple of years (did I mention Iovine is frank?) and, as in all parenting matters, it's wise to pace yourself. Your darling little toddler will gradually accept this responsibility as surely as he learned to walk and is learning to talk. You can gently encourage him in all these things, but if you think you're the Great Educator here, you're a tad deluded. (Yes, I suppose we do need to be reminded.)
Potty training tips: Remind but don't nag. Pay no attention to other toddlers' potty habits. Take fear of flushing seriously.
- The essence of motherhood is juggling, and very rarely will you manage to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. Get used to tripping over balls. It is your destiny.
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