By Angela Zimmerman, Common Sense Media
When I opened the gates to screen time for my 2-year-old daughter, I was planning to limit it to airplanes and sick days. But with TV and tablets came a whole new colorful world that hooked my tot instantly, and her new word -- "cartoons!" -- became a constant refrain. Almost overnight, her obsession with books and our sweet ritual of reading became a distant memory to her little toddler brain. Screens offered something much more exciting.
I felt OK introducing screen time, especially since most of the time I snuggle up on the couch and watch with her (which is why I now know every single word of Moana), to make the TV time as interactive and educational as I can. And the apps we've let her play with are all highly rated for learning. But when it came time to reading books together, her previously enthusiastic interest was now drawn to a shape-shifting demigod voiced by the Rock.
I was worried. For me, books are more than fun and educational. They're a family tradition. My own lifelong passion for reading was sparked by my mother's nightly read-aloud sessions with me and my sister. We never skipped a night, and it was truly a highlight of my childhood. I may not follow every custom my mom handed down (like her tendency to embroider our names on anything she could stick a needle into), but I know that a love of books is worth preserving. I want my kid to treasure that magical reading time as much as I did growing up, despite the irresistible pull of singing animals, animated princesses, and sweeping soundtracks (seriously, it's hard to compete with Lin-Manuel Miranda).
So I had to dig deep to come up with extra-special reading experiences to compete with all that sparkly screen entertainment. My hope is that these tips and tricks will cultivate positive and passionate literacy habits she'll have the rest of her life.
Make it a daily ritual.
Every night, without fail, before my daughter heads to bed, we read at least two books together, usually more. On the nights she's wound up and super resistant to sleep, this routine puts her in a mellow mood and helps her relax. By the time I turn the first page, she's already heavy-lidded and sucking her thumb.
Let them pick.
Your kid is bound to have favorite books, and you will inevitably groan inwardly (and probably outwardly) when she asks you to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 200th time. But it's those cherished favorites that will always comfort and entertain. (If we go for a third book, Mommy gets to pick. Otherwise we'd never rotate our library.)
Find a quiet, special space.
We used to read in the rocker next to her crib, but on those nights she didn't want to go to bed, she put up a fight just to enter her room. Then we used to read on the couch, but there are inevitably distractions -- the basketball game is on, the dog is barking at the neighbors, there's music on the stereo. So I created our own special reading space on the bed in the guest room. It's stocked with pillows and blankets, and I light some candles and lay out the book selections on the bed with us. It's our insta-special reading spot! (It sure doesn't take much with a toddler.) You can do this anywhere you have enough room for two.
Don't freak out and completely eliminate screen time.
Once you've introduced TV and tablets to your toddler -- and discovered his or her voracious appetite for it -- you don't need to panic and pack it all in. Well-chosen, high-quality media has proven benefits and is fine when balanced with other activities. Try to be strategic with when, how often, and how much you let them imbibe.
Keep the selection fresh.
Hit the library regularly, and check out stuff by their favorite authors or in their preferred genres. Libraries are key, since you never know what they're going to like, and you don't want to shell out bucks for books they won't touch. Need recommendations? Check out some of Common Sense Media's fave books for toddlers.
Find print books with sensory experiences.
You can load up your Kindle or tablet with digital books when traveling, but let them enjoy the tactile experience of turning pages and touching different textures. My kid loves books with an interactive element, such as flaps and dials or scratch-and-sniff spots. Her favorites include Mama's Pajamas, which has an array of different fabrics, and Dance, which uses cardboard levers to make different animals dance.
Keep 'em all over.
We keep a few books in the car and a stack by the potty, and she gets to take one to bed every night. It may be overkill, but it gives her an opportunity to connect with books at every step. Studies have even shown that having lots of books at home can give kids a big boost in school.
Resist the begging with clever excuses.
When my kid gets really stuck on something and wants to do nothing but watch Frozen, I tell her Elsa and Anna are sleeping. She accepts that without question. Sure, it's a white lie, but it's for her own good (and the sanity of me and my husband). A lifelong love of reading is a gift you can give to your kids that they will carry forever. One day she'll thank me!
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.
As a toddler, our son Michael came into our bedroom at night to sleep on the carpet near our bed. He never knocked on the door or asked to come in or tried to climb into our bed with us. He always conked out on the side near his mother. Obviously, just being near us—or, rather, her—gave him a sense of security.
I’m sure my wife felt flattered by his wish to be close to her, though she never said so. Who could blame Michael, really? I mean, there he was—what, two, three years old?—in his room down the hall from us, thinking, Hey, it’s dark in here and I’m all by myself. And then I can imagine his just deciding, Look, enough of this alone-in-the-dark stuff. I want my Mom.
All around, it was really cute.
Michael’s habit of silently slipping in to join us lent our nights an aura of mystery and suspense. I remember waking up and wondering, Is he here yet? He would make his entrance at different times, most likely whenever he felt the need, rather than going by any regular schedule. And then I might look down, and there he would already be, sprawled out with his eyes closed and his head on a pillow, all tucked under his blanket. And so night after night in he would come, our reliable little visitor, bundled in his baby-blue pajamas, the three of us sleeping together in the stillness and the quiet until morning.
This little ninja routine of his brought its problems, though. For example, I would get up at night to go to the bathroom and either almost step on him or trip over him. So we had something of an issue there: I wanted to avoid hurting him—and myself.
And then, Michael turned four, and I started to wonder how much longer he planned to be our nighttime roommate. I suspected he was getting a little too old to depend on our company all night. And of course, the older he got, the more he grew, creating a larger obstacle.
Now, please understand. I loved having our little guy there. Some nights I would kneel down next to him in the shadows and look at his beautiful face, just watching him breathe. But I was concerned about squashing him, and said so to his mother.
“Maybe Michael should sleep through the night in his room from now on,” I said. At a certain point he would need to learn to sleep by himself, just as everyone does, and maybe the sooner the better. I wanted only what was best for him.
“It’s fine,” his mother said. “It’s no big deal. He’ll stop coming in when he’s ready to stop coming in.”
Naturally, I worried about what the future might hold if we took this course of action with no cutoff point. Michael would be sleeping with us in our bedroom at the age of 10, and then at 20, and then at 30. He would graduate from college, start a job, get married, even have kids, but still there he would be, sleeping on the carpet next to our bed. And all along my wife would be saying “It’s fine; it’s no big deal. He’ll stop coming in when he’s ready to stop coming in.”
But one night only months later, I looked next to the bed and four-year-old Michael was nowhere to be seen. And the next night, too, and then the night after. And eventually I went to his bedroom to check on him and there he was, warm under the covers, at last secure enough alone to stay put.
And for just a quick moment, proud as I felt of our son, I wanted to invite him to come back.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
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.
Want to boost your chances of having a great rapport with your kid now and for years to come?
Give your toddler a shot at independence.
Let her play (safely) on her own terms, with her own toys, the way she wants to play with them. Encourage her to explore, experiment, and figure out how stuff works by trial and error.
Sound advice? At least that’s what social scientists at the University of Missouri suggest.
Relaxed Mothers Score More Points with Toddlers
In research published online in the journal Social Development, MU investigators said moms who gave kids more freedom to play at age two were viewed more positively by their children during playtime than were moms who interfered in their toddlers’ play choices.
Here’s what we know about the University of Missouri study:
Scientists designed their investigation to explore how intrusion into a toddler’s play impacts a child’s behavior—and the overall quality of the mother-child relationship.
To start, investigators visited the homes of the study participants. Prior to their visit, researchers gathered a number of toys for the toddlers to play with. They told the mothers to give the toys to their kids in a particular order, but beyond that they added no other instructions.
Moms and children sat on a mat during the play episode. Mothers were free to play (or work) with their toddlers or they could simply watch.
Mothers were rated on a scale of one to seven, based on how intrusive they were while the researchers observed them. Laid-back moms let their tots play without interference, or offered support only when their kids seemed stumped or asked for help explicitly.
Intrusive moms were overly directive in their kids’ play, at times taking over by removing toys their children wanted to play with, refusing to give their kids toys they requested, and physically intervening to demonstrate how to play the right way with toys their children were already using.
Controlling Moms May Trigger Negative Behavior and Feelings
The problem with the latter approach is, of course, the blowback.
Toddlers with highly directive moms displayed the most negativity toward their mothers, and they communicated this by whining and resorting to other fussy behaviors to object to the interference.
When the original study kids entered fifth grade several years later, investigators interviewed them to see how these youngsters felt about their mothers. The offspring of the more controlling moms continued to exhibit more negativity—possibly, researchers said, because the moms continued the same behavior.
Clearly, to these children, that lack of autonomy is pretty much a deal breaker.
“Restriction of autonomy has been linked to low motivation to succeed, low self-control, and negativity in children,” said Dr. Jean Ispa, professor and co-chair of the UM Department of Human Development and Family Science.
“There is general agreement among researchers that regardless of age, children need to feel that their preferences are understood and respected,” Dr. Ispa added.
So moms, let your kids enjoy themselves. Let them play like toddlers without interference. You’ll all be happier.
When I was a toddler, family legend goes, another child tossed my lovey, a ragdoll I had named Monica, into a small barrel of trash that had just been lit. Before any of the adults present could stop me, I reached in and snatched my doll from the small fire. Luckily, neither of us were burned. The only one who really suffered was the bully, who was, most certainly, punished. But, oh! How I would have suffered if I hadn’t been able to retrieve Monica. She was everything to me.
Whatever you call it—a lovey, a comfort object, a transitional love object or TLO as a former preschool teacher I know says—that special object to which a Baby or Toddler attaches is a big deal.
Typically, a TLO is soft, like a blanket or a teddy bear. Its softness, psychologists say, is evocative of a mother’s loving arms. Cuddling with this object is the next best thing to cuddling with mom.
This attachment usually begins around the age of six months, when babies are beginning to experience the freedom of early mobility. At this stage, they are starting to see themselves as individuals separate from their parents. They are beginning the long journey from complete dependence to independence. So, of course, they crave solace. Of course, they need soothing. The TLO is just the ticket—at least for many babies and toddlers.
I have known parents who were slightly alarmed at the attachment their children developed for a blanket or a bunny. But having and using a TLO is a healthy part of childhood development. In fact, pediatricians sometimes encourage parents to help their child attach to a soft toy or blankie by taking it with them wherever they go and using it to help comfort their child.
My son’s “lovey” was a stuffed black bear, which he, as a toddler, named Big Dark Street. (Interestingly, he took the name from a line in a picture book that he must have found comforting: Big dark streets love little street lamps.) As a toddler, my son took Big Dark Street everywhere--until we lost him once on a vacation. My son was distraught; his mom more so. I spent hours calling every home, restaurant, and hotel we’d visited on our trip, asking if they’d found a little boy’s beloved bear. “We’ll check and let you know,” was the usual response. One day, about two weeks later, a box arrived in the mail—from a Holiday Inn. We opened it, and, sure enough, there was Big Dark Street. A note was pinned to his back that read: “Goodness, I’m glad to be home!”
But it wasn’t long before Big Dark Street went back into a box and into a closet. My son, like most kids with TLOs, moved on not long after preschool started. The classic children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, describes well this short, sweet season of childhood. Cuddled and loved until he was literally worn out, the stuffed rabbit lost its meaning to the boy over time. But the boy, we presume, grows up well-adjusted and independent. The rabbit did its job well.
Occasionally, when I’m rummaging through boxes in storage, I’ll come across Big Dark Street. Each time, I’m compelled to pick him up, breathe in his scent, and give him a hug. His job now is to soothe me—the mom who misses the toddler who loved his bear (and his mother) so ferociously. Fortunately, that bear can still work its magic.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.