Fathering Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers
"The most important...work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes."-Harold B. Lee
OverviewToddlers are active and curious people. Their job is to learn and to explore. While their bodies are growing rapidly, they are also developing control over large muscle movements. This is a time when toddlers are starting to communicate by learning words rapidly and by figuring out how to put them together in sentences.
Fathers can be active participants in this process. In addition, toddlers and pre-schoolers are beginning to develop a sense of autonomy and initiative. Fathers can assist their toddlers and pre-schoolers by helping them develop basic physical, cognitive, and social skills, encouraging them even when they fail in their budding attempts to master their new world, and giving them confidence rather than doubt or guilt.
The quality of the father-child relationship has a great influence on development during the pre-school years. The father's nurturance and positive expectations contribute to his young child's gender security, self-esteem, and intellectual and social competence (Biller, 1993). The following stories show how fathers contribute to toddlers' learning, growth, and exploration of their world.
StoriesThe father of an adopted Russian child explains how his daughter was able to communicate her needs and wants even though they had no common language. This is also a great example of relationship work.
She is starting to speak English now, but on the first day when we had no common language at all, she was very ingenious about being able to communicate and tell us how she felt and what she needed.
As this same little girl came to understand and adjust to her new surroundings, her father explains that she also accepted them as her parents. Even her own identity seemed to be a discovery. Biller concludes that children who have the active support of both parents are more likely to develop an enduring sense of self-acceptance and confidence than those who only have the consistent interest of one parent (1993). This story illustrates the power of development work.
". . . she loves to read. She will grab a book and then back up to your lap so that you will pick her up and read to her. It's really fun to hold her. It was a long time before she recognized us as her parents. The skill that she had learned in the orphanage was that if she could find an adult and get their attention, she could get what she needed. So, at first she didn't care if it was us or the people across the street. It took weeks before she started to recognize us as her parents.
"It was really interesting to me that about the same time that she started to recognize us as her parents and come to us for comfort, she started to have a concept of who she was. It was a long time before she started to call herself Anna. She would respond to her name when we called her, but she would never call herself "Anna." She knew Grandma's name and Erika's name and knew how to say "Mom," "Dad," "Grandma" and "Grandpa" long before she would say "Anna." As she learned who she was, she would pray for "Anna," in her bedtime prayers, as well as for everybody else. I don't know what that means, but I think that is significant that it was somehow related to having a concept of her own identity. . . To me, there is nothing more precious than knowing who we are. It's what life is for."
As fathers allow their children to express themselves, their children will attain a sense of autonomy, or the ability to excercise free will as well as self-restraint (Snarey, 1993, p.16). Biller (1993, p.17) also found that fathers who encouraged autonomy but who intervened with age appropriate cues when necessary had toddlers who were particularly competent in problem solving.
One father shares several stories about his relationship with his two-and-a-half year son and how he encouraged autonomy in him. The first story illustrates relationship work, while the second shows how the father chooses to meet the needs of his son.
"Tim is changing now, but he was Dad's boy. The other kids could be playing with friends and Tim wanted to be with Dad. Probably one of the most enjoyable experiences I had with Tim was when I built my mother-in-law's home, which is just across the street. He was only two or two-and-a-half at the time, and he had to be there with me the whole time.
"It wasn't enough for him to be there; he had to be doing the same thing that I was doing. I tried to appease him by getting him his own tools, but I didn't want him to get hurt, so I got him the plastic tools . . . No, it didn't work, so I had to go and get him smaller, but real tools. If I was pounding a nail, he had to pound a nail.
"Tim had some painful lessons! He had to learn that when you bring the hammer up you don't bring it up and hit your head before you take it back down. But at two and a half Tim could pound a sixteen-penny nail. I had to start it for him, but he'd sit there and do his little taps. It might have taken him half an hour, but he'd stay right there until he got that nail down. To this day Tim likes to work. As long as he can work with Dad, that's fine.
"Tim is the one among my children who gets croup every year, and three years ago he spent three days and two nights in the hospital with croup. Croup is the craziest thing because it hits without any warning. He'll be fine going to sleep and wake up hoarse, unable to breathe, etc. Ten days ago that happened to him.
"It would have been all right if he had waited till at least 4:00 a.m. to have it because then I would have at least felt like I had some sleep. But at 1:00 he just came screaming into the room, almost hysterical, so I picked him up but he was fighting. Tim is at the point right now where he is trying to define his own independence. Like every other two or three-year old he wants to do everything himself. He doesn't understand that you are not helping them because you don't think that they can't do it, you just want to offer your assistance.
"So, he came running in right then and didn't want anything to do with Dad or Mom, but he was panic-stricken and didn't know what was going on. He said, "Dad, the mirror!" He wanted to see himself in the mirror to make sure that he was still there and was all right! So I had to pick him up, and as soon as he saw that he was okay he made me put him down.
"Tim has to do things on his own time frame right now, and about five minutes later he'd calmed down enough that he came to me and I was able to hug him and hold him, then steady him while we went to the hospital. Once we were driving down there he got scared of death because he doesn't like the hospital or the doctors, and all of a sudden he was outside his element in something new and foreign to him. Dad was his guide. I think that he enjoys me and welcomes the strength that I have, and those are the rewarding times. When Tim gives you a chance to show your love for him it's rewarding, and he lets you know that he is independent at three years old but there are still times when he needs you."
One of the main goals of toddlerhood is toilet training. This can be a difficult task for both child and father. Snarey (1993, p.16-17) suggests that if fathers do not use guilt with their children, and are accepting of their abilities, children are less likely to use overcompensating, show-off behavior or to have excessive feelings of guilt as they grow up.
Through development work, fathers can adapt to the new situation that both father and child are confronted with. This father's third story explains how he has tried to help his young son, yet feels inadequate.
"Tim is having a very difficult time with toilet training. We didn't push his big brother Daniel at all, and at three years old he woke up one day and it was done. Sarah our oldest one was the same, but Tim's not that way. We've been trying for a year-and-a-half now to potty train him and it's not working.
"I have a hard time understanding why it's taken so long and what emotions that a three-year old is going through under this type of thing. A lot of times it gets very frustrating for me. When Tim has an accident, rather than consoling him and being patient with him and showing him what to do, I lose my temper. I might say, "Tim, I'm not going to take you to work with me if you can't learn to do it in the toilet!" or "Why are you doing it this way?" I try to rationalize with Tim and it doesn't work.
"Because it doesn't work I get frustrated, Tim gets frustrated, and the relationship gets a little strained. What Tim needs is the positive enforcement on that and not the negative, and I think that I've failed there because for the last six or eight months it's been negative. It's always been "Why can't you do it?" instead of saying, "Come on, son, let's see if we can do it." It's tough."
Shawn recounts a narrative of when he felt the most distant from his daughter Tara.
"We were camping when Luke was a baby and were trying to go to sleep, but Tara didn't want to go to sleep. I can't remember why she didn't want to go to sleep, but I remember saying, "Tara, don't wake this baby up, whatever you do." She didn't want to go to sleep. I lost control and forced her to go to sleep, blowing up instead of just taking the time needed. Maybe that was a time when we could have been a lot closer, maybe going out to sit by the fire for another half hour and letting Mom and the baby go to sleep.
"Instead of doing that I said something like, "You're going to sleep! Now sit down and shut up." A lot of times that opportunity won't ever come back, and she probably hated me right then. I just need to have more patience. I should wait--turn a negative situation into a positive one instead of just thinking about what I want. Turn "me" and "I" to "us." Maybe if I wouldn't have done that, [Mom] could have been in the trailer having a good time with her new baby, and Tara and I could have been growing closer together as a father and daughter.
"The whole family would have been better off, instead of Tara hating me because I made her go to bed and caused contention."
Sometimes children themselves give the best answers on how to treat them lovingly. John Gottman (Parke, 1996, p. 139) found that fathers' acceptance and assistance with children's sadness and anger at age five was related to social competence at age eight. Biller (1993) builds on this data with his finding that father involvement during the preschool years is linked to sensitivity to feelings and emotions in adulthood and also associated empathetic actions of pre-schoolers with a strong father attachment during infancy.
This story tells of a time when a father's five year old son taught him an important lesson about empathy and acceptance, a great example of ethical work.
"Our five-year-old Brandon is a very energetic and fun-loving child. He is always active doing something. One of the things that was happening too often was that he would scuff his shoes on our new vinyl floor in the kitchen. We tried numerous times to encourage him to be careful in the kitchen so as not to leave long streaks on the floor. One evening I thought we would try some role-playing. I felt it would be a good opportunity for our family members to develop empathy for each other.
"When it came time for Brandon's turn, I decided to be a five year old that likes to slide across the kitchen floor leaving huge skid marks. I asked Brandon if he was the dad, what would he do? After some coaxing he responded. I had just slid across the carpet pretending that it was the kitchen floor. I expected him to get on my case a bit, instead I was totally surprised! He came running over to me, threw his little arms around my neck and said, "That's okay, we can clean it up together."
"Never had I been so amazed by my son. It's true: wisdom can come from the mouths of babes. I learned that day that my children can be a great source of learning for me."
A son describes a time when his father taught him that although he was young, he could still control some things that happened to him. This story illustrates the importance of mentoring work.
"We would put up hay in that field. Dad and a five year old. But the field was off-limits to me when dad was not around. Off-limits, not because of any mandate from dad, but because it was the home of a very large gander--a very mean gander. The field was his territory and he protected it jealously from all comers except dad, from whom he would flee. On the occasions when I would try to cross the field, thinking that he was not there, he would surely arrive and chase me as fast as he could go, until I crossed the fence.
"He was mean. He would peck at me. He would screech at me. One day dad saw me crossing the field, when the gander attacked me as I fled across the field. Upon returning to Dad, he was upset. He told me that I should act like a man--that I should not let any goose chase me. He instructed me to give the gander no quarter. He instructed me to take a big stick with me the next time that I crossed the field. Armed with the stick, I began to cross the field. Not long thereafter, I heard the gander in pursuit. I turned, and as he arrived I swung the stick, striking him in the head.
"He seemed startled. Confused. He was not knocked out, but was clearly disoriented. From his perspective, there was clearly something new--something that he had not counted on. The next time I crossed the field, he screeched, but did not pursue. I was now in charge, not him. Following one little instruction from dad had changed my life and my perspective. I could control things that happened to me."
ConclusionFatherWork with toddlers and pre-schoolers calls fathers to create an atmosphere of affectionate attention for their child that is adaptive, yet continuous and consistent. A healthy toddler's inner world is filled with many conflicting feelings - independence and dependence, confidence and doubt, initiative and passivity, and self-awareness and confusion.
Just as a teeter-totter with an adjustable fulcrum compensates for a stronger pull on one end, fathers can adapt their parenting position to compensate for the general shifting emphasis toward his child's independence. However, the position of his fulcrum of love and support may change day to day as the child moves back and forth between these conflicting feelings. Fathers need to respect and support their child's initiative, autonomy, and self-confidence, but at the same time recognize their child's dependence and need for guidance.