How can we communicate urgent information to our pre-verbal toddlers?

“How can we communicate urgent information to our pre-verbal toddlers? Often, we need to increase the bandwidth by communicating not just explicitly in words, but simultaneously also inexplicitly, through our facial expressions and body language, and we also need to find more concrete ways of expressing theories. Show them concrete effects. Help them understand.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


“How can we communicate urgent information to our pre-verbal toddlers?”

“Our pre-verbal toddlers rightly like to explore many objects in their environment and sometimes inadvertently break things. They do not yet understand our verbal communications well enough to take into account what we are saying, so can we save our stuff non-coercively?”

It can seem difficult with toddlers, I know, but it is very important not to make the mistake of assuming that their age and lack of verbal ability makes it impossible. It may seem that way in the midst of a crisis (especially if we have not slept well in years) but it isn’t. And the moment we make such an assumption, we are virtually guaranteed to be doomed not to solve the problem.

Do share your theory (to the extent the toddler wants to hear it). Otherwise how can your toddler take it into account?

That may sound obvious, but one of the mistakes people very often make when they are new to Taking Children Seriously is that they are so very anxious to avoid coercion that they completely forget (or fail) to express their actual theories. In the name of “non-coercion”, they avoid expressing the slightest anxiety about, say, their toddler playing with their priceless family heirloom, and thus avoid giving the toddler the information she needs to know. And then the toddler casually breaks the heirloom, not for a moment realising how much it matters to her parents.

So one of the things parents should do is to be very careful not to deprive their children of the information they need to take into account when deciding what to do.

The question is, how? Toddlers tend to be such that if you simply expound the sort of logical, well-argued explicit statement that would satisfy many a self-respecting rationalist, that is unlikely to convey whatever theory you want to convey. The bandwidth is too narrow. It is not giving the toddler a chance. Often, we need to increase the bandwidth by communicating not just explicitly in words, but simultaneously also inexplicitly, through our facial expressions and body language, and we also need to find more concrete ways of expressing theories. Show them concrete effects. Help them understand.

The following does give some information (good)—

“I would prefer it if you played with that glass vase on the floor instead of carrying it around. It is heavy and easy to drop. If it drops, it might break. Could you play with it on the floor please?”

—but does it give enough information? Given that toddlers are rather lacking, verbally, compared to older people, this sort of mild emotion-free expression of a preference (which I should add is obviously very well-intentioned) may well be entirely insufficient to give the toddler a clear understanding of our theory. Part of our theory is that this is an expensive piece of hardware that we really really would rather remain intact, at least until we have had a chance to visit the second-hand shops to find a replacement. Another part is the danger of the toddler getting injured if the item does break. It is perfectly possible to express the full theory without being coercive, and this is what should be happening. We can’t expect a toddler to take our theories about it into account unless we express them.

Moreover, what about the toddler’s own theory? What about the toddler’s problem situation? If, as above, we are not making the effort to discern or guess or find out why the toddler is carrying a heavy vase about, then how are we ourselves taking their own theory into account? (Yet we are expecting a toddler to take into account our own theory?!)

Maybe the toddler is exploring a very important aspect of physics, reality, strength, balance, daring, or human relationships, or any number of other things, specifically through carrying the heavy vase about. If so, then suggesting sitting on the floor with it instead is not in any way addressing the toddler’s problem situation. If we had thought that the toddler might well specifically need to be walking about as part of her exploratory learning process, then, for example, we could suggest a different possible solution, namely, that the toddler do the walking about in a room with carpet on the floor rather than in the kitchen with the hard granite floor that nothing can so much as touch without breaking.

What about the risk of injury from broken glass? Believe me, I know about that from excruciating personal experience. A friend of mine put down springy thick gym-style matting throughout their hard-floor areas when they had young children, and after needing two surgeries to remove a tiny piece of broken glass from deep in my heel, following which I had to have my foot elevated above my heart for four and a half months, which resulted in me needing to learn to walk again afterwards, so atrophied were the muscles in that leg, I can see why my friend did that. Glass is nasty stuff. Maybe when there are toddlers around we might want to put all the glass stuff away somewhere. Frankly, whenever I myself break glass, I feel like throwing out all the glass in the house—and there are no toddlers here.

It is frustrating (and costly) for us to replace objects our child breaks.

Is it frustrating because of the cost, or for some other reason? Are you perhaps expecting a toddler to behave like a middle-aged librarian? (Why does everyone call toddlers ‘immature’ yet expect them to behave like middle-aged librarians?)

It is entirely unrealistic (not to mention coercive and harmful) to expect toddlers not to be investigating and exploring everything in their surroundings. Instead of trying to get them to sit still and not break stuff, help them explore more! They are learning so much from it all! See it from their point of view, and you will never feel frustrated about it ever again, you will be awed by the wonder of it all. Every broken object represents an opportunity for the child to explore a new (replacement) object. And sometimes it is in breaking something, or in trying to put it back together, that we make our most interesting discoveries. Toddlers need more to explore, and to explore more! Do not resist it, embrace and facilitate it. Relish this special time, in all its messiness! It will be over before you know it.

If in your house there are still any unbroken Ming vases or other family heirlooms or things to which you have some kind of sentimental attachment, for goodness’ sake put them away somewhere and replace them with cheap, replaceable objects, such as from charity shops and car boot sales. Every parent (particularly those with young children, and particularly with your young children) should frequent second-hand shops and charity shops. It is amazing what you can find at these places. Household objects can very often be replaced for next-to-nothing if you buy second-hand (used).

I am just trying to help any parents of toddlers view these things in a wider context, which is what we need to do in order not to cause a problem by panicking or having expectations that are entirely out of touch with reality. If you are bristling with frustration, annoyance or anxiety about the ming vase your child is carrying about on your granite floor, that is a recipe for disaster. Your toddler will sense that, and is likely to react in a way that will cause the very calamity you fear. Coercion, even just from inexplicit bristling, throws a spanner in the works, and that is when things go even more horribly wrong than you feared.

If there is such a coercive interaction happening, your toddler is unlikely to be able to hear the possibly or otherwise reasonable theory that is hidden under your unreasonable coercive stance. If the toddler is used to being thwarted and senses that that is happening or about to happen again, this will not end well. One of the problems of both thwarting children, and of failing to express our theories in a way that they can understand, is that both these things sabotage finding real solutions.

Finding solutions involves an interplay of ideas, it is not happening if one party appears (let alone IS!) deaf to the the other party’s perfectly reasonable concerns, wishes and problem situation. When a child wilfully ignores a parent, it may be that there is (quite possibly inadvertent) coercion happening, or that there has been a pattern of coercion over time. We are fallible and not omniscient. Sometimes this stuff is just not obvious to us. We are human. Of course it might be that the child is actually deaf or hard of hearing, or it might be that the child is genuinely engrossed in what she is doing, but it might not be.

My spouse (not persuaded about taking children seriously) is rightly frugal since there’s not much money to go around, and has a more conventional response. When this parent discovers the broken food processor bowl, parent responds with “That’s it. That’s the nth thing that’s been broken around here. There are going to have to be some things that you can’t play with!”

Expecting a toddler to obey orders about not playing with the food processor is unrealistic, and would undermine the rational, knowledge-creating, decision-making institution that is developing. It is understandable to feel like that, but it is a mistake. It is a defeatist attitude to solving problems and it risks passing on the same defeatist, negative, coercive way of dealing with problems to the child. Instead of taking that approach, put the items you want the toddler not to play with in the loft for a few years so that this will not arise. Take a trip to some second-hand shops, stock up with cheap replacements for these precious objects, and relax and enjoy the messy chaos of your toddler’s passionate pursuit of knowledge.

“That’s all very well when it’s your own home, but what about when we are visiting Grandma, or in a china shop?”

All the more reason not to develop the standard coercive relationship that would guarantee that the toddler will do exactly the opposite of what she’s told the moment no one is watching her like a hawk (and sometimes even then). But for a bit more of an answer to this actually very understandable worry, see the following post from the archives:

Watch out! There’s a toddler about!

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How can we communicate urgent information to our pre-verbal toddlers?’,

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