Maybe you’re a new parent. Or want to be a parent someday. Or you’re long past your Toddler-Wrangling Years and want to look back with nostalgia and pants-shitting terror over that time. Hell, even if you qualify as none of those things, you will still likely be one day in the presence of a Toddler or Toddler-Shaped Creature, and so, I present to you this Handy Guide.
Now we can all get tattoos: TODDLERLIFE4EVA.
1. they are little fallen gods
Babies believe that they are the gods of their world. Literally. Their minds — as undeveloped as 99% of the screenplays in the world — are utterly unable to process the reality that they have not created everything around them and that they are the physical and emotional center of the whole goddamn universe. Ah, but brain development is not slow in these little unfuzzy chimpanzees we call our “children,” and by the time they’re toddlers, the truth starts to enter into the equation: you do not control everything and all things do not serve you because you are not, in fact, divine. That’s what toddlers are wrestling with. Imagine that. “You’re not actually a god.” “But you said–” “I was wrong.” “But I thought I made all this–” “You didn’t.” “I’m still important, right?” “If that helps you sleep at night, which it won’t, because toddlers sleep like shit.” Turns out, age is really just our brains gaining the maturity to realize how small we are in the grand scheme of things. The older we get, the less significant we realize we are. Regardless, when you’re trying to figure out why a toddler is acting the way she is, just remember: she thought she was a god, then learned that she was not.
2. their rules are labyrinthine and inexplicable
Watching a toddler is like watching an alien creature build some kind of extraterrestrial machine. It’s like watching ritually-peculiar Druid magic, or the interpretive dance of a sentient spam-bot. Our boy-human will put on an Indiana Jones hat and start calling himself “Nemo.” He’ll hand you things and then demand you hold them and if you try to give them back you’ve broken some ancient changeling contract. He’ll require a very particular truck and if you hand him one that is 95% the same truck, he’ll actually hate you — like, maybe literally hate you — for at least two minutes. (Then he’ll forget.) He’ll place things around the room or perform a sequence of events that, for all you know, is meant to unlock some kind of apocalypse. It’s methodical and maddening, like a bird building a nest out of watch parts. Other times? He’s not like that at all.
3. the wolverine tornado
Take a bunch of wolverines. Throw them into a roaring F5 tornado. That’s a toddler. It’ll tear through your home, shrieking and whirling about, scooping things up and depositing them elsewhere. It’ll lose things. It’ll destroy other things. It’ll change direction in the hair’s breadth of a moment — “I’m doing this no now I’m doing this other thing wait what’s that over there.”
4. unpredictable and inconsistent meltdowns
The toddler meltdown is an awesome thing, and I mean awesome in the truest old-school sense: awe will strike you, and you may be left very afraid — or laughing your ass off. Sometimes the meltdowns are easy to see coming: you’ve said “no” to a vital question (like, “can I have this?”) or you’re trying to take them to the doctor or make them wear pants or treat you with a modicum of respect. Other times the meltdowns arrive like a piece of space junk: an unpredictable meteor without warning. You’ll offer them ice cream and you’ll think well, it’s ice cream, who the fuck doesn’t like ice cream and want it basically every hour of every day but the toddler will suddenly freak the fuck out because you violated some secret cosmic decree. And you’ll laugh, of course, because it’s just to absurd to do otherwise, and you laughing will make the meltdown worse, and the toddler will be spinning around on the floor like Curly from the Three Stooges and you’ll laugh even harder because man, what is happening? Is this even real?
5. without food and sleep they are basically hill cannibals
Two guaranteed meltdown triggers, however, are: hungry and tired. May the gods help you if both the SLEEP and FOOD boxes remain unchecked because I’m pretty sure that’s how you get the Reavers from Firefly. If ever you are near a toddler and you’re like, “I have no idea what’s wrong with this flailing creature,” ask yourself — when did they last eat? And when did they last sleep? Fix one or both as swiftly as the time-space continuum allows.
6. you will end up watching some utterly horrid children’s programming
We do not plunk our toddler down in front of the TV as if it is a flashing cyclopean babysitter — but we do let him watch certain programs and we sit with him and talk to him about what he’s seeing and oh my god some kid’s shows are basically bamboo splinters shoved under your fingernails. Barney the Dinosaur belongs in a tar-pit (actually, I’d watch that show — just thirty minutes of the big purple sonofabitch wobbling and sinking into the tarry mire). The Wiggles are totally a pack of creepy singing kidnappers. Don’t even get me started on Thomas the Tank Engine — that dead-eyed train lives on an island where everyone is praised for their usefulness and yet nobody actually seems to be useful because somehow they thought the most efficient freight-shipping system would be to imbue locomotives with petty toddler personalities and oh hey that didn’t work out yet again who knew. That island is eventually going to turn into something out of a horror novel. “Thomas the Tank Engine and Blaine the Mono in SODOR AND GOMORRAH.” As a sidenote, you can happily poison your child’s mind against such wretched programming. “You know what I heard? I heard Thomas steals children. He steals them and drives them into deep tunnels and then eats them. Sleep tight, tiny one.”
7. you will end up watching some awesome children’s programming
Some kiddie shows? Totally fucking awesome. Curious George is fun and funny and the chimp (who they call a “monkey,” which is clearly wrong) is a toddler-analog who is fumbling his way through existence. (Though why everyone lets George have such heaps and mounds of responsibility is beyond me. Is this some apocalyptic future where they don’t have enough people to perform essential functions? “Sure, little chimp, I trust you to babysit my grandchild / run the farm / be an astronaut. None of this can go wrong!”) Martha Speaks is well above toddler-level but our son loves it and as a writer how can I not love a show that treats words as important and wonderful? Sarah & Duck. Or Pocoyo. Or Peppa Pig. Some really good, really funny, truly instructive and empathetic kiddie shows out there. (Oh, and there’s a preschool-variant of Transformers so, hey, that’s my nostalgia-gland milked for its precious juice.)
8. not all children’s books are created equally, either
I went into buying books for my son with the attitude of, all books for him are good! which is about as deeply dopey as saying all science-fiction books are great or every political book makes a darn good point no matter who wrote it. Some kid’s books are simple and sweet. Some children’s books have really good stories and really nice messages. And some books are, ehhh, unnnh, no. Goodnight, Moon is an eerie, David Lynch-ian dip — the creepy rabbit lady, the picture of the “bears” (clearly men in bear suits) sitting in chairs, the line, “Goodnight, Nobody, Goodnight, mush.” Why is the evil old rabbit lady feeding this kid gruel? Why is there a red telephone in the kid’s room? WHAT MONSTER WILL CALL AT MIDNIGHT? And don’t even get me started on Doctor Seuss. Children’s books by a dude who hates children. You ever actually read Hop on Pop out loud? It will break your mind. It will turn the gaze of angry chaos gods to your home and conjure dread entities. OH THE THINGS YOU WILL SUMMON.
9. boys love trucks
My son is as likely to cradle a truck going to sleep as he is a stuffed animal. He will literally, at night, sleep-babble about trucks, or have nightmares about people trying to take his trucks away.
10. girls also love trucks
Girls also love trucks. Our toddler’s trucks bring the girls to the yard. They love trucks (and probably don’t have any at home). Our son also loves kitchen stuff. And pink dolls. Because toys are awesome no matter their gender. Have I already ranted about this? I have, indeed.
11. secret toy traps
You will break your neck on a toy car or tiny truck. You will feel the unforgettable misery of a Duplo block driven deep into the soft meat of your unsocked foot. You will round the corner and trip on a cairn of blocks, Batmans, Transformers, and teddy bears. Toddlers leave toy traps around. At first I thought this was just part of the chaos, right? They’re little tornados and they whirl about, levying chaos against an ordered world. (Seriously, if we clean up a room and leave him unoccupied two rooms away for three minutes, somehow the clean room will have descended into a dirty, cluttered proto-state. Toddlers are entropy given form. Coastlines erode because of toddlers. Rust on metal? Toddlers.) But now I start to think they leave the little traps behind to thwart us parents (who are in turn usually trying to thwart the toddlers). Sidenote: toddlers also seem to poop toys. You can put the toddler in a room with no toys and come back five minutes later and he’ll have a toy you have never seen before. Our toddler has — *counts on fingers and toes* — about 4,112 trucks, and I think we bought him about seven of those.
12. surprising empathy
I have perhaps painted toddlers as cruel little fallen gods and snargling chaos beasties who have descended into our world from another so that they can spread their Seussian Gospel and answer the Red Telephone in order to transmit the Sodor Virus — and all of that is true, totally true, not a word of it is false. But it’s important to note that, really, toddlers are just little humans, and as humans, they can be surprisingly capable of empathy. They feel bad if you feel bad. They want to make your boo-boos feel better. They laugh just because you find something funny, not because they actually understand it. They are highly tuned into the parent frequency, and this is very important with what you, as the parent, put out there. You put out anxiety and anger, you’re going to get anxiety and anger in return.
13. bewildering leaps in intelligence
Said before, will say again: every day with a toddler is like that moment in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors learn how to open doors. It’s like watching a character in an RPG level up super-fast. “Ah, he just learned the ‘cut up his own food’ skill. He just leveled up in ‘open locked doors.’ He’s counting now. OH JESUS HE’S FIGURED OUT QUANTUM MECHANICS — WHO BUILT THIS HADRON COLLIDER IN OUR PANTRY?”
14. someone may actually sneak into your house at night and teach them stuff
I have a theory that someone sneaks into our home at night — some wayward teacher, maybe, or I dunno, a fucking house elf or some shit — and teaches our son new things. Because daily he surprises me with words and ideas that have come seemingly out of nowhere. Most of his exposure to things comes from his family; he’s not in daycare or anything. So when he suddenly starts using words that we don’t use or he makes leaps of logic that are smarter than what I would’ve put together — I’m pretty sure that he has a midnight class with some ancient astronaut who shows up in a beam of light and instructs him on things I forgot to teach him.
15. toddlerian fears
As toddlers start to grow in intelligence, they also grow in fear. I’m sure this has evolutionary purpose — after all, fear has some value to us. I am afraid of tigers because tigers will eat me. I am afraid of heights because that’s where you fall from. I am afraid of the dark because I know that’s where the undead serial killer is hiding right now with his burlap sack of body parts. You will watch your toddler’s fears evolve and grow. They start to fear strangers. They fear being alone. They fear the dark. Our son is now afraid of shadows, which means he’ll say creepy-ass shit like (true story): the shadows are sleeping, Daddy. Just the other night he noted he was afraid because people might come and “take him away” in the middle of night, which dovetails so elegantly with my own fears about him that I was ready to load a shotgun and sit vigil in his room all night.
16. you can’t actually move a toddler to where you want them to go
I was a dick about kids and parents when I did not myself have a kid. I was Judgey McJudgerson, judging you with my judgey-face. A crying kid on a plane would stress me out. I’d think — as do many other asshole adults — DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR CHILD. Having a kid now has, erm, softened that judgment. I admittedly still think some parents are way too disconnected from their children (and way more connected to their goddamn iPhones — “Hey, is my toddler in traffic? Candy Crush, bitches!”), but in general, I’m a lot more sympathetic because you can’t just “control” a toddler. They’re not a lamp you can move into the corner and turn on and off. They’re not even dogs. They’re tiny human beings with orangutan strength. I used to think, “Just physically control them, just put them somewhere, like in a drawer or something,” but toddlers do this trick where they either let all the tension go out of their bodies or they instead flail about like an unmanned fire-hose. Imagine trying to wrestle an angry octopus, and you get the idea.
17. if this is your first night at fight club
With toddlers: pick your goddamn battles. I don’t mean literally — like, with sticks and Paintball or something? I mean every day spent with one of these tiny humans is filled with the infinite possibility of any number of battles. Battles over which toys will go in the tub, over where he will or will not put a sippy-cup, over whether or not he will hold still long enough to have one sock placed upon his karate-kicking foot. If you get into the mud and scrap over everything, you will drown in that mud. Because here’s the thing: once you start the battle? You have to win that shit. Have to, have to, have to. Losing one battle means losing the war. If they detect that they can win? They will always fight to win. You’re trying to outlast a guerilla force. You’re trying to outwit a tiny, diaper-clad version of the Joker. So: when you have picked a battle, that is always the hill you need to die on, whether it’s about what dinner she will or will not eat or if he should or should not try to stick his head up the dog’s butt.
18. inoculate against disappointment
Emotionally speaking, toddlers are teeth without enamel — they’re turtles without shells, entirely exposed to the buffeting winds and crashing waves of all the negative things. One of the jobs I see myself possessing as parent of a tiny human is to inoculate said tiny human with the occasional dose of disappointment. Because when they start out, every disappointment is keenly and equally felt. “No, you may not play with my phone” has as much negative metaphysical weight as “All of life is a parade toward death.” The only way forward is to give them little tastes of disappointment so that they develop the coping skills necessary. “We don’t have any cereal in the pantry,” I lie, just so I encourage him to a) eat something else this morning and b) deal with his disappointment on his own terms so that when true disappointment reaches him, he’ll have built up some manner of chitinous exoskeleton to protect him against sorrow.
19. sometimes you want to feed them to a family of bears
It’s true. Life with a toddler is tough. Some days you’re just looking for a box to put them in so you can mark it FREE CUPCAKES and leave it out by the curb.
20. they’re basically proto-teenagers
I’m older, now, but not so old I forget what my teenage years were like. Let’s see… inexplicable behavior? Check. Surly for no reason? Yep. Unpredictably disrespectful? Mm-hmm. What else seems familiar… needy? Tantrums? Hungry all the time? Solipsistic egotists? Toddlers are just unformed teenagers. Which means I’m going to see this behavior again in ten years, yay.
21. erratic pinballs
Watching our toddler run around the house is like watching an animated, drunken stack-of-tea-cups wibble and wobble about. Toddlers are, I figure, about 30 seconds from doom at any given moment. Theirs, yours, the dog’s, or that of some precious family heirloom. They have the good sense the gods gave coked-up lemurs. Which is to say: practically none at all.
22. manipulators on par with none
Toddlers know your weaknesses and will exploit them. They are supervillains — just give them a volcanic lair and a freaky cat to stroke. The trick is, of course, that toddlers are big-eyed little adorbs-machines. They radiate cuteness waves that wash over you, drawing all the sand on your beaches out to sea until every last defense is down. You feel bad when they cry. You believe them when they lie. They will manipulate the bed-time hour from 7:30PM to somewhere around 12:15 in the morning. You’ll mean to feed them a nice healthy dinner at the table but will somehow end up in front of the TV letting them just scoop sugar from the bag into their greedy mouths. You’ll literally look around and wonder in the David Byrne-ian sense: how did I get here? The thing is, they’re not always manipulating you, and a truly skilled parent will know when the toddler has a real problem or when she’s just acting as a two-year-old version of Keyser Soze.
23. the ghosts of family members live inside of them
These family members will rise to the surface of the pool from time to time. You’ll see your father’s face. Your grandfather’s eyes. Your uncle’s penchant to pick his nose in the coat closet. Occasionally our son will say things the way my father said them — both word choice and inflection of word choice and it’s completely fucking spooky.
24. playtime is when all of it comes crashing together
The toddler reaches its purest, most toddlerian state during playtime.
25. this is when formless blob becomes an honest to jeebus human being
Infants are dull as berber carpet. Everyone loves them, of course — they’re the equivalent of newborn seals, all big eyes and funny squeaks and roly-poly cuteness. But seriously: super-boring. Toddlers are where the fun begins. Toddlers are where you get to watch the paramecium grow legs and start to dance. Personality develops and dominates. They manifest wants, needs, fears, quirks, habits, words, ideas, even stories. They’re sweet. They’re mean. They’re emotional. They’re wise. They’re wild, bouncy superballs flung at the wall. They’re smarter than you think and dumber than you expect. They flip and flop and gallumph about. Roundabout way of saying: they’re becoming people. This is volcanic: the bleak earth shattering and revealing a pyroclasm of new earth and unseen life. This is chrysalis: gone is the tiny lump and emerging is the weird-ass butterfly with its own way of doing things. If you want to know when Human Beings really become Human Beings, look no further than the toddlers scampering around.