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Toddler Tips

Gender Differences?

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 9, July-August 2002, pp. 144-147

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


I have two children, a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. I thought I knew all about toddlers, but I am amazed at the amount of destruction my son can do. He seems to look for things to knock over, spill, or destroy. He is so active that I can't clean up one mess before he has made three more. Whereas my daughter may have tipped a container of toys over, my son manages to pull a chair to the closet, pull out all of the toys and games, and spread the contents all over the house. He is strongly resisting potty training, doesn't like to sit still for stories, and hates any kind of confined space. My husband says he needs more discipline, but I don't think he is intentionally being bad. Is this the difference between boys and girls? What have other mothers of active toddlers done to keep ahead of their busy little ones?


When I had my second daughter, I, too, thought I knew all the tricks of the trade. I quickly learned, and relearned with my third daughter, that parenting is an individualized art.

Your son is not "bad," just different from your daughter. When he throws the toys all over, he is telling you that he is overwhelmed by too many choices. Try putting safety locks on the cabinets, but leave a special one open for him with two or three choices of toys that you rotate frequently. Have a reading corner with a few books in it. Have an art corner with one project. He wants to spill and knock things over so get him a sandbox with cups and trucks. An old mattress inside or out is great for jumping. This toddler needs lots of gross motor activities. Have fun with him as he follows the beat of his own drummer.

Our children will have high self-esteem if we help them learn to arrange their world, beginning with their environment at home. Oh, and plan plenty of hugs, kisses, and nurses for these active toddlers…they get bruises and scratches.

Marilyn T.


My main piece of advice would be to get your little boy outside, whenever possible, preferably once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Make one outing a walk around the neighborhood, a walking trail, or a nature center, and the other outing an outside activity at a park or in your backyard, playing soccer, baseball or another active game at his level. My two oldest children are boys, 20 months apart, and I found that if I kept them cooped-up in the house for too long, they would turn to the more destructive kinds of activities to burn off their energy and meet their brains' need for intelligent projects.

During walks and at the playground, children use their bodies, but also talk and ask questions. This helps them learn to express themselves. Make outside time a treat for yourself, too-perhaps bring along a mug of tea or coffee. Maybe your daughter wants to pack along a doll or a special toy.

While many little boys will not sit and color, they will often sit in the sandbox or in a small pool (with little action figures, cups, shovels, or blocks) and play for quite a while. It just seems to me that they need to engage their large motor and small motor skills at the same time. This is good to do later in the afternoon since it helps them wind down for dinner. Bring a book to read while you sit nearby!

This can be a hard routine to get into, but has great rewards. Most children end up sleeping better (both during naps and at night) due to all the fresh air. Your children have the benefit of getting in good physical shape, and you have the benefit of a cleaner house because you have been outside for a good part of the day. Most of all, there is very little outside that your little guy can "destroy" or "ruin" or that will be off-limits to his curiosity.

Carla D.


My now 15-year-old son has the same personality type that you describe. During his toddler years I found that I needed to mentally focus on the charm of his curiosity. Everything was fascinating for him, every little detail. One piece of advice I received from my LLL Group at the time was to join him, rather then scold him. If I sat in my chair and said "no" to everything, he would just keep going. But when I moved over and sat next to him, and held the thing he was curious about, he could examine/explore it and I could prevent damage. Then, his curiosity satisfied, he moved on to something else. I also learned to box up many of his toys. Having only one or two categories of toys available limited the amount of mess he could create. Every month, I'd rotate boxes of toys, so all the toys were always new, and yet there weren't so many to clean up.

The piece of encouragement I'd give you from my perspective now is enjoy! He is a curious, creative child who will grow into a fascinating, charming young man. Celebrate his gift of curiosity; it makes him so interesting. As he gets older it will be easier to teach him about limits, but it may be that with his personality, he likes having his things all around him. This is his unique personality style. It is not a discipline or control issue.

Beckie O.


I am a mother to four very busy children, ages nine, eight, five, and two. Over the years we've learned that less is definitely more when it comes to children's toys. It sounds to me like your little boy would really benefit from more outside, big muscle activities such as swinging, jumping, climbing, running, and riding on a tricycle or scooter. We often begin our mornings by taking the dog for a walk or run and I am amazed at how much calmer things are when we get home. I would also suggest limiting or eliminating TV time if you haven't already done so.

I have noticed a definite rebound effect after more than about 20 minutes of TV. While watching, my children may sit quietly in front of the glowing screen, but they are usually bouncing off the walls later. I would also look for play opportunities that might replicate some of the sensations your son is seeking without quite as much mess. Does he have access to a sandbox? Other types of texture play-finger paints, play dough, or shaving cream are often popular with toddlers. My two-year-old loves to play with a basin of water. I will set it up in the tub or on the kitchen floor while I'm working nearby.

I have found that the most effective discipline techniques for toddlers are distraction, redirection, and lots of positive attention. Discipline is another word for teaching. Try to look on every interaction with your children as a way to teach them about the world and their place in it. You may also find that toilet learning will go more smoothly if you wait a few months and try it again. Very few little boys are developmentally ready to use the toilet on their own before their third birthday.

I keep ahead of my little ones by paying a lot of attention to our household routines and involving the children in them as much as possible. I've also greatly reduced our toy clutter. When things get wild indoors we either go outside, put on some music and dance, or take a bath. Enjoy your little ones and encourage your husband to have more age-appropriate expectations for your son.

Laura H.


My oldest daughter is almost three and many times she will get a bad case of "the wiggles." The first thing we did is put a name to the feeling, so that she can tell me when she is feeling this way.

The next thing we did was provide permanent items in the living room so that she can be super active and "get the wiggles out." I got three seat cushions from an old sofa and have them stacked in front of a chair, but she is allowed to play with them however she wants. She bounces on them yelling "Bounce! Bounce! Bounce!" or she will spread them out and bounce from one to the other to the third and back again, like leaping on stones to cross a river. These pillows are also a great "house fort" for my daugher and husband to play in. They have also served as extra seating, a changing pad, and more. We also have a bouncy horse set up in the corner, but her favorites by far are the pillows.

If you don't have access to an old sofa, you could buy the forms at a local hobby or fabric shop and just make some durable covers. Remember to make them firm, so they give a good bounce.

So now when I see that she has loads of energy and needs direction, I ask her to bounce on her pillows.

Loree S. N.


My older children are almost three years apart. My first child was a girl. She would sit with me and listen to many books. She played calmly. She messed up a few things. She played nicely with her stuffed animals and dolls. Then came my first son. He messed everything. He built with everything. He stood in his chair when he ate meals or he did not want to eat. He pushed chairs up to counters, cabinets, and shelves to get things he "needed."

Have some cabinets with items that are safe for your child to pull out all over the kitchen floor. Food storage containers work well for this. Put away items on the counters that are not safe. Childproof more areas with safety latches. If you are cooking, give the child a big bowl and spoons to "cook" with. Add some cereal into the bowls. Or better yet, let him kneel or stand on a chair next to you to be a big helper while cooking. Another fun idea is to put water in a bunch of mixing bowls on a large towel. Give the toddler measuring cups and spoons to play with while you go through papers or cook at the kitchen table.

Put away or change toys once in a while. Your child is not creating a mess to make you mad. He makes messes because it is fun! Sit down with him and play with the toys. Show him noises that the animals or cars make. Roll the ball back and forth to him. If you demonstrate positive behavior he will learn to behave better as he grows.

Annette L.


I don't know about keeping ahead of the children, but I have adjusted my standards to keeping even. For us, this means actively teaching my children that we play with one toy at a time. Do you want to play with your cars or your trains? Yes, you can build a tunnel for your cars, but you need to put some of the cars away first. Are you finished coloring? If so, then we need to clean up our crayon box and papers so no one slips on them.

The potty training will come when your son is ready. My eldest two (a boy and girl), now seven and six years, did not want to use the toilet until they were approaching their fourth birthdays.

Of our children, the three-year-old sits the most attentively when we read stories, but will easily be enticed to play with his siblings. Our seven-year-old still does not sit still for stories, but I think it is more a function of both his personality and autism.

Your son has a need to move, a need to expend energy. If this is a concern for you and your husband, you may wish to have your son evaluated by your family physician. I have also found Raising Your Spirited Child to be helpful.

Lisa H.
Ederle Italy


Wow, he sounds like a handful! Have you considered looking into hidden food allergies? One of the worst culprits for over-active behavior is artificial food coloring. There are many other possible food sensitivities, but it can take some detective work to figure which may be bothering your individual child.

You might find help in Doris Rapp's book, Is This Your Child? Another good book is Eda le Shan's When Your Child Drives You Crazy. Not that your little guy does! But it can be helpful to gather ideas from other parents who have been in the same situation. Best of luck!

Claire B.


I have a three-year-old boy and a three-month-old daughter. I agree with you that your problem doesn't seem to be one that discipline would solve. I think that maybe he needs more active play, more challenging activities, or perhaps more attention. I know that when my son gets rambunctious all he usually needs is a bit of my loving attention or a change of activities.

If I am able, I take a trip to a nearby park, go to the library (with a children's room), take a quick walk outside, or play in the backyard in order to soothe frazzled nerves and to work out an active little boy's energy. If it is an inside day, how about play dough, puzzles, coloring or wipe off books, educational videos, water play, stories, and aerobics together.

I do think little boys are made to be more physical than girls. The only problem we as mothers face is learning to deal with this characteristic in happy productive ways!

Joan L.


Your two-year-old is actively exploring his environment, a common way for two-year-olds to learn. Since he is so creative in finding ways to make messes and get into (perhaps dangerous) situations and places, you will need to be equally creative in finding ways to allow him to explore in safe ways. This is more of an age-and-stage thing than a girl or boy thing. It's difficult not to make comparisons between your little ones, but it's important that you don't. While your daughter may not have been nearly as active in exploring as your son, both are exhibiting normal behaviors for toddlers.

As my family grew, I discovered that one of the best ways to be sure my little ones were safe even when my attention couldn't be totally involved in supervising their activities, was to child-proof my home. When we began homeschooling our older children with a busy, curious get-into-everything toddler in residence, we child proofed everything. That included installing small bolt locks high on doors to the basement, bedrooms, laundry room, and main floor bathroom; and safety latches on the lower kitchen cabinets, which left our large great room area accessible to him. By limiting him to that space, I could supervise him from any corner of our kitchen, living room, or dining room.

As far as discipline goes, as he grows older you will be able to impress upon him which things he may and may not explore, but for now, it's most important that the areas he can reach are safe for him. Making certain low shelves and cupboards are accessible, and keeping only as many things in them as you can handle being spread around the house will help keep you sane. When he scatters puzzles, game parts, flour, cereal, and honey on the floor in one spot, he isn't doing it to make you crazy, but sometimes it sure feels like it! Preventing such disasters is the first step in being able to enjoy your terrific two-year-old until he's old enough to learn your boundaries!

Marsha R.

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