No one is more important in a toddler's life than Mommy and Daddy. Toddlers feel secure knowing you are there for them, and your availability is vital to their well-being. When my first child began walking, then running, I wondered if I was leaving behind that adoring baby, the one who cuddled and gave big, smiley greetings when I entered a room.
When toddlers make new discoveries, they exuberantly share each one with you as a way of showing their love and trust. In sharing life's joys and pleasures with you, your toddler feels good about herself because she has a reminder that "Mommy and Daddy always love me!" Even as a toddler expert, I did not envision the variety of ways that my own toddler would show his love. Turns out, there are many ways toddlers express their love, from making you chase after them to surprising you with a sticky lollipop. Read on to discover nine ways that toddlers say "I love you."
It seems like whenever you're in a hurry to get somewhere, your toddler suddenly dawdles and takes her time. I recall when it would take a half hour to walk a block with my eldest, who would squat and show me every ant, offer me every stick or jump off every step, and then look at me, beaming with pride. Toddlers live in the moment and lack a sense of time. At that moment, they are with you, and nothing could be better than that. "Separation is the main task of toddlerhood," says Patricia H. Shimm, author of Parenting Your Toddler: The Experts Guide to the Tough and Tender Years, "and toddlers would rather be with Mommy than anyone else." So getting out the door or getting anywhere on time with a toddler can be a challenge. The bottom line is, they love being with you; they savor their time with you and will prolong it in any way they can.
Running away with glee and exuberance is a toddler's way of celebrating her newfound independence, but only if she has the firm confidence that you will follow. She runs away, strutting her freedom, but then she stops and thinks, "Wait, I need to be sure Mommy is still here." By playing the run-and-chase game, she is showing that she is her own person and she firmly believes you will be there to catch her. "Toddlers have to trust that you will be there for them before they can venture out in the world. The more they venture out, the more they need to know you are there for them," says Laura Bennett-Murphy, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the Mother-Child Project at Westminster College. Her running away is actually a way of showing just how much she loves you. She has the freedom to run because she has a secure home base (you!), the most important person in the world.
Some toddlers have a stuffed animal or blanket that goes where they go. Others take different objects each time they leave the house. These transitional objects (or loveys) represent you and your love, especially in your absence. Your child loves you so much that she wants to keep you close. Shimm also explains that these objects help your toddler feel safe, "A piece of you is with her. That gives her security." These transitional objects help her be away from you while still keeping you close by. Working at the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, I knew a child who would bring a toothbrush to the toddler program each morning. It was her way of having her mommy near her while she was at school. Even grown-ups carry photos of loved ones and other reminders, which are not so different from loveys!
It seems your toddler spends more time touching, mashing, squishing and jabbing food than ingesting it. When she raises her hands high with a big smile on her face, you have to move quickly or else the mushy mess is on you. Your toddler sees food as a place to explore and experiment; she is sharing her pleasure so you can enjoy it with them. Once, my son spilled an entire box of Grape-Nuts on a shaggy rug and proceeded to eat a little, throw a lot, and push the rest deeper into the rug. He ran to show me what he'd done, beaming with pride, sure I would be as happy as he was. He wanted me to see all he had accomplished. "For toddlers, life is about possibilities and curiosity, and food is one place they can be curious and try different things. They love to show you what they've discovered," says Dr. Bennett-Murphy. So, those yogurt-covered hands he's holding out to you? It's actually his way of letting you be delighted in his discoveries with him.
Just when you can't deal with one more tantrum or one more "No!" your toddler plops herself down on your lap, snuggles closely, and leans her head onto your shoulder. She looks up at you with a sparkle in her eye and a sweet smile. "As much as toddlers are doing many things to show their independence, they also need to refuel in the comfort of Mommy or Daddy's arms," says Bennett-Murphy. When your toddler cuddles with you, she is showing that she knows you are always there to provide her comfort. This is her active way of saying "I love you." This confident display of love can be the best part of your day!
Have you ever walked through the door to be greeted by a toddler racing into your arms with a shriek and scream that could be heard blocks away? All that screeching is sheer delight at seeing you return home. "Toddlers build trust every time the parent says they're leaving and later coming back. It's why you can never sneak out," says Shimm. The emotional core of toddlerhood is learning to trust that the adults in their lives will always return. These screams of elevated joy are just another reminder of her love for you.
Toddlers don't share, except on rare occasions, and only with their most trusted loved ones. Your toddler may take several licks of a bright red, heart-shaped lollipop as his face radiates with joy. As the gooey lollipop drips down his hand, he turns to you and reaches out his little hands to present you the lollipop. By giving you his most prized possession at the moment -- sticky and half-licked -- he is being selfless and sacrificing what he loves. He is expressing "I love you" by sharing what he loves. Your toddler assumes that what makes him happy will make you happy, too, so he shares his happiness with the one he truly loves -- you.
Toddlers love putting crayons to paper and mixing together random marks, dots, and colors as much as experimenting with paint or glue. When a toddler hands you the scribbled masterpiece, gluey mess on paper, or other craft she has made, it's one more reminder that she's sharing her creative happiness and success with Mommy and Daddy. Her love for you is expressed through making something special from the heart. You are always on your toddler's mind; creating drawings or other crafts for you shows just how much she thinks about you. Even if the final product consists only of glue on paper, the message is, "I love Mommy and Daddy so much, I want to make this for them."
Toddlers like routine, consistency, and rituals: reading the same book every night, wearing the same shirt every day, putting stuffed animals in the same order nightly. "[Toddlers] will ask for the same book every night because they love you, and they love the routine that you are part of. If you are out one night, the routine represents you," says Shimm. The world is a big place, and toddlers make sense of it by keeping objects in order and having routines that bring comfort to them. What is predictable feels safe and reassuring. Routines give toddlers feelings of security, in the same way that you always provide feelings of security, safety, and, of course, love.
Tovah P. Klein, Ph.D., is a psychology professor and the Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development as well as the author of How Toddlers Thrive (Simon & Schuster, 2014). She is the mother of three boys.