The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


August 29, 2013

Sarah Coyne: Toddlers learn best by example

JOPLIN, Mo. — My toddler had thrown the couch pillows to the floor and turned the couch into an indoor trampoline. While I watched, he walked on squishy feet to the edge of the couch cushions. I waited to see what he would do, feeling healthy measures of both adoration and doubt.

I adore his cuteness, but I doubt his carefulness. This boy needs serious doses of physical activity, though, even if it means making a mess and risking a tumble.

I took deep breaths and tried not to hover, but from across the room, I spoke up. "Be careful!"

In his tiny, scratchy voice, he repeated after me: "Wee caffool!"

Then he executed an admirable front handspring with a three-quarter twist into the pile of pillows on the floor. And if his maneuver wasn't exactly as complicated as my imagination maintained, it's only because I haven't yet allowed an attempted jump from the fireplace mantle.

But why hadn't he heeded my warning to be careful? Throwing oneself from a large piece of furniture just doesn't fit within the normal confines of the word careful.

As if I hadn't been here before with his older sisters, I'd almost forgotten that toddlers don't always know what our words mean. They're learning every day, to be sure, and they can follow detailed instructions well enough to make us beam with pride at their intelligence.

Still, intangible ideas can get confusing. Words such as "careful," "gentle" or "patient" are foreign concepts that mean very little in the minds of our toddlers.

Because we can't wait until their brains are ready to handle abstract notions, it's up to us and our creativity to show our little ones what we mean when we're speaking stuff and nonsense. Sometimes that means being more specific. For example, when we say "be careful," we might actually mean something more concrete like "go slowly," "watch your step" or "stop."

Even with more clarity, it's also helpful to show rather than just tell. When children see actions that match the words, those concepts will begin to be concrete. Take your toddler by the hand and demonstrate. Show him slower, smaller steps and stretch your words out to match your actions.

Another tricky point to make is that of being gentle. When our toddlers approach a tiny, fragile infant, it's our first instinct to either rescue the delicate baby or restrain the bumbling toddler using words such as "be gentle" or "be easy." Only, if our toddlers haven't yet been shown what gentleness looks like, the words are lost on them.

Instead, it's up to us parents to take time to demonstrate the words in action. Join your toddler in their activity, whether it's examining a breakable keepsake or greeting a new baby friend. The words "be gentle," when paired with a soft touch on your child's own arm, can show true meaning.

Use the same principle for showing what a whisper sounds like when you tell your toddler to "be quiet." Use it as you begin teaching your toddler how to wait patiently or share toys. And most definitely use it before your toddler gets the idea that jumping slowly from the mantelpiece qualifies as being careful.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.blogspot. com.

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