Life on Planet Kids

Rest assured, human parent: Your little one's no alien -- that strange behavior is normal. We'll help you understand what's behind the odd logic that rules her world.
child wearing mask

Stephanie Rausser

If you're parenting a member of the 5-and-under crowd, you're probably familiar with those baffling episodes when your child seems to be operating in a universe with its own line of reasoning and conduct -- for instance, when your 2-year-old gleefully stomps on his balloon from a birthday party and then demands that you un-pop it.

These cognitive lapses can be especially perplexing because your kid's mastery of life skills and language is constantly improving, so it's easy to forget how much he still doesn't get. "Children are great mimics who sometimes use complicated phrases even before they fully understand their meaning," says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. And despite the fact that their brains are developing at a dizzying pace from birth to age 6, young kids aren't yet capable of fully organizing the vast pool of information they're accumulating, which explains some of the quirky things they say and do.

To learn more, we took a tour of life on Planet Kids to report back on how you can successfully parent your mini Martian.

PLANET-KIDS RULE Mom can fix anything!

REAL-WORLD RULE Do-overs aren't always possible.

You were trying to be helpful when you pulled the straw off the juice box and out of the plastic wrapper before handing it over to your toddler during a playdate. You had no idea she wanted to do it all by herself. Now she keeps screaming, "Put it back!" Does she really think you have the ability to re-create the original packaging? (Oh, yes. Most definitely yes.)

What's Going On in That Head "Toddlers believe adults are very powerful," says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., distinguished professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. "They don't doubt that if you want to change something, you can." From your child's perspective, you're not taking the problem seriously enough and, worse, you're choosing not to do anything to help.

How to Deal She needs to feel as if you "get" the magnitude of her disappointment, so try to use language that she'll understand. Stomp the ground and say, "Mommy moved the straw and Zoe got mad. Big mad!" Reassure her you won't do it again. Then grab some tape -- seriously. "Tape works wonders on all kinds of things that go wrong, including reattaching a straw to a juice box or putting a ripped photo back together," says Dr. Lagattuta. Your clumsy tape job may look terrible to you, but from your toddler's perspective, you acknowledged a problem and made way for a do-over.

PLANET-KIDS RULE Everything that happened in the past was "yesterday."

REAL-WORLD RULE There's a difference between the immediate and distant past.

Your 3-year-old loves to talk about his favorite memories. His ability to call up details, like how his older cousin sprained her ankle the last time she visited, underscores his brainpower. But it concerns you that all of his reveries begin with "Remember yesterday when..."

What's Going On in That Head Your preschooler is rapidly grasping the basic sequence of before-now-after. (First we packed for vacation, then we went to the beach, and now we're home.) His mind, however, can't yet categorize between yesterday and last month, says Dorothy Singer, Ph.D., senior research scientist emeritus of psychology at Yale University and coauthor of A Piaget Primer: How a Child Thinks. The past truly is all yesterday's news to him.

How to Deal Casually plant the seeds for comprehending time. Sing the days-of-the-week song when you get dressed in the morning. Talk about how Monday through Friday are school or day-care days and Saturday and Sunday are home days. Make like a nursery-school teacher and hang a monthly calendar in your kitchen at eye level for your kiddo. Keep a marker next to it so that you or he can proudly mark off each day. When reading together, ask about time: "Was the mommy owl gone a long time or a short time?"

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