I’ve been thinking a lot about one-year-olds. I haven’t had one at home for a few years now, but at work, I seem to be surrounded by them. I don’t mind.
The one-year-old comes with a unique set of bonuses and challenges. The bonuses are so great it’s as if it’s your birthday whenever they’re around. They love to laugh, and it’s easy for you to be the funniest person they’ve ever met. They are working on their words and are delighted to share them with you. Walking, jumping, throwing things: these are great discoveries, and the one-year-old acts as if they’re the first one to get there and plant a flag.
The challenges, as with children of all ages, are a matter of timing. I know many well-intentioned parents who want to create structure and set boundaries who become frustrated when this doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s how it breaks down.
There are some things that a one-year-old is just not ready to grasp at this point:
- “No” and “don’t.” I have written about this elsewhere; how there are usually more effective ways to set limits. For the one-year-old in particular, they simply don’t know what it means. Saying “no” in a firm voice will often stop them in their tracks, but this is because they know that the parent is displeased. They are not able to make a connection between the “no” and the behavior in question. Cause and effect are not yet part of the wiring.
- As for directions such as “Don’t drop that applesauce,” The one-year-old, scanning madly for meaning in your words, will catch “drop” and “applesauce” and will hear it either as an instruction (after all, testing gravity is a favorite activity at this age) or will simply be confused.
- Positive directions have a much better chance of getting through. Putting out your hand and saying “Give me the applesauce” may get us to where we want to go, with at least a smaller percentage of applesauce on the floor.
- Your rules. Parents are eager to articulate the rules of the family, laying out what is acceptable and what is not. But in the present moment of the toddler mind, rules (and their exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are too abstract to take root. So what works? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Give the same instruction enough times in context and eventually, it will stick. Remember to keep stating, and praising, the behavior that you want to see.
- What does work with a one-year-old? Distraction will be your best friend. Trading out one toy or object for another, or simply changing tracks with a song, or a hug, or a funny noise, will reset the situation.
- Ready to leave the house? Calling the toddler to put their shoes on will look to a bystander like absurdist theater. Going to the toddler with the shoes is a better bet. And actually walking to the door is a pretty clear indicator that it’s time to go. One-year-olds love to go in and out of rooms. You might want to let them close the door.