Watch out! There’s a toddler about!

From the archives: Posted on 15th September, 2000

Here are some ideas which might help parents of young children solve the problem of things getting damaged:

Examine your house for particular hazards, and do something about them before something gets broken.

Do you have hard floors? If so, consider investing in thick rubber carpet underlay or something of the sort to cover the hard floor. (This is also a good idea in terms of reducing the risk of serious head injuries to young toddlers.) You can then cover this, if necessary, with a sheet of cheap vinyl flooring. This is also the thing to do if you have an expensive and beautiful carpet you want to preserve undamaged through the toddler years. You can always remove the vinyl when you have an elegant dinner party (and then of course, one of your guests will drop a lighted cigarette and burn your precious carpet 😉 ).

If a toddler is wandering around with a breakable object you care about, it might be wise to turn your attention fully to the toddler instead of continuing what you were doing and hoping for the best. If you do that though, be careful not to hover ominously or in any other way that might cause the toddler to react against you. Again, that might cause the very problem you hope to avoid.

Do you have walls? Perhaps that was not specific enough a question. Do you have walls which are so perfect just as they are, that any further creative efforts (perhaps with a wax crayon or a ball point pen) would be not just unwelcome but mortifying? Then cover them. Get some thick, sturdy plain wallpaper or similar, and stick it up to cover every inch of wall within reach. Make it about an inch thick, to be on the safe side. You can do this either using blobs of that stuff that is supposed not to leave marks but always does, or possibly using very fine small nails (but be sure your child is in no danger from the nails if you do use those). The beauty of this approach is that whenever the young artist wants a clean canvas, you can just take down the old and put up new paper.

If there are delicate Ming Dynasty antiques lying around in your home, and you won’t be able to face life without seeing them beautifully arranged on your 18th century side table, you might want to rethink the having children idea. Perhaps get a dog instead (in a kennel in the garden, not in the house, of course!)? 😎 Or put all your special items in one room and keep it locked. Then, if your child ever wants to go in that room, you go with her and show her, by the way you treat everything there, how you want her to treat things, and never let your attention wander for a moment. In my case it’s books: I am irrational about books. Or perhaps I am not now, but I certainly have been in the past. [Note added 2022: wow, now I have switched over to digital books, and have given away all my books! How I used to cart around three large hardback books wherever I went, as I used to, I don’t know!]

If it really matters to you that something not be destroyed, you have to devote great creativity to the problem of conveying that to the child (non-coercively of course!) and you have to think about what sorts of problems might arise and how to deal with them. I used to buy lots of almost free books from library sales to be sure that if one of my first edition first impression books, signed by the author (who is now dead), etc., etc., appeared to be at risk, I could quickly substitute a similar-looking but replaceable book. The beauty of being prepared is that it helps one avoid the very sort of panicking that can so often cause everything to go wrong and damage to be done.

A poster replied

Thanks, Sarah. As someone with young children, this was helpful to read. I have one question. You wrote: “If it really matters to you that something not be destroyed, you have to devote great creativity to the problem of conveying that to the child (non-coercively of course!) and you have to think about what sorts of problems might arise and how to deal with them.” Could you (or someone) give some dialogue examples of what to say to convey this? I know that part of it is tone and facial expressions and such, but just reading some examples might help my creativity in such cases (I’m actually thinking of this at grandparents’ house because most of our “important stuff” is put away, but grandma keeps some cool looking things in sight that she doesn’t want toddler to touch.). Thank you once again.

This sort of thing should be for rare cases not every day. If this is happening often, nowhere near enough effort and creativity is being devoted to avoiding such problems in the first place (or solving them before they arise).

A dialogue won’t give you the information because a large part of the information to be conveyed is not in words but inexplicitly, as you seem to realise. It is not a case of assuming an artifical tone of voice or attitude – that would be manipulative – it is a case of not depriving the child of access to information about your theory, including how you feel about it.

However, if this is occurring on a regular basis, a lot more effort needs to go into avoiding the problem before it starts. For a start, Grandma should be persuaded to put precious items away when being visited by toddlers. It is just too much to expect toddlers not to be curious if such things are in front of their noses and it is not good for them to be constantly being discouraged from playing with something. Grandma really should put such items away.

If a toddler is constantly being told that touching X is a problem, but Grandma doesn’t have the courtesy to put X out of sight when the toddler visits, I really think that is likely to cause problems. The toddler is likely to feel thwarted, and may start ignoring people’s wishes and damaging things in a way that otherwise would not happen. By contrast, when a toddler feels (and is) free to expore without coming up against adult no-nos, he is she is much much much more likely to take adult anxiety about a precious item into account on the rare occasions such a situation arises. Beware making a child feel thwarted. Beware thwarting a child. It is highly risky in terms of your property, and in terms of the child’s own physical safety, but that is another story, for another post…

See also: How can we communicate urgent information to our pre-verbal toddlers?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Watch out! There’s a toddler about!’,