Helping Your Toddler Take on Challenges Without Going Crazy

By Morra Aarons-Mele

Joseph Campos explains that the role of a parent or caregiver’s non-verbal communication can help your child guide his behavior in an uncertain context. That’s how we learn the rules. How we communicate affects how our child approaches challenges. In his famous “Visual Cliff” experiment, Campos illustrates how babies either forge ahead with a challenge, or hold back, depending on their parent’s facial feedback. Placed on a raised platform, a baby is faced with a “visual” cliff of plexiglass. He is hesitant to crawl over the “cliff,” even to reach an appetizing toy. If his parent gives him an encouraging look or gesture, however, the baby is much more likely to take on the challenge and crawl over the “cliff.” Parents of babies and toddlers face versions of the visual cliff every day. Sometimes, we need to use every available expression and piece of language to prevent experimentation (if, for example, your kid is approaching the stove). But often, the non-verbal interplay between parent and child encourages new learning.

My toddler is learning every single second of the day: it’s beautiful and exhausting to experience. I want to encourage his learning but I am also scared he will hurt himself! My life is a constant balance between encouraging experimentation (pretending I’m not anxiously hovering over my son to make sure he’s safe) and making sure he’s safe.

Thankfully, not everything Ace does is dangerous; sometimes his interests are merely curious. Recently, he’s been obsessed with snapping shut plastic buckles (for example, on a swim vest). He can’t open them yet, however, so Mom or Dad have to be on standby to open the buckle, as you can see in this video. And sometimes, buckle-learning can last for a half hour!

Thanks to my immersion in Campos’ research, though, I know it’s my job not to show annoyance or exasperation when Ace wants his buckle undone for the 87th time. Mastering the fine motor skills of snapping shut plastic buckles is Ace’s challenge of the moment, and he is very immersed in its mastery. And it certainly doesn’t hurt anyone!

Toddlers are notorious boundary-pushers. But I don’t think they are reckless, even if they wobble and scare us sometimes. I’ll bet you have experienced the classic “look back” to mom or dad before a toddler tests something: they’re asking non-verbally, “is it ok for me to do this?” And they are learning as they do this. Children learn to take on challenges by receiving non-verbal cues from their parents, and it’s important we tune in to those “look-backs.”

Joseph Campos explains that the role of a parent or caregiver’s non-verbal communication can help your child guide his behavior in an uncertain context. That’s how we learn the rules. How we communicate affects how our child approaches challenges. In his famous “Visual Cliff” experiment, Campos illustrates how babies either forge ahead with a challenge, or hold back, depending on their parent’s facial feedback. Placed on a raised platform, a baby is faced with a “visual” cliff of plexiglass. He is hesitant to crawl over the “cliff,” even to reach an appetizing toy. If his parent gives him an encouraging look or gesture, however, the baby is much more likely to take on the challenge and crawl over the “cliff.”

Parents of babies and toddlers face versions of the visual cliff every day. Sometimes, we need to use every available expression and piece of language to prevent experimentation (if, for example, your kid is approaching the stove). But often, the non-verbal interplay between parent and child encourages new learning.

 

Photo/image by: Steve Koukoulas / Flickr