My son, a sweet, agreeable 18-month-old, one day morphed into an agent of destruction. I had put Patrick in his crib for a nap. An hour and a half later, I walked into his room and my jaw dropped: Dangling from every wall surface within his reach were streamerlike shreds of the adorable teddy-bear wallpaper that his dad and I had so painstakingly hung. Additional bits littered the floor like confetti. Patrick grinned and announced, "Pretty." I wanted to cry.
Fortunately, Patrick hadn't put any wallpaper in his mouth. But that's about all I was thankful for at the moment. Why, when he had a perfectly decent crib toy to play with, had he felt compelled to rip down wallpaper? And why, for the next year or so, did he seem to delight in making monumental messes wherever he went?
I knew that Patrick wasn't trying to provoke me, and experts insist that 1-year-olds can't be held responsible for the chaos they create. Toddlers' messes are the perfectly normal (and healthy) result of a combination of forces, including their skill level, limited understanding of acceptable behavior, and drive to explore.
About their first birthday, toddlers experience a burst of independence. They want to do things for themselves. But because their fine motor skills are only weakly developed, their efforts are clumsy. Putting down a cup without spilling its contents calls for a precision that most toddlers don't possess.
Even when 1-year-olds use their large motor skills, messes occur. Between the ages of 12 and 24 months, children are learning to walk, jump, climb, and master other large body movements, and they love to practice in creative, spontaneous ways. At 18 months, Hannah Miner, now 2, began rolling around in drawings she and her mother had made outdoors with sidewalk chalk. "She ends up covered in pastel colors," says her mom, Laura, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "It's an exhilarating whole-body experience."