The Toddler Whisperer

Wow- you guys were ALL so helpful and perspective-y with your comments on my last post.  Thank you!

I also have super smart and amazing friends that are too shy to comment on my blog for some reason or other. I got this epic comment in my inbox from my good friend that writes over at Caved and it so totally clicked and resonated with me that I had to ask if I could pass it on to you guys.

If you are in the trenches with a toddler (or about to be) this advice will rock your world.  She speaks directly to my post with my specific recent issues with W but the advice should transcend. It’s written from a friend to a friend- but the wise input from a toddler teacher is fantastic. THANK YOU! Feel free to pass it on to anyone else that might appreciate the input.


The Toddler Whisperer

I can throw my toddler teacher hat on during vacation, just for you!

I’m going to speak to one of the specific situations you mentioned (breakfast) and then throw out some general helpful phrases and then pat you on the back for saying you are “relentless” – cause that’s really what will help.

So.  Breakfast/food choices in general.  The Montessori line on *everything* is “control the environment, not the child.”  For food, the idea is that the only things in the house (or that the child knows are in the house) are things that are acceptable for him to eat at any time.  Nice idea?  Yes. But, how to make it fit into one’s real life?  You can take the idea of limited choices and run with it here:  offer 2 or 3 items from which he can pick for breakfast (lunch, dinner, you get the idea) and serve them up once he’s picked.  OR, and this is where it can get fun for real, spend a day in your kitchen making it truly toddler friendly – not child-proof, but toddler friendly.  Put foods from which he may choose at his level (particular shelf in the pantry or his “own” cabinet).  Have “his” plates, cups, bowls also within his reach.  Then take a deep breath, remember you have a dog for clean up, and show him how to make his own food.  This really is pretty great – I can send you videos of kids in my class doing this sort of thing – but it does take a lot of adult prep and some monitoring the first few times.  But really, they get it.  Children will choose and make their own food and eat it and be so in love with the whole deal.

Let’s be practical about it.  I’m sure you’re all “haha, you can get this to happen at school, but how the hell do I do it at home?”  After he’s gone to bed, when you’re doing final kitchen clean up or whatever, put out some breakfast choices in his cabinet.  Say, peanut butter (or some other spread – can’t remember where y’all are with the peanut thing) in a tiny dish (cover w/ plastic wrap), some crackers/bread for toast, some fruit, cereal (with an appropriate sized measuring cup for scooping the appropriate amount).  Oh, wait, back up to before bedtime.  Have a quick, low-key conversation with W about the mornings. Along the lines of “sometimes you seem frustrated when we try to figure out what to have for breakfast.  Tomorrow I’m going to show you how you can make your very own breakfast!”  Then when he wakes up in the morning, remind him that today is the day!  He’s going to get to make his own breakfast!  After y’all have done whatever other morning things you do before breakfast, lead him over to his cabinet, being sure to say it’s his (toddlers – big on ownership) and open it up.  Since it sounds like some of his frustration might be with trying to find words to use to get what he wants, I’d go through and name each item, touching it with one finger as I did so:

“Look!  Here are the things you can choose to make your breakfast:  cereal (touch it), fruit (touch it), etc.”  Then you can ask him to *show* you which one (start with one!) he wants.  Having seen you name and touch, he’s more likely to touch and then name as he’s able.  Then you can show him where to get “his” bowl and how to scoop cereal into it, or how to carefully put a cracker and the bowl of peanut butter on a plate and carry it to his place at the table(then once he’s sitting, you can show him how to spread delicious spreads with one of those little cocktail knives, if you’re feeling really brave – or you can do it for him for a while).

For things like toasting the bread and pouring the milk for cereal, you can do them for now – saying “this part is Mommy’s job (we say “work” at school)” in a very matter-of-fact way.   Remember to look at the long-term to check about his nutritional intake:  all carbs one day might mean he chooses all fruit and cheese a few days later.  Don’t get hung up on 3 square meals a day.  So long as the choices offered are good, he’ll eat what he needs.

Does any of this make any sense?  The general idea is that children deal better when they are participating in a real way in the real world.  They aren’t stupid and “get” that they need to learn this shit in order to grow up – and it can save our adult asses because it can cut down on tantrums.

On to more general things:

*toddlers crave routine like I crave whiskey.  As boring as it seems to us, keeping to a schedule is really nice for them.  And it’s not just about time – they aren’t very into variation with food, clothing, etc – so having “his” cabinet well stocked with the same few choices all the time will be reassuring for him – no surprises at breakfast! (I wonder if some of the screaming is in part just related to the move – a great and welcome move to be sure – but also a bit of upheaval in his tiny world.  These sorts of things usually sort themselves out pretty quick.)

*more projects!  Your idea about setting up things that he can occupy himself with is so, so great.  Some ideas:  use a hole punch in the plastic lid of  coffee can (or oatmeal, or whatever) and give him cocktail straws to drop in it.  You can vary this with different sized holes (or x’s or slits) in different lids for different objects.  Clothespins on the edge of a box – he’ll probably take them apart, too, but they are easy to fix.  A big plastic bin of beans/rice with scoops/small pitchers/small bowls – you can also have another bin across the room and he can carry a small bucket from one to the other, transferring the beans/rice – there will be beans/rice on the floor, but they will be balanced out by how happy he is doing this.

*keep up with your relentlessness re: hitting the dog, throwing things, etc.  Try not to talk too much to him when you’re laying down the law.  A quick “Hitting hurts. I won’t let you hurt the dog” lets him know where the limit is so it will be easier for him to eventually find it on his own.  Have the more involved dialogue about violence or more appropriate ways to express emotions when he is not in the thick of it, emotionally – not in the heat of the moment, as we tell parents at school.  Not even the most rational adult can really hear advice when he or she is truly Having An Emotion.

Things to say:

“You can choose x or y.”  Wait a beat.  “I can choose if you don’t want to.”  Wait a beat then choose.  Then stick to that choice, kindly, even if he wigs out.  Then remind him then next time about how he can choose, or you can choose for him.

“It’s time to ______” instead of asking him if he’s ready.  Then gently help him follow through with whatever it’s time for.  The follow through is everything.

Things to remember:

The whole deal is really about being consistent (I can’t say relentless to parents at school – but I want to!) and it sounds like you’re pretty good at that.  Being consistent really does help him to work through all his shit faster – if the line is always in the same place, he never has to guess or wonder about where it is; he only has to work out what he needs to do to keep himself from crossing it.

You are:  bigger, stronger, wiser and kind.

So long as he’s fed, loved, clothed – even if you feel like you’re loosing your mind at times –  you win!


  1. AMAZING advice!!! Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. That is a truly great comment! I am glad you shared it for the rest of us.

  3. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve recently been wondering if perhaps I do too much for Cash that he could be doing himself. His problem is kind of the opposite though – instead of fighting for independence, he just lets me do it. Which is a problem all its own. I foresee our own “Cash cabinet” in the near future!

  4. This is such amazing advice! I am praying I remember it a year and a half from now! I think it will stay there and when I need it, it will come to me :) Thank you so, so much for sharing! And you’d better let us know how it is working…we want progress reports!

  5. VA Blondie says:

    Great stuff! I can see us heading here in the next year or two.

  6. Great post! Our toddler boys are in Early Intervention with the state, as they were 9 weeks premature and still have some delays, right now mostly speech/communication. The teachers love us (us being me, DH and SIL Niki) as we thrive on routines in our house. They always know what to expect.

    I do love the ideas for having them help make their breakfast/lunch choices. We don’t do that right now, but we don’t freak out when they choose not to eat something at a meal. If they seem to like something at a meal, we go with it. They both seem to want something different than the other one, so we have a few things and between the two of them, they eat mostly everything.

  7. I have to agree with much of what was said. Having gotten one kid through toddlerhood well into preschooldom and nearly into Kindergarten… with another toddler-into-preschooler right on his heels, I found myself nodding along. Both of my boys thrive on routine and consistency. They know they can have two choices at breakfast — oatmeal or cereal. 9 times out of 10 they’re going for oatmeal and 9 times out of 10 they’re choosing the same thing. LOL. For lunch, we have a routine of five different options, never the same meal two days in a row. We still struggle with dinner and new foods because my oldest son has sensory issues and, OMG! TEXTURES! WOE!

    But I just wanted to let you know that you’ll make it through. Or so I’ve been told. I’m really just faking it ’til I make it over here. 😉

    For me, as I’m a book-girl, the book Raising Happiness has reassured me with some of the stuff I already did and given me some good knowledge and encouragement for what is happening and yet to come. (Link: Raising Happiness.)

  8. That chick is a genius!

  9. i hear she’s easy on the eyes, too.

  10. I love the eating ideas! I’m having a lot of difficulty getting Smooch to eat healthy. He is always asking for candy or cookies for breakfast. Just yesterday I told him he could have cheerios, yogurt or a blueberry muffin. He thought about it for a minute and said “I’ll have nothing.” I was like alrighty then. He eventually came around to a blueberry muffin, but I figured if he didn’t want to eat I wouldn’t push it.

  11. Man-annie Oakley says:

    F-ing brilliant! Where was this person when I was a mom of a young toddler???? Feel like I early parented in the dark ages even though it was only 8 years ago!! I love you and this advice is seriously brilliant. W is soooo lucky!

  12. Also, happy birthday!

  13. Amazing advice, and very neccessary for what we’re dealing with right now too. Thanks so much for sharing.


  14. i needed to read this tonight!

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