Toddler Emotions: Fickle Love

In true toddler fashion, 3-1/2-year old Sam explains in the video how he feels “love” towards me when I don’t yell at him, I buy him toys, and I take him to the “fun park” (a huge park that is not close to our home). When I don’t do what he wants, he claims that he doesn’t love me. Clearly, he overlooks all the basic needs I provide for him, such as a healthy dinner or a warm, clean place for him to sleep with plenty of goodnight kisses and snuggles. These seem to have little to no effect on whether or not he loves me, as demonstrated by his less than enthusiastic response when I asked him if he loved me in those cases.

Sam’s emotional development is far from over. At his age, getting what he wants is directly linked to whether or not he feels “love” for me, while having his basic needs met does not affect his feelings of love towards me. Sam uses the phrases “I hate you” or “I don’t love you anymore” not only with me, but also with his siblings and others who don’t give into his toddler demands. Sam may be more passionate about getting his needs met than other children his age, but all toddlers have the urge to communicate their wants and needs as strongly as they know how for it is built into them for survival. It is built into their DNA to communicate with others in order to build relationships that are based on trust and attachment so that they will “make it” in this big, wide world.

By today’s living standards and for a child from a solidly middle class home, toys and leisure time at a humongous park complete with a carousel and every type of playground equipment one can imagine can feel like a survival need to Sam. He doesn’t need to spend a lot of time worrying about where his next meal will come from or whether or not his instinctual need to explore and learn about his environment is being met. For him, life need only be about playing and learning in order to be ready for school in 2 short years.

When his playing and learning becomes threatened, his emotions quickly get involved in order to drive his points home to me or those around him. Even at the tender age of three, Sam knows that if he says something with some emotion behind it, his message will be better understood and “heard” by his listeners. Appropriate emotional expression will be a key element for success when he arrives in a formal school setting.

Sam is fortunate. He possesses the crucial and expanding knowledge of oral language skills he will need in the classroom in order to learn to read and do math. He has caring, nurturing adults around him who can guide his burgeoning social-emotional skills. His learning experiences now are actually more powerful when he accesses his emotions as well as when others around him express emotions appropriately when guiding learning. All of these aspects of his life have set him perfectly on the path to school and life readiness. From here, he will continue to build his verbal and social-emotional skills in his time with me at home and with the nurturing adults and playful peers at his daycare.

Unfortunately for so many other young children, they do not have committed, supportive, and patient adults around them who can foster school and life readiness skills. These children are developing in settings that do not encourage language, social and emotional growth. They are surrounded by people who are not caring, who may be uneducated or under-educated about what children need in the first three years of life, or who may think that it is enough to focus a child’s learning on pre-literacy or other pre-academic skills in order to be ready for school. These children may be ready for the “academic” pieces of school, but will not have the social or emotional skills to be truly successful in a school setting and, therefore, will be bound for failure on too many levels. In the end, these children would have been much better prepared for school possessing more social-emotional skills, as a result of being around caring, nurturing adults with whom they were strongly attached and whom they trusted, rather than possessing pre-literacy and pre-academic knowledge.

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