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What toddlers can teach the rest of us about wellbeing

We should stop calling this phase of life the ‘terrible twos’, as many toddlers’ traits are a formula for grown-up happiness

The two-year-old boy was in a flash flood of fury on the floor of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, letting half the terminal know what he thought at that moment of the tedium of air travel.

I have long had a sneaking regard for how toddlers bellow their frustration in such a transparent manner. We adults are usually too polite and uptight to exhibit such a healthy release of emotions before quickly moving on, as toddlers do.

It’s an endearing characteristic, as long as you’re not the parent in charge in a public place.

Unfortunately, I was, that day in Paris, waiting to catch a connecting flight. My co-parent sauntered away with our other son, both of them feigning ignorance of the inconsolable, thrashing spectacle our then-toddler presented. French people are particularly adept at casting looks of disdain, which is probably why the episode is seared into my memory.


Our selective memories tend to be biased towards negative experiences. An evolutionary defence mechanism, it seems, to keep us vigilant against repeating mistakes. Perhaps that is why we insist on referring to toddlerhood as “the terrible twos”, when, in most ways, it really is a delightful stage of childhood.

Paediatrician Dr Hasan Merali, who not only works with toddlers but is a “proud father” of one, doesn’t like the way people diss their reputation by going on about tantrums. Research suggests that in 18- to 60-month-old children, tantrums occur, on average, just once a day, and last three minutes (I’ve seen longer ones in newspaper offices). Anyway, there is no such thing as the “terrible twos”, if viewed from a developmentally appropriate lens, he argues in a new book.

“They are, in fact, incredibly gentle, loving souls, and are far more advanced in their thinking and actions on many issues when compared to adults.”

This is why he believes us grown-ups would benefit if we could incorporate some of their traits in both our personal and professional lives.

He has written the book, Sleep Well, Take Risks, Squish the Peas: Secrets From the Science of Toddlers for a Happier, More Successful Way of Life, to highlight what toddlers can teach us, from movement, sleep and intuitive eating, to teamwork, risk-taking, curiosity and creativity.

We were all toddlers once, of course, but we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be one, and have since let “maturity” override some of the better characteristics. Dr Merali, who is an associate professor in emergency paediatric medicine at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital in Ontario, Canada, delves into the science behind toddlers’ most admirable attributes and encourages us all to think back in time and “make yourself the happier, healthier version of you that you once were”.

We have reasons to envy the toddler brain. It is evolutionarily tuned to learning, often better than are adult brains, he points out. They are not called “little sponges” for nothing.

Brimming with communication pathways, or synapses, between brain cells, the toddler brain enables its owner to show unmatched curiosity and remarkable openness and dedication to tasks. Over time, these synapses are “pruned”, and while adults may be able to read situations faster, based on experience, toddlers are open to more possibilities and to learning whatever they can.

Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function, enables adults to have more selective attention and focus only on the most relevant information in front of them. But its undeveloped state in toddlers means they spread their attention more widely, allowing them to notice more details, Dr Merali writes. Now you know why a straightforward walk with a toddler becomes a go-stop-go meander from one eye-catching object to another. Their less mature prefrontal cortex is also an aid to creativity. They can think “outside the box” because they don’t yet know what it is to be confined inside one.

After observing the incredible generosity and kindness that toddlers have toward others, I am convinced that if they, or someone with a toddler mindset, were policymakers, many of our social injustice issues would be diminished or resolved

—  Paediatrician Dr Hasan Merali

Finally he explains that these young children are right-brain dominant, and this part of the brain is more emotional, nonverbal and experiential. It’s what makes them live in the moment and be impulsive risk-takers, but it also gives them a strong sense of empathy. As their brain develops a little more, they strive to better understand the world around them, with constant use of the word “Why?”

Their fearlessness in persistently asking questions to fill knowledge gaps is another of the toddler traits that Dr Merali reckons adults can learn from. Adults hold back on queries, afraid of what other people might think. This not only deprives them of what might be valuable information, but, as one Harvard study concluded, makes them less liked in the course of conversation.

It is no surprise that toddlers are excellent role models for playfulness and having a laugh – two activities that bolster mental health and are linked to positive ageing. Their obvious love of movement is something else that adults would do well to inject more of into their sedentary lives. Toddlers, who are active for about five hours a day, don’t need to be told that frequent bursts of movement are good for physical health.

Not being afraid to make mistakes and patiently repeating tasks over and over again until they are mastered is another strength of toddler behaviour that diminishes over the years. Dr Merali also commends their ability to verbally coach themselves through situations – a very natural form of self-talk which, adults relearn later in life, is a proven way to bolster confidence and solve problems.

Working in hospital, he has seen many examples of toddlers’ innate kindness, even in difficult circumstances, and their willingness to share without prejudice. In comparison, adult kindness is very inconsistent, he suggests. Yet, research shows that acts of kindness increase the sense of wellbeing in the giver, as well as benefitting the receiver.

“After observing the incredible generosity and kindness that toddlers have toward others, I am convinced that if they, or someone with a toddler mindset, were policymakers, many of our social injustice issues would be diminished or resolved,” Dr Merali comments in his book, which was published by Simon & Schuster in the US in March and will be released this side of the Atlantic in May.

We asked a selection of people who work with and/or care for toddlers what they admire and learn from them.

Dr Joanne Balfe, consultant paediatrician at CHI@Tallaght, who also works with LauraLynn, the children’s hospice

Sense of wonder: Going for a walk with a toddler is a combination of infuriation and joy. Why can’t they walk faster, and why do they need such frequent breaks? But if you allow yourself into their world and allow a toddler to lead a walk or to lead play, the experience is so much richer and fun. Toddlers don’t know that games have rules, that cardboard boxes are meant for the bin, that cushions are meant to stay on the sofa. Sitting on the floor with a toddler and becoming a passive participant in their games will open your eyes to their wonderful world.

Physicality: Just watch how toddlers move easily between lying and standing, getting up from their hunkers and climbing and exploring their environment with such fluidity. Working with toddlers, you learn to see the world from their vantage point and are reminded of the importance of movement and strength-building throughout life.

Imaginative world: Both of my sons had imaginary friends with elaborate back-stories with whom they had wonderful adventures. My younger son was accompanied on his first day of pre-school by all four of his imaginary friends, who played with him and made him feel safe and secure in a new, scary place.

Embracing the here and now: Toddlers live for the moment, enjoying their immediate surroundings without worrying about the future. They use all their senses to immerse themselves in and experience the world around them. Just watch a toddler enjoying their dinner and relish in the sheer immediate fun. (They have no concept – nor should they – of the dirty floor beneath their high chair!)

Julie Ellwood, osteopath, who runs a clinic for all ages in Strandhill, Co Sligo

Communication: Treating toddlers has taught me how to communicate in an effective and understandable way as a health practitioner. You want the patient to be able to give consent for you to lay your hands on them. If you don’t do it effectively with a toddler, they will reject the treatment and that will be the end of it.

Openness to meeting people where they are at: Toddlers are highly responsive to therapeutic touch, and you are working with and within their incredible energy, while also being mindful of the mass of developmental changes that are just waiting to emerge when their timing is right. There is not the same calendar of development for all toddlers, therefore it is not helpful to compare one child with the next. We can all learn from this.

Authenticity: Treating toddlers can be very humbling. They are not afraid to show or share how they feel. There is no placebo effect on toddlers. What you do works or it doesn’t; they like it or they don’t like it; they like you or they don’t like you.

Milica Atanackovic, membership, excellence, and learning manager with Early Childhood Ireland

Observe more and do less: By watching children more and doing less, you can support a child’s natural learning processes rather than unnecessarily interrupting or directing their activities. Children who are given the space to explore and observe demonstrate incredible cognitive and emotional capabilities. Rich learning occurs when you respect a child’s agency and innate curiosity. This age group teaches us to stop and marvel at the world anew, from the falling rain and muddy puddles to crunchy autumn leaves.

Perseverance: When you fall, you get back up again. Watching toddlers learn to walk, attempt to speak and face challenges is inspiring. Each setback is a learning opportunity, until you become a master.

Unfiltered emotions: Toddlers don’t hide their feelings. You see the most incredible, enriching reactions, from laughter to wonder to frustration to anger. It teaches you to be authentic and more open and honest with your emotions. But it is also an opportunity for adults to understand the value and importance of emotional expression and regulation. Instead of managing or controlling behaviour in a directive manner, supporting children to regulate their emotions through co-regulation is critical. I shudder still at the idea of the popularised “naughty step” or the punishment of emotional outbursts in young children.

Co-regulation acknowledges the richness of toddlers’ emotional experiences and the importance of supporting them in navigating their feelings. Caregivers, therefore, must first master their regulation and engage in reflection. Toddlers and young children often teach us as much about our emotional needs as we guide them through theirs.

Fin McKenna-Fox, health and wellness consultant, men’s coach and father of four

Love: Toddlers are the definition of love, coming from so much purity and innocence. We get to witness this in every action they do, how they respond to us, how they don’t hold grudges.

Slowing down: As a father, I learn so much from them on how to slow down my busy mind by how they view the world around them. The sheer excitement and joy at getting lost in watching a spider do its thing, or how exciting it is to be gifted a feather from nature.

Mutual respect: They understand much more than most people give them credit for. We have always talked to our toddlers like people usually talk, not in baby-talk, and the non-verbal and verbal responses and assurance we have got from them matches this respect.

Lucinda Jacob, award-winning children’s writer, mother of two and grandmother of three

Joyful curiosity: Whether though my work or as a very happy Nana, whenever I come across a toddler, I am struck by what wonderful little people they are. I so admire how joyfully curious they are, finding excitement and fun in things we adults take for granted, whether it is a beetle found under a stone or an image of an animal revealed on a label as they peel off the top of a yoghurt pot.

Transparent feelings: I love to see how toddlers’ every mood is expressed absolutely in the present, saying things, profound or silly, that we have somehow learned to keep to ourselves. Showing love by telling us and hugging us, crying as if the world is ending when they are upset, or by literally jumping up and down with excitement.

Tenacity: They keep at something, stretching their physical and mental abilities again and again; running, falling over, getting up and running again; climbing as high as they can on climbing frames, going further each time they climb; or losing themselves for hours playing with whatever is to hand. All of this, often with the most elaborate running commentaries – incidentally showing that they (and we all) are natural storytellers.

And sleep: I wish I could still sleep as well as a three-year-old.

Paulina Pérez-Duarte Mendiola, paediatrician, medical anthropologist and PhD student researcher of play in hospital settings

Need to keep parent close: I have learned how important it is for toddlers to keep their mothers (or main caregivers) near them. I’ve seen countless babies and toddlers, or even older children, crying, completely terrified, when ridiculous hospital rules say “parents are only allowed to visit from 2pm to 4pm” (or similar). I think separating toddlers and caregivers is barbaric. But, unfortunately, that is a very common practice in multiple countries. (Children in Hospital was established in 1970 to campaign against such a policy that operated here in Ireland at the time.)

Self-knowledge: I have learned and relearned again and again that toddlers know themselves better than we give them credit for. Even now as a “play and health” researcher, conducting ethnography in paediatric hospitals, multiple observations keep teaching me the vast understanding these patients can develop about the hospital environment, and the “scary” and “not so scary” people who work within. We can’t pretend they don’t understand, or that we can hide information from them.

Environmental awareness: I am constantly learning from toddlers how relevant colours, smells, tastes, noises and textures are while you are in hospital.

Paulina Pérez-Duarte Mendiola will speak at the annual Children in Hospital Ireland lecture on April 19th in the RCSI, Dublin