Introduction to Misbehavior is Growth: Toddlers (Humanizing Toddlers)

This is the Introduction to Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, offered as a free sample!

Introduction: Humanizing Toddlers

Ah, the dreaded toddler years. Toddlers’ reputation precedes them. It is ominous to hear about how children go through the “Terrible Twos.” Toddlers have been known to have some flippant, I daresay, irrational, I further daresay, annoying behavior.

Toddlers ask for something, and then they don’t want it. They don’t want to take a bath, and then they don’t want to get out of the bath. They don’t like the clothes you picked out. They don’t want to get dressed at all. They don’t want to get into their car seat. They want a red cup not a blue cup.  They want to eat the food you just put in your mouth. They want you to take your head off your body and give it to them. They still want to be carried, but they are getting bigger and heavier. They won’t let you move one inch. They don’t want you to hold anyone but them. Did I mention the meltdowns? Is it inevitable that these years will always bring frustration?

As a mom, I found that many people had misguided ideas about toddlers’ abilities. Strangers would ask if my children, at 18 to 20 months, knew colors, or could answer questions like, “What’s your favorite animal?” I read in a book that children can “verbally express their needs by 12 months” (Stephenson). This really isn’t true. In the early ones, a child may be able to say one or a few words to express a need such as for “milk,” but any parent in the midst of dealing with such young toddlers can tell you that figuring out what they want is not usually achieved via a rational process of discussion.  Children don’t even start talking fluently until 21 months (van de Rijt and Plooij,  ch.11). There is a noticeable language comprehension explosion at 18 months and while some children may talk in about four-word sentences while others struggle to say any word, none can really verbalize what they need all or even some of the time. I point this out to show that there is often an unrealistic understanding of toddlers’ reasoning capability. This can lead to unrealistic expectations.

Even seasoned parents, I find, have difficulty looking back at this age and remembering what it was like or what worked for them and they readily admit the difficulty of even trying to remember. Everything changes so suddenly that it’s hard to remember the differences between an 18-month-old and a 21-month-old—and these two creatures are drastically different!

Based on the work of many authors, I knew that children go through developmental cycles in which, at age-related times, they regress, but after this regression, they show a dramatic burst of new ability. Dr. Brazelton in his book Touchpoints—Birth to Three describes:

Just before a surge of rapid growth in any line of development, for a short time, the child’s behavior seems to fall apart. Parents can no longer rely on past accomplishments. The child often regresses in several areas and becomes difficult to understand. Parents lose their own balance and become alarmed. (Introduction)

Dr. Brazelton describes these “predictable spurts in development, and the equally predictable issues that they raise” as “touchpoints.” In his book, he describes them up to the age of 3 years. However, as a doctor, the touchpoints listed for the toddler years coincided with his observations of how children changed from their 18-month, 2-year, and 3-year standard physical checkups. Details in between these periods are lacking.

The book The Wonder Weeks (van de Rijt and Plooij) describes similar age-related, predictable spurts in development. They call them “leaps.” The child, they say, develops a new perceptual awareness during these times. In their book, the authors describe in detail the “fussy period” and the “sunny period” of each leap. Their onset comes at specific weeks over the course of infant development. Their research found ten such age-related leaps in the first 20 months of life, with the fussy period of the last documented leap starting at just over 16 months and ending at just over 17 months.

When I reached the toddler years with my first child, I really wanted more information about natural child development than was available. I thought we did pretty well with my first child, but what kept me alarmed were authors or people who would say things like, “If you don’t get a hold of your child when young and be strict about right and wrong, you are going to have a brat!” This gave me a huge complex. How could I know if what I was doing now could prevent some awful future? And I did not find the advice given to combat this awful future to be terribly helpful. It was usually authoritarian in nature with the generic advice of “set boundaries.” The advice was not nearly as nuanced or as thorough as I wanted. I really wanted to know what natural child behavior was and what was not: What part of a child’s behavior is expected; what may be a problem of neglect; what needs further coaching, and if some condition does need attention, which techniques are effective?  Further, what could I do to develop my child’s growing mind? I didn’t want just to know that “most things are a stage” and to “not worry about them.” I wanted exact details.

The Research

I did not originally set out to do research on toddler mental development. As I went through the toddler years with my first child, I knew to expect age-related stages; I was highly interested in the topic; and I wanted more information, but I did not originally anticipate doing this work. My venture into this happened organically.

I am a stay-at-home mother who homeschools my three children. My approach to education is to take note of what my children are interested in and then provide activities in alignment with their development and interests. Because of these approaches to parenting and education, I kept a detailed journal about my children. I also started a parenting blog called, “The Observant Mom.” One of the most popular features of my blog is the stories I tell about how I handle my children when difficult. Because I told these stories to others, I had an incentive to write down in detail the kind of difficult behaviors my children were showing, and how I handled them. Over the course of parenting my first child, I had generated a tremendous amount of detailed observational data about both age-related abilities and difficulties.

When my second child got to be almost 18 months old, which is the age at which I really wanted better answers, I looked through the journals, photos, and stories that I had assembled for my first child. Now, had you asked me if I had a difficult time with my first child, I would have said no. But when I looked harder I started to notice some patterns. “Remember that time when he became annoyingly bossy?” Or, “Remember that time he just absolutely couldn’t stand when balls rolled different ways every time someone threw them?” I thought those might be developmental stages, because although the stubborn behavior was noticeably seen, it also dissipated.

I am also part of an online community that discusses these age-related developmental cycles.  It is a Facebook forum called Beyond the Final Leap. In this community, people would post something to the effect, “29.5 months. I’m going nuts! Is anyone else seeing this?” And piles of other parents would say, “Yes! We see the exact same thing!” In late 2015, I had the epiphany that between my own notes and this forum, I had access to quite a bit of data. I could assemble it into a potential timeline of age-related developmental milestones. So, that is what I did. I posted this rough skeleton, asked if it could be pinned, and asked for feedback. I am very grateful to the administrator of the forum, Zoe Brooks, that she pinned this post.

People immediately stated their gratitude for the research. As I started to fill in details, more and more people confirmed its value and validity. When my daughter was around 20 months old, I realized I might be on to something. It has always been my goal to empower parents with tools to effectively deal with their children. I started my blog because I do so much reading about parenting that I thought it would be very easy to share the insight I was getting to help others. I also have a passion for seeing children be treated well. What could help parents more than knowing what their children’s developmental stages were? I realized that this is where my unique talents and other people’s needs intersect. I love to take complex systems, behaviors, and ideas, and bring clarity and order to them. I was very interested and enthusiastic about this work. With the feedback from others about its value, I decided to commit to it.

Everything about how I was doing the research became better once I committed—and continues to get better. I took even better notes with my first child, highly detailed notes with my second, I solicited input from other parents, and I added to my library books specifically about age-related development. I have worked with many parents who helped me confirm, amend, and add to this knowledge. A big thank you to everyone who has contributed: without you, this would never have been possible!

After being available and updated for several years, this work has taken on a life of its own. People started using the information I provided. Since I first shared this information in December 2015, some parents have been able to follow along from when their child turned 18 months old until the child reached the three-year mark, which is the age range covered in this book. I include, at each milestone, feedback I have gotten from others about that particular milestone. A sincere thank you to those who put together statements! Here is but some feedback:

This information […] has been a LIFESAVER at our house. My first son followed the [Milestones] like clockwork and my second is just heading into this territory now. Whenever we’d hit a stormy period it was so reassuring to know it was all an important part of his development. Lack of sleep seems so much more bearable when you know things will be back to normal in no time. — Beck Fredrickson

I love your work! I always check [your research] when my son is fussy or not sleeping well and so far, you have picked it every time! I share it with girls in my antenatal group too. – Sarah Lewis, about her son Jack

Hi, we are just starting [Toddler Milestone 8], so far, I can see challenges with falling asleep at nap time and night time, understanding, and using today and tomorrow. She remembers things that happened a while back and started making up stories about characters. I wanted to sincerely thank you for documenting all of this, your notes have been so helpful in understanding the developments. – Alexandra LaFontaine

They are just great! So informative and very true to what’s going on with my kid to a T! — Katie Blogg, about Toddler Milestones 9 and 10 (2 years, 8 months and 2 years, 9 months)

There are certain approaches to parenting that I believe are critical to doing this research. Much of what I did, I believe, made it possible to do this work.

To a significant extent, I follow The Montessori Method of teaching. I provide stimulating materials and I let my children choose what they want to use. Dr. Montessori writes in The Montessori Method that to study natural child development, it is essential to let the child choose activities freely. She compares studying a child who is forced to sit at a desk and do lessons to a child that is allowed to roam as the difference between studying “a glass-covered case containing a number of beautiful butterflies, mounted by means of pins, their outspread wings motionless” or studying live butterflies in their natural habitat. Watching what materials attracted my children and what they could do with them was one clue for me to use in determining where they were developmentally. I could also observe, for instance, if they came back to an activity day after day, showing greater persistence of thought. Being able to see that my children came back to an activity day after day is an example of an advantage that I have due to doing research as a mom, as opposed to a researcher who studies children at periodic intervals for 10 minutes at a time or a doctor who only sees children at periodic checkups.

I also strive to teach one lesson per day. I would pick what I thought was an age-appropriate activity and present it to my child. If my child liked the activity, we kept doing it. If they were not interested in the activity, I put it away. This was another clue for me and served as its own form of scientific interrogation. I was at an especial advantage with my second child, as I already had a toy room stocked with a wide variety of learning materials and activities, and she had an older brother to model her behavior after. Having a tablet loaded with educational activities was also very illuminative. I marveled as my children at young ages could, for instance, do The Memory Game.

Another not only contributing, but vital factor in my ability to identify developmental milestones was that I adopted the positive approach to parenting such that I do not correct or punish my children. Thus, I had a more direct view of what is natural human behavior. Punishment itself can create secondary behaviors. From Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, “Punishment may seem to ‘work’ in the short term. But over time, we know that it creates rebellion, resistance, and children who just don’t believe in their own worth” (Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy, ch. 1). Because I did not create “rebellion and resistance,” I was better able to identify an irritable period as a likely natural developmental stage as opposed to reactionary behavior.

Using a comforting and non-punitive approach to parenting also helped me identify my children’s new capabilities. In trying to get my children to cooperate with me, without using punishment, which is an art and science in itself, I gained much insight. For instance, as I asked my children questions such as “Which shirt would you like?” or “What was your happiest part of the day?” I saw what their answers were, and this served again as its own gentle interrogation.

What was perhaps most important of all in this research, however, was my attitude towards my children. I saw everything they did as exciting and noteworthy. I never saw anything they did as nonsense, wrong, or boring. I would write down what they did, organize the behaviors based on when they were clearly in an irritable period, and then simply ponder it. I often felt like a detective solving a mystery as I laid out pictures and stories of my children clustered by age and tried to find patterns. For instance, when I noticed that my daughter could actively look forward and backwards in a book while trying to find something, and at the same age, she was able to answer the question “Do you want to walk up the stairs or have me carry you?” I knew that she was capable of making a deliberate decision—of consciously choosing one course over another. And so, this milestone I named “Decision Making” (Toddler Milestone 6, 2 years, 2 months). Finding patterns such as this is the heart and soul of this work. As I am with my children at all times, I could look at every activity they did—every lie they told, every time they refused to go to bed, every story they made up—as clues. A stay-at-home mother who homeschools is at a great advantage to do this work.

In addition to this, in which I have documented my own children in detail and attained feedback from other parents, I have cross-referenced my research with others’ research on this, wherever it existed.

Summary of Results

This book contains the milestones that I found for children between 18 months and 3 years of age. Numbering for these Toddler Milestones starts at 1, and in future work, numbering will again start at 1, such as for Preschool Milestones.  The toddler ones are:

 My research shows that rocky developmental stages occur all throughout the toddler years. At age-related times, toddlers become irritable (and whiny and possessive and a host of other behaviors), and then after (and also during, in sputters) this irritable period, they demonstrate a burst of new ability. To differentiate my work from all others, I call these periods of growth cognitive growth spurts. Formally, I identify them as “Milestones.”

If you had the right diagnostic tools, at these irritable times, you could see in the child’s brain where the growth is happening. During these times, it might help parents to think of their children as having the words “Under Construction” written right on their child’s forehead. At its onset, it seems to feel scary and disorienting to the child, and in some ways they regress. I use the term “regression” with slight hesitation: Some of the behaviors are “regression” in that they become incapable of doing something they previously could do. Other behaviors are not regression such as how they have a higher need for connection. “Regression” does not cover all of the behaviors, nonetheless it describes some of the behaviors. Other behaviors seen are they may become clumsy or just start tripping a lot, as if they lose coordination of their body, or they may seem to be in disbelief of what is in front of their own eyes. This initial phase of development comes with irritating behaviors too, like crying a lot, becoming jealous, and so on. But on the other side of this irritability and regression is a new ability. It happens like this with irritability followed by a new ability in a repeated way.

In my opening to this introduction, I had posed the question as to if it is inevitable that the toddler years will bring irritable behavior. The answer is a resounding yes. What I want to show is that odd and irritating behavior is a natural part of human development. It is biologically inevitable that this will happen. My joke about this is that there is something in a child’s DNA from conception dictating that “At two and a half years old, I am going to annoy my parents!”

Typical behaviors found during the irritable periods in the toddler years are the behaviors that toddlers are already infamous for: meltdowns, possessiveness, bossiness, etc. What I want to show with this research is that there is order in that chaos. The fussiness comes, typically crescendos, stays intense for a while, dissipates, then starts all over again in a predictable, cyclical manner. And there is a reason for the irritable behavior: growing the human mind seems to be a scary and disorienting process for the child. A child changes dramatically from 18 months to three years. Eighteen-month-old children are just beginning to have a language explosion, i.e., they aren’t talking much yet. At this age, they have but limited vocabulary, and they do not hold on to thoughts for very long. At Toddler Milestone 5 (2 years, 1 month), they go through a major cognitive spurt, which I called “Persistence and Insistence.” At this age, children hold on to thoughts longer, including what it is they want. They also develop big, heavy emotions. At Toddler Milestone 6 (2 years, 2 months), the child reaches the milestone of Decision Making. A child at this age can make a deliberate choice about which course of action might be better. Thus, I consider it the first developmental stage at which reasoning capability is present. After this, their reasoning capability advances greatly.  By the time children are three, they have a vivid imagination, can deal with issues of right and wrong, can collect themselves emotionally, be involved in planning short-term future events, and might know which way to go when riding in a car. That is an enormous amount of growth. And it happens in seismic shifts, each one starting with a child who becomes difficult to deal with.

When I look at child development, I marvel at how extraordinarily efficient it is. It takes humans 20 years to develop to maturation, whereas it takes most other animals only a few years, if that. This seems like a long time, but considering what a feat it is to grow the human mind, 20 years is rapid speed. The motto of human maturation, if I could give it one, is “Why waste time not growing?”

Impact on Parenting

I contend that knowledge of cognitive milestones in the toddler years is critical for parents in order to aid their child’s healthy development. The child starts to grow in major ways including budding reasoning ability, first conscious emotions, and beginning ideas of right and wrong. How toddlers are handled matters profoundly. How can one deal with this? By having a more detailed blueprint of child development so many more answers become possible. Knowing what you are dealing with allows you as a parent to develop effective tools, methods, and approaches. This is exactly what I want to help you accomplish. My goal is to be like a friendly tour guide—a guide about child development—and offer approaches that allow you to survive these cognitive growth cycles, and then use them to thrive.

In Section Two you will find expanded descriptions about these milestones as well as parenting tools and ideas to use. Section One outlines the parenting tools and ideas. As related to parenting, in Section Two, I include for each milestone four things: details about the irritable period, details about the new ability period, conflict resolution ideas, and activity ideas.

The first item I can provide for parents are the details about the behaviors seen during irritable periods. It’s one thing to know that “most things are a stage”; it’s better to know exactly what to expect. For instance, at Toddler Milestone 9 (2 years, 8 months) children become seemingly paralyzed. As one possible way that this can materialize, there might be a toy that is two feet away from them, and they scream for it but won’t get it. Certainly, this can annoy parents. (“Just get it! It’s right there!”) But if you know that this happens, you will be prepared for it. You can think about how to handle it, thus be better able to respond to it and not blindly react.

For me, I was able to reframe my attitude towards the irritable periods and sometimes even my schedule when I knew one of my children was in one. At Toddler Milestone 6 (2 years, 2 months), I found the child might start to play jokes. My daughter for instance kept hiding spices from me as I tried to cook. At first, I was annoyed by this. I think I may have even yelled “I don’t have time for games!” When I figured out it was part of her development, I went from “I don’t have time for games!” to “Oh, it’s a game. It’s cute.” At Toddler Milestone 2 (20 months), I was at first in disbelief that another one was happening again only a few weeks after the last one had ended. When I figured it out though, I cancelled all plans for a week to deal with my toddler who kept demanding I hold her. And it turned into a lovely week for us! Up until that point, I had trouble bonding with her. But after that week, we were very bonded. What could have been a negative instead became a positive. Toddler Milestone 12 (2 years, 11 months) was really trying for me. I was not able to cancel all plans like I wanted to as I then had an infant son. Though I desperately wished someone would take one (or three) children off of my hands for a bit, that wasn’t an option. Once I accepted this reality, I was able to reframe moments over the course of the week it took to get through the hard part. I made the conscious decision that at some points chores would not get done, and my entire day would be simply dealing with my toddler. At all times though, knowing what was happening helped me cope with it, and it helped me go towards my child, rolling with and even finding joy in these challenging times.

I’m not saying that these rocky developmental stages are easy. I will never diminish how hard these periods can be, but understanding them and reframing the child’s behavior can help. The behavior can still annoy parents, and from my reading, very few parents are immune to irritation. Just knowing that these occur can calm a parent’s fear down, but knowing exactly what behaviors you can expect is sure to be immensely powerful. The irritation which can otherwise consume a family might be brought down to at least manageable levels.

The second thing I can provide are details about the new abilities seen. My research of the cognitive growth spurts found that many of them had a dual nature between the irritable period and the new abilities period. The thing that children regress at is often the very thing they are about to show great progress at. For instance, children do become paralyzed to solve their own problems during the irritable period of Toddler Milestone 9 (2 years, 8 months), such that they, as mentioned previously, won’t get a toy that is right next to them. However, in the new ability period they become very good at solving problems. They might go outside, see it’s raining, and verbalize the following, “Oh no. We have a problem. It’s raining. What can I do about this? I’m thinking about it. I know! I’ll get an umbrella!”  I called this milestone “Creative Problem-Solving.” In the irritable period, they won’t move to solve a simple problem (regress), but in the new ability period, they can solve a complex problem (progress).

I found this was how cognitive growth spurts often went: Children misbehaved before they behaved. They become paralyzed to solve a problem before they become confident; they become bossy before they show gratitude; they knock towers over before building them carefully. I use the term “misbehavior” loosely. They are indeed simply experimenting, and/or their brain is in temporary regression. Children are not being intentionally naughty. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. It’s the stuff that can really irritate and cause frustration. They seem to be out of control and destructive. But if one understands this general cycle, it can have an enormous impact on parenting. What they seem so bad at is the very thing they will soon get good at. And by bad I don’t just mean “struggling.” I mean aggressively bad at. It’s those moments that might make you want to yell “Oh my! You just did that on purpose!” But if you can just hold on during that bumpy ride for a bit, at the other side of it is a light of hope: You’ll have not just a calm child, but one with a new ability which they can use for productive and helpful ends. If you can handle with care the toddler who grabs knives by the blade, gets into the toothpaste, demands you not move one inch, keeps tripping and falling, and whines a lot, you’ll soon see a child who is helpful, competent, and coordinated. What I just described, by the way, is Toddler Milestone 11 at 2 years, 10 months.

To deal with this bumpy ride and other situations, for each cognitive milestone, the third thing I provide is a section on conflict resolution. In this section is how to deal with behaviors or situations that are irritating or difficult. It is dealing with those behaviors that others may see as “bad.” Many would use punitive measures to handle these situations. Because the problem arises not due to any character defect of the child but the bigger situation itself—their developmental stage combined with having to conform to adult expectations—I entitled this section “Conflict Resolution” instead of “Discipline.” The issues that arise are issues of conflicting needs among the people involved. In this section I will discuss how to handle situations where you need your child to respect you, respect material things, be safe, get into car seats, and so on. Any situation where the need of another person (or the toddler themselves) is in contradiction to the immediate whim of the child.

My approach to conflict resolution is to get your needs satisfied as a parent and have the needs of the child satisfied as best as possible, and to have situations go as smoothly as possible. I fight nothing. If I find myself in a battle with my child, I stop myself and think of what a better approach could be. I have read many books on discipline and conflict resolution from experts who weigh in on the issue. Most advice is picked up from these experts, who deal with children as therapists or teachers day in and day out. My approach is a little different from others as applied to toddlers as I take ideas from a host of thinkers about conflict resolution—the first step of which is empathetic listening—and I push them to the toddler years as best can be done. In this way, the child is treated as a respected individual in the family. It is modeled for them daily what respectful relationships look like. It is effective both in the short term at gaining cooperation and the long term at imparting an ideal skill set.

Because they are not developmentally ready for full conflict resolution however, with its brainstorming steps, etc., modifications must be made for toddlers. Several books discuss positive discipline “tools” to use with children. These tools apply in situations when you need your child’s cooperation. The toddler (and preschool) years are very tool heavy. At each milestone I have matched it to the approaches or tools that I think are effective based on where children are cognitively. For instance, why distraction works so well for very young toddlers but “offering limited choice” does not (they cannot be expected to make a deliberate decision until Toddler Milestone 6, Decision Making, 2 years, 2 months), or why using “I” statements is effective starting in the late twos. I designed this book with “Section One: An Observant Parenting Approach to Toddlers” first, which gives tools and ideas to parent and teach effectively such that you are educated on these ideas. Then in Section Two, for each milestone I list the tools that are likely to be effective at that age and why.  In this way, as you deal with your child at each milestone, you can go to the exact age of your child and find instant, valuable information. Toddlers change rapidly, and this body of work can serve as nearly a month-by-month guide.

As noted, Section One deals with effective parenting tools and approaches. There are some basics that apply across all ages and without knowing these basics, the exact approaches outlined at each milestone may not be effective. The chapter within, “Dealing with the Child’s Emotions,” describes a critical step of conflict resolution, which is dealing with the child’s emotions. Children must be in emotional comfort before you appeal to whatever reasoning capability they do have. The overall atmosphere must be one of emotional comfort, otherwise none of the advice will work. Understanding how to deal with children’s emotions becomes vital at Toddler Milestone 5, Persistence and Insistence, 2 years, 1 month. Big, heavy emotions set in at this major milestone and must be dealt with. I also include a chapter on “Setting Healthy Boundaries with Your Toddler.” In this, I discuss typical core conflict resolution principles such as defining who owns the problem and how to respectfully state your concerns to a toddler. Starting at Toddler Milestone 11, Budding Morality, 2 years, 10 months, also a major milestone, a toddler becomes able to understand “I” statements as well as other reasoned, well-stated concerns, of which this chapter can help you articulate to your child well. I include also a chapter on “Toddler Conflict Resolution Tools,” which summarizes every tool that may appear in Section Two.

Perhaps the most important of all tools is a parent’s patience. A wise woman told me once that if we can handle our own emotions, a reasonable enough solution usually follows. Dealing with children who are in the midst of an irritable period is difficult. It wears on a parent’s patience (or any other caregiver). The chapter “The Calm Behind the Storm: Staying Patient as a Parent” is dedicated entirely to managing your own emotions. In this chapter, I talk about the usual stuff that is recommended, such as taking a deep breath, then I discuss what really works: bringing your own feelings into conscious awareness, which I learned from Dr. Shefali Tsabary. This chapter gives the tools to help you emotionally as you deal with these rocky developmental cycles. I include thoughts and reminders about the principles regarding internal emotional regulation at several of the more difficult milestones. I describe many of the behaviors and approaches to conflict resolution in story format, in which I describe my own struggles, and in doing so I hope you realize that you are not alone. I invite you also to join the Facebook discussion forum, “Misbehavior is Growth—The Discussion,” to find other parents who can provide ideas, comfort, and understanding as you go through these milestones with your child.

What I have been describing are ways that you can survive the day to day difficulties during rocky developmental cycles. Now I want to talk about how you can thrive. The fourth thing I provide at each milestone are activity ideas. The most important message I want to bring to people is that this misbehavior has, on the other side, a new development, and, therefore, the growth spurts are not simply times of irritation to get through, but investment opportunities. Understanding cognitive growth spurts, I believe, engenders a parenting approach that gets away from trying to fix or punish perceived negative behavior and invests entirely in building positive skill sets.

People are already aware of these cycles, which begin with regression. They tend to call them “stages” or “phases.” When a child is acting up at an age-related time, a mom might tell another mom, “Don’t worry. It’s a stage. He’ll outgrow it.” This is healthy enough advice. It recognizes that these are natural stages of development and the child should not be punished for it—and that they pass. But this advice is then followed up with, “Ignore it. Don’t feed the attention.” The parenting approach that I am advancing is that this “misbehavior” is more than just a stage: it’s growth. Following this irritating behavior will be (the potential for) a new ability. And so therefore, don’t ignore the behavior, lean into it. See the misbehavior as a code—a giant Bat-Signal in the air—that a child needs someone. They don’t need punishment or insults. They need connection, guidance, and teaching. There is something growing in them that one can help nurture. This is the meaning behind the title of this book series: Misbehavior is Growth!

This is already known healthy parenting advice. From Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, “In fact, most young children’s misbehavior is a sort of ‘code’ designed to let you know that they don’t feel a sense of belonging and need your attention, connection, time, and teaching” (Nelsen, Erwin and Duffy, ch. 1). If you know specifically what the misbehavior is a “code” for with the documentation of these milestones, you can be in so much of a better position to provide it. After becoming aware of the exact details of the cognitive growth spurts, I hope people no longer say, “It’s a stage, ignore it.” I want them to say, “It’s mental growth, invest in it!”

By understanding the cycle of development, I believe any inclination to punish children for perceived bad behavior will all but vanquish. Instead, given the enormous storm inside of them, children need connection. The general approach is to love them harder. Children literally cling to their parents during these cycles, and yet somehow the dominant advice up to now has been to push them away. When you understand the cycle, pushing children away seems baffling. Bringing them closer will not reward bad behavior. It models loving behavior and helps them grow in their emotional maturity. I see cognitive growth spurts now as both investment opportunities and love opportunities.

Further, the benefits of investing with activities, teaching, and guidance for your child are many and huge. For starters, it can help calm the child down. Much of their misbehavior is a desire to learn and grow. If you know how they are growing, you can redirect it into productive ends. This has the effect of calming the child, as you are meeting their developmental need. Montessori writes about “normalization.” By this she means providing a child with an activity that they are interested in and focus on, which has a calming effect on the child as well as builds patience and an attention span. The better you are at providing activities they are interested in, the more likely that this effect will happen.

When very young infants are provided with an environment that offers them the opportunity to practice emerging skills, they become more interested in their environment, more alert, and more cheerful. In fact, a basic principle of good child-rearing, especially during the first years, seems to be that you should design your child’s world so that his day is rich with options for activities that relate to his rapidly shifting interests and abilities. (White)

The main benefit, however, of investing is to give children a chance to work on the new skills that their new brain structure allows. I want to stress an important aspect about what happens during this mental growth. Children don’t necessarily develop a new skill, they develop the capacity for a new skill. Children are wonderfully built like wind-up toys who set out to use the new skill growing in them, and they aren’t terribly good at it at first. In fact, they are destructive. They have it “in” them to practice the skill by getting their hands on seemingly anything to help their developing minds, but adults can either help or hurt this process.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes that “Having responsive relationships with adults, growth-promoting experiences, and healthy environments for all young children helps build sturdy brain architecture and the foundations of resilience.” Investing in each cognitive milestone with activities doesn’t just build a particular skill, it builds the child’s very brain structure. I imagine the child’s growing mind as like building a bridge, and each milestone is a step in which the steel beams are being riveted on. The purpose of constructing it properly and with care is so that part of the brain can be used well in the future. But the brain, unlike a bridge, is more like a muscle and therefore it grows optimally through use. Giving a child a chance to flex their brain “muscle” and build neural pathways helps provide the lifelong benefit of how to think. You give your child the chance to develop some part of their brain at its most optimal time.

Another important aspect of mental growth is that each milestone doesn’t necessarily open a new potential that stays open. Each milestone opens a sensitive period, which is a window of opportunity for building a skill. These periods open but also eventually close. For instance, it is commonly known that if a child doesn’t learn to speak when they are young, they will have great difficulty learning to speak as an adult, because that sensitive period has shut down. These periods are thankfully wide, but they do end eventually. If we know what skill is being built at what time, we can unleash a huge potential.

I found that the abilities developed over the course of these milestones cover the full gambit of those skills required to thrive as an adult. It is too often the case in formal education that education means only learning “practical” skills while the emotional, social, and moral development of the child is neglected. Understanding cognitive growth spurts can help with academic skills, but it can also help with these other aspects of human development. It’s an education for all that makes one a human. I thus want to highlight the growth of a moral skill as seen even in the toddler years: In the late twos, children start to develop abstract ideas of right and wrong. It is very simple at this age such as, “It is better to not spill milk,” but this is a great opportunity to invest in some simple lessons about right and wrong and to start modeling healthy conflict resolution. From personal experience, this had an extraordinary effect on our family and helped keep our house calm. For instance, I once successfully convinced my toddler to stop hitting me by using a well-constructed “I” statement. Modeling this also imparted impressive conflict resolution skills to my children, which I have observed in my older child. This shows how investing in cognitive spurts can have both immediate and long-term benefits.

It also demonstrates how it is possible to teach a child right from wrong without using punishment. Knowing when a child’s mind is ripe to receive a lesson about right and wrong is a much more effective approach to teach ideal behavior than physical, emotional, or social trauma (respectively: spanking, yelling, and punitive timeouts). A heart-to-heart discussion at the right time goes a lot further than a punitive measure. And you can reap the rewards of your efforts almost immediately as you notice markedly improved behavior. This—investing in character and mind-building activities, not punitive measures—is how a child becomes disciplined.

Teach by teaching, not by correcting. — Dr. Maria Montessori

Certainly however, understanding cognitive growth spurts can help with academics and specific skill sets. As but one example, I taught my second child to read by the time she was three years old. She could read simple Consonant-Vowel-Consonant (CVC) words such as “cat” by sounding them out and she could use context clues to figure out words, even sentences.

Understanding the cognitive capabilities of my child helped to develop highly age-appropriate lessons. I outline at each relevant milestone the activities towards this end. Many of the activities are either Montessori or Montessori-inspired. I was able to take many of Montessori’s activities and divide them into highly specific ages at which they apply, and why. You will find many activities that develop a sensory education with simple step-by-step directions that will develop visual acumen, fine motor skills, observational skills, and creativity. I also have lessons related to mathematical, navigational, and reading comprehension skills. Truly, these lessons can unleash the enormous mental power in children.

I found that the process of learning, whatever the skill involved, when done with deep respect for natural child development, was a joy instead of a burden or fight. It was also extraordinarily efficient. Knowing what activity to provide at what age, when they are hungry to work on their new developing skill, allowed for simple, quick lessons that were easy to give and well-received by the child. Many of the activities that I present, especially at these young ages, can be done right before the child goes to bed.

Because presenting activities does require some understanding of teaching, I also include a chapter for parents on basic teaching skills entitled “Teaching: A Gift, not a Gauntlet.” Quality teaching is not hard, but there needs to be a reversal in the way many adults approach it. My experience is that many adults are overbearing, ask too many questions, “sermonize,” and try to direct their child’s learning too much. I learned how to teach young children by reading many books by Dr. Maria Montessori, some of them twice. She advocates a teaching style which relies on simple, strong demonstrations, few questions of the child, and putting away activities if the child is not interested. I focus on developing lessons that are conceptually clear for the child, also explained in this chapter.

The chapter on dealing with emotions, “Dealing with the Child’s Emotion,” is also relevant to teaching, because a child in emotional distress is not in a position to learn. The big emotions need to be dealt with first. The child needs soothing if they are upset before giving any lesson whatsoever, including lessons on ideal behavior. Many approach the child with the paradigm, “I’ll let you be comfortable after you learn or behave.” The approach outlined below is, “Make the child comfortable, and then they’ll learn and behave.”

I find educators tend to fall on one side or the other of a dichotomy where they value teaching skills or valuing the emotions of students. On the “teaching skills” side are people who value performance and do not care if the child’s underlying emotions are handled well. On the “valuing the emotions” side are people who highly value the child’s emotions but sometimes dismiss teaching skill sets, because they think that the instruction will necessarily be abrasive to the child.  My work on cognitive developmental milestones should help unite anyone who is on either side of this usual skills/emotion dichotomy. Cognitive growth spurts come at first with big emotions, end (potentially) with major skills, and knowing the cycle of them will naturally allow adults to support the child when they need support and challenge the child with advanced activities when they are capable. In fact, already established healthy parenting principles—embracing “growth mindset,” handling negative emotions well, seeing misbehavior as a code for further connection, brain neuroplasticity, providing stimulating activities, interest-led learning, not correcting or punishing a child—are taken to the next level by understanding the cycles of cognitive growth.

I fundamentally trust the process. I believe all education should be designed around which cognitive milestone a child is at. It should be bottom up, child-centered, not top-down, dictating a certain curriculum. I imagine child development like a river, and the cognitive growth spurts are represented by waterfalls. I see many education and parenting styles as fighting the river. When the river is fought, bad things happen. Anything that communicates, through punishment or words, to the child “There is something wrong about you” is harmful. The child feels like there is something wrong with them, causing that piece of them to wilt and die; education becomes a drag, and parenting becomes a never-ending battle. It doesn’t have to be like this. If we know the course of the river and just accept it, while it can still be a tumultuous ride, it is much more navigable. It can even be fun, like white water rafting, as one immerses themselves completely inside their child’s world. Looking at the world through a child’s eyes is an adventure as they look at the world with great curiosity, vivid imaginations, and startling observations. If you tap into your child’s inner teacher, you will see that they have boundless energy for pursuing activities and challenges. It is no longer a fight to get them to learn or behave.

I personally always felt behind at each milestone. I felt there were many activities that I could have provided, but there was never enough time and I never had enough knowledge to teach all I wanted. My children eagerly anticipated the activities I provided. I see each milestone as like a springboard. It’s an opportunity to catapult up to a new level of greatness. My vision is that, in the same way that the human genome was mapped, all cognitive milestones will be mapped.

I wrote earlier about people who warn you that you’ll have a brat unless you are strict with your child at an early age. I unequivocally reject that, and here is my counter: If you are but present with your child, especially at each cognitive milestone, you can be practically guaranteed that you are providing your children what they need. Dr. Tsabary writes that the problem between parents and children is a difference in “time zones.” She writes in The Awakened Family:

In fact, were you to ask me what I believe to be the root of conflict between parents and children, I would tell you that it’s a clash of time zones. Parents are oriented to the future, to getting to wherever they imagine themselves to be going. Children, on the other hand, when left to themselves inhabit the present. (ch. 2)

I am with Dr. Tsabary: We can be simply present, and connected, with our children, and trust that our children have endless creativity and resources in them to succeed later. A parent’s main job is to guide their child’s growth as they go on their journey, but being this guide is enormously powerful. A parent does not have direct control over the exact outcome of their child; they have but tremendous influence.

Ultimately, proper parenting is the presence of love. I see understanding cognitive growth spurts as the ultimate love: understanding something going on inside your child that they have no hope of ever communicating to you, which comes across in such irritating ways, and yet still meeting this deep need of theirs with patience and wisdom.

This work serves to humanize toddlers both by identifying as natural the swirling storm inside of them and by illustrating the amazing capability of their growing minds. A child who is always calm is a pipe dream. It will never happen. At the same time, their potential is enormous. Toddlers are not dolls that can be put away, but living creatures with major, rocky, awesome transformations. This work can humanize you too as you deal with these inevitably difficult changes.

I named my blog and website “The Observant Mom” and this book “The Observant Parent” because I found all good parenting begins with observation—much like a doctor who evaluates, with competence and compassion, his or her patient as he or she decides what course of action to take. The fundamental component of quality parenting is to take children’s cues, signals, and statements into consideration as one makes parenting decisions. When they are infants, a parent can look at their hunger and sleep cues. When they are toddlers, a parent can begin to take into consideration their emotions and words as well. Understanding these cognitive milestones will be one clue to the puzzle of understanding children. What I propose is that quality parenting comes down to thinking. When a parent brings their emotions into conscious consideration, they are thinking about them. When a parent identifies their children’s emotions for them, you help raise their awareness of those emotions—a cognitive process. Comparisons between healthy and unhealthy parenting models might be thinking versus blind reactivity; loving versus authoritarian; connected versus irritated; observant versus negligent; present versus absent. I hope you find value in this book as you adopt the role of observant mom, dad, or caregiver of any sort and put together the clues about the child you have the privilege of helping raise.

I hope after reading this book you feel like a mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, family friend, or caregiver of any sort, who is in control of yourself, who is confident in handling toddler meltdowns, who can effectively get a child to cooperate with you, who makes repair attempts when things go wrong, who knows how to give positive lessons to maximize your child’s learning, and who is inspired to keep advancing your own skill set. The themes of this book are presence and growth. What I hope to do is minimize the frustration that toddlers bring to a manageable level so that what is left is your child with his or her unique talents and interests.

High five, Mom and Dad. You got this!

See more at Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

About the Author

Hi! I’m Amber. I have an Industrial Engineering degree from Penn State. I worked as a software test and integration engineer for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home mom to my now 3 children. I homeschool them. I live in Huntsville, AL–Rocket City! Most of all I hope to help parents on their journey by providing detailed observations about age-related child development and effective tools to survive and thrive. Drop me a line,

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