Young toddlers may experience innate urges to explore and grow and master their environment, but some youngsters become so discouraged by the difficulties they encounter they begin to back away from hard tasks. When the many things toddlers do that anger their parents are added to all the things that frustrate toddlers because they can't do them well, failure can begin to seem like the inevitable outcome of anything they try. Some youngsters become so overwhelmed by their own inadequacies that, instead of continuing to try to please their parents and develop their skills and abilities, they give up.
How toddlers view themselves — their self-concept and self-esteem — depends in large part on what their caregivers tell them about themselves. Toddlers need help to understand that most of their inadequacies stem from their age and lack of maturity and practice. If toddlers believe their incompetence stems from a basic deficiency or defect, they will lose confidence and give up readily when things are difficult for them, backing away from challenges instead of trying to overcome them.
Psychologists consider the need to develop initiative the central emotional task of the toddler years. “Failure” at this task means that shame and guilt swamp initiative. Children who feel ashamed and guilty respond to difficult tasks by raging, becoming destructive, crying, quickly giving up, and blaming others for their failings.
To help toddlers take initiative, parents need to be supportive of little ones' efforts to do things by themselves. Parents should focus on teaching, refrain from criticizing, and respond with kindness and compassion to their child's frustrations. TABLE 5-1 shows some example actions, negative (and positive) responses, and how the negative response makes the child feel about himself.
Child's Action: Trying to insert a straw into a box of juice
Responses That Develop Shame and Guilt: “Here, let me do it. It's too hard for you. Now look at the mess you've made. Why do you always have to be so stubborn?”
Child's View of Self: “I'm no good at this. I keep trying to do things because I'm stubborn.”
Responses That Develop Initiative: “When you're older, your hands will be stronger and it will be easier for you.
Do you want some help? We need to clean this mess up.”
Child's View of Self: “Someday I'll be strong enough to do it by myself. Now I can ask for help if it's too hard. When I make a mess we clean it up.”
Child's Action: Hits his sister because she has a toy he wants
Responses That Develop Shame and Guilt: “She had it first! Quit being such a bully.”
Child's View of Self: “She has all the fun. I'm a bully.”
Responses That Develop Initiative: “I know you're angry because you want to play with that, but you aren't allowed to hit. Take a time-out until you're ready to apologize to your sister.”
Child's View of Self: “I feel angry when I don't get my way. If I hit I have to go to time-out and apologize.”
Child's Action: Grabs the toy from her sister
Responses That Develop Shame and Guilt: “I told you she had it first! You never listen! Now go to your room.”
Child's View of Self: “I never listen. Mom takes her side and sends me away.”
Responses That Develop Initiative: “You mustn't hit or grab.
Child's View of Self: “I'm getting good at asking for what I want. I don't always get it, though. Then I have to play with something else or go to my room.”
Child's Action: Tries to help mother make the bed
Responses That Develop Shame and Guilt: “You're not helping, and you're in my way. Go find something else to do.”
Child's View of Self: “When I try to help, I'm just in the way.”
Responses That Develop Initiative: “You got part of the pillow in the case! If I just push it in farther and plump it up, it will be perfect. You're Mommy's little helper!”
Child's View of Self: “I'm learning to make beds. I'm a good helper!”
Child's Action: Has been told to pick up his toys
Responses That Develop Shame and Guilt: “I told you to pick those up! Why can't you just cooperate for once? If you don't do it by the time I count to ten, you're in trouble!”
Child's View of Self: “I'm uncooperative. I'm always in trouble.”
Responses That Develop Initiative: “Let's have a race. Can you pick up your toys before I count to ten? Ready … set … go! (The parent drops one toy in the basket and begins counting while the child laughs and scurries to win the race.)
Child's View of Self: “I can pick up toys faster than my mom can count to ten!”