When I tell people that, despite having a 1.5-year-old at home, I get a lot of things done at home, they look at me in disbelief. Not all of them, but it is a generally accepted view that toddlers take up pretty much all of our time, day and night, and leave little room to have so much as a shower when they go on yet another tour to discover hidden corners in the house.
I used to be a single mum with my first. I was still at university, then, and trying to fit in everything would have been impossible if I hadn’t been forced to teach the girl certain skills, which made my life easier and freed up sufficient time for me to just get on with things.
I read somewhere that mums of 4 or more children tend to be happier. It probably is for the same reason: they have no choice but to teach those skills.
1. The skill to play alone for periods of time
When you have children of a similar age, it is tempting to tell them to play together at times when you need to get on with cleaning the house or sorting the washing. But, inevitably, you will be drawn into arguments over who said what, who pushed whom and whose turn it is to play with a toy. And that’s not even taking into account times when the other sibling just doesn’t want to play. So, siblings or none, playing alone is a vital life skill.
It teaches creativity, patience and problem-solving skills. Playing alone can be loud or quiet. With the boy, it often involves having his CD on in his room (‘ABC, 123’ – lots of songs and nursery rhymes aimed at toddlers) and using his Lego Duplo to build a tower.
If they have their own room, keep some favourite, special toys in there, which they can only have when they are in that room. Put on some music to stave off any feelings of loneliness. Gradually, you can build time to yourself up from 5min initially to anything up to an hour and a half, with regular checks. It’s how we managed to tile our bathroom.
2. The skill to eat properly
We once went to a meal with a family where enjoying our meal was just impossible. From children climbing all over the place, to food being smeared onto every possible surface (including other people), the poor parents were on constant alert, conversation between adults was non-existent and it was just an all-round stressful experience.
But some food-related skills can be taught as early as 8-9 months old. Babies can learn to hold a spoon. Young toddlers can learn to wait a few minutes before being served. They can learn that food belongs onto a plate and not on a chair. That food doesn’t get thrown. They can learn that adults, too, like to eat.
Consequences and praise are key here, as well as the modelling of what should happen. So if the rule is not to get up during a meal, adults need to remain at the table, too. If it is that everyone needs to have finished before you leave, then that’s what everyone must do. It’s a matter of respect. And if your toddler leaves, then the food gets taken away.
And no snacks until the next meal. Hungry children are much more likely to adhere to the rules.
3. The skill to dress and undress themselves
This is a little bit trickier for younger toddlers, who may not have the motor skills to dress and undress themselves completely independently for some time. When you have little time in the mornings before work or the school run, or when you are plain and simply exhausted, it is so tempting to take over and just do it all for them.
But the pay-off for teaching your children to help with the dressing and undressing of their own bodies is huge and out-weighs any internal sighs when they do it themselves and it takes four times as long as it would you.
Toddlers are very apt at taking their clothes off when you don’t want them to, especially shoes. It is amazing how quickly the boy manages to take his shoes off in the car, but when we get home, it can take him ages. Still, I encourage it every step of the way. Because when we get home from a long trip, it is one less thing to worry about. Of course, he also puts them back into the shoe cupboard.
4. The skill to tidy up after themselves
Now, I don’t expect perfection from a toddler or a sparkling clean house. But you neither need mess nor grubbiness when you have a toddler in the house. At 14-16 months they should be perfectly capable of – and willing to – help in the house. It’s little things, like wiping down their table after they’ve had a meal. They won’t make it all sparkly, but it’s a useful skill to develop. And little children are so willing to help it’s silly not to utilise their enthusiasm. It also teaches them that they, too, are a member of the household and responsible for keeping their possessions in order.
In our house, the boy, at 19 months, helps to wipe his table, mouth and hands after a meal. He tidies up his toys at the end of the day before bedtime. He occasionally helps me sort the laundry into piles according to their colours or put away his folded laundry.
5. The skill of self-control
This is probably the hardest one to teach, but also one of the most rewarding ones, because a lot of stress in life with toddlers comes from their innate inquisitiveness. And there can be a fine line between teaching self-control and quashing their exploration drive.
With a toddler with self-control, you can leave the room for a few minutes without worrying about them emptying your cupboards, taking your possessions apart or hurting themselves. You can have an adult conversation with friends who come round for a chat without having to run after your children all the time. You can leave items plugged in.
Common sense and consistency in rules and applying sanctions is important to achieving this. Teaching children what ‘no’ means, with age-appropriate consequences for when they disobey, applying the same rules all the time and the common sense to see when things are too dangerous to be left out, too tempting or too much of a fight at that moment in time.
We had improvised child locks on our cupboards with the boy until he understood that opening our cupboards was a no-no. When he stopped being interested in them we took the locks off. That was a common-sense approach. Now he doesn’t open cupboards in the house anymore, because he has understood that the contents are none of his business. He had an interest in the dangly chains of our cuckoo clock, so they were removed until he understood ‘no’ and its consequences for touching. He doesn’t touch them anymore.
The brilliant thing is, once they start understanding, they will also apply the same rules to other people’s houses. It’s so relaxing to know you can visit a friend without your child taking their possessions off their tables, shelves and windowsills.
Don’t expect perfection – that will, if ever, come with time. But even an 8/10 with a particularly stubborn specimen will give you more time to yourself and time to get on with other aspects of life. Children are wonderful to have around. They are hard work, too. But they shouldn’t need to dominate your every waking moment.