On a recent evening of baby-sitting, I put my two-year-old grandson in the tub for what I thought would be a quick bath. By the time I’d soaped him up and rinsed him off, however, he’d become so absorbed in pouring water from one plastic cup to another that you’d have thought he was panning for gold. When I suggested that it was time for him to come out and get dry, he shook his head vehemently. Seeing that he would not be dislodged, I sat down on the edge of the tub and let him continue prospecting.
After 10 minutes of watching him fill and spill and refill an assortment of containers, I began to wonder why I felt so unhurried, even serene, when only hours earlier I’d wanted to scream because the guy on line ahead of me at the bank chose to waste my time buying himself a money order!
It took me a moment to realize that I had entered what I used to call Toddler Time, a continuum that passes very differently from that of Standard or Daylight Saving Time. I remembered it well, having been there many times when my kids were small.
Like harried new mothers the world over, I’d tried at first to fit my little ones into my pre-parenthood conception of time, i.e., the idea that there is only a certain amount of it in any given day, and that amount has to be divided into segments of varying duration so that all necessary activities can be accomplished. The trouble was that seeing time as rigidly finite made me want to hurry, while children, I found out early on, are not programmed to hurry. They’re programmed to learn, and whether the lesson is how to pour water into a cup or button a sweater or catch a ball, it can’t be timed. Mastering the skill in question takes however long is necessary for any particular child, and “however long” is impossible to predict. Once I understood this, I decided that whenever possible I would put other obligations on hold and take time to watch my children learn at their own pace.
So, when my 18-month-old son made it clear that he didn’t want to be fed anymore—that if anyone were going to shove mashed potatoes into his mouth, it would be himself—I handed over the spoon. The result was that his dinnertime, which until then had taken maybe 10 minutes, could now take, well, forever. But what a rich time it was for both of us! He got to simultaneously make a mess and fill his tummy by his own hand, and I got to savor his increasing ability to deposit the food in his mouth instead of his nose.
I learned not to interfere with my children’s self-teaching, stifling my impulse to, say, show them how holding a crayon the “right” way would make it easier for them to control. I saw how much more satisfying it was for them to figure out stuff like that for themselves.
I remember watching my daughter one afternoon when she was just shy of two, struggling to slide colored rings down a stick attached to a pedestal. This particular pedestal, instead of sitting squarely on the floor, rocked back and forth, so that every time she tried to slip a ring onto the stick, it eluded her by tilting to one side or the other. I waited for her to explode with exasperation, ready to jump in and give her a hand, when she picked up a red ring, slipped it on the stick with exquisite care, and watched it slide smoothly all the way down, just as it was meant to do. I saw her stare at the toy for a second, as if surprised at her success, and then clap her hands together the same way I did whenever I applauded her efforts.
The awareness kids form that they can work things out for themselves becomes more and more precious as they grow up and the things they have to work out become trickier and more complex. The belief in their own abilities gives them the sort of confidence that nobody else can, along with a necessary tolerance for frustration. They learn to accept the fact that not everything comes easily, but that hard-won successes can be especially satisfying.
Entering Toddler Time is like stepping across a magic threshold into outer space—where the hassles of everyday life momentarily vanish—and of course none of us can go there whenever we wish. We can’t spend twenty minutes watching a 2-year-old pour water into cups when we have a 5-year-old in the living room determined to paint the dog’s toenails, or a 35-year-old in the kitchen who’s had a terrible day and needs to talk. When life calls, we’ve got to get the kid out of the tub and put an end, sometimes an abrupt and much protested end, to the lesson.
Whenever that happened and I felt I’d short-changed one of my offspring, I’d stave off guilt by reminding myself that they had to learn the world did not revolve around them, at least not all the time. It’s a fact of life that can’t be self-taught. Kids have to find it out from us, their parents, and it might just be one of the most important lessons they ever learn. I know it has proved useful to my own children practically every day of their lives—particularly on the days they have stand in line at the bank.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.