Toddlers are criminals. At least they would be if they were not below the age of criminal responsibility. If they were held to the same standards as the rest of us, the police would be overwhelmed with reports of toddler-related public disorder, affray, criminal damage, riot and assault. If charged with such crimes, most toddlers could credibly enter a plea of ‘guilty but insane’, which they would do before firing their water bottle at the judge and demanding crisps.
Luckily for toddlers, they are also as cute as buttons. Yet they have a remarkable ability to switch between the state of adorable cherub and miniature malefactor in a matter of seconds. One moment a toddler in the playground is smiling sweetly and giggling with their little friend, the next they whack them on the head and push them off the slide, just to see what happens.
Toddlerhood is undoubtedly the most violent stage of human life: biting, kicking and scratching – known to the criminal justice system as assault occasioning actual bodily harm – are daily occurrences in preschools.
Toddlers are cunning, too. They operate a kind of protection racket to get what they want. When a tired toddler sweetly asks a parent for a treat in a busy supermarket, the subtext is clear: give me the lollipop or in five seconds I’m going to be lying on the floor screaming at 100 decibels, and you’re going to have to drag me kicking and screaming out of this place with five bags of shopping in the other hand, with all the other adults tutting and saying “bad parent”. Is that how you want this situation to play out?
Parenting toddlers is a tricky business, and each one is different. As much as we know that staying calm, and positively reinforcing good behaviour is best, they can frazzle the most zen-like parent. I remember having just painted a wall in our house. A few days later, I looked up to see our then two-year-old with a marker drawing a massive squiggle on the wall. I approached her crossly, when her eyes went big and tearful, “I was just writing my name,” she said, “look”. I looked again at the three-foot squiggle. It was a giant ‘E’, the first letter of her name.
She had been practicing writing her name in preschool and was so proud, she wanted to show me, and to record her brilliant writing in a prominent place, just as her older brother and sister have their art on the wall.
It was hard to stay too angry for long. Many toddler misdemeanours come from their lust for life, from being so enthused in what they’re doing, that the rules are forgotten.
At the early stages of toddlerhood, their thinking outpaces their ability to speak, which causes frustration. They don’t understand the rules of their society and must experiment to learn where those boundaries are. Their rapidly developing minds and increasingly complex social interactions run ahead of their emotional maturity. They can’t cope, their circuits short out, the world seems impossible for a moment, and so the bowl of cereal is smashed on the floor. When you have biscuits in the cupboard, but won’t give them one, it seems an impossible unkindness and injustice to them. Long term considerations such as the effect on their teeth or health don’t figure for them, naturally.
They are making their own way in a complex world for the first time, at developing at a pace that is frightening for them. They deserve our sympathy more than anything, especially when they are tantruming, as that’s when they are most distressed. Even if they are mini-criminals some of the time, they also have a sure-fire way to get a full pardon for all past crimes: they just look up at you with those big eyes and say, “I love you, dad”, and all is forgotten.