It was a remarkable scene — to my eyes—though completely unremarkable, it seemed, to the toddlers. The young children (between 14 and 24 months of age) and their teachers were getting ready for lunch time. Two children were conscientiously putting their learning materials away— they clearly knew where they went. One child was washing his hands, while two others waited their turn. One was washing the table in preparation and another was approaching the plates and silverware, preparing to set the table. Another was using the potty.
As a child psychologist, had had many opportunities to know and observe young children, and I knew young children had much more potential than many adults realize—but I had never known toddlers to be this capable! I was amazed at the courteous behavior of the children and the general calmness of the environment.
Knowing that most of the children in this school came from families living in poverty, that they were considered “at-risk” for school failure, I became very curious — what made it possible for these young children to demonstrate such capability and confidence- and to behave so well?
There were 8 toddlers in the room and each of them seemed very capable –confident in their own skin, and in their environment. There were 3 adults present to support the children, and they were helping as needed, but generally demonstrated great confidence in the children’s ability to take care of themselves and their environment. As each child completed their preparation work, they got their own plates, silverware, napkins, and glasses, set their place, and sit politely waiting for the rest of the group.
The first boy setting his place was 18 months old and, like any child that age, still developing his coordination. As he walked to the table with his spoon and fork, he dropped the fork on the floor. I was surprised that the adults did not react—and even more surprised to see the little boy, utterly nonplussed and without need of adult help, picked up the spoon from the floor and carried it to a dirty dish bin. He then went to get another spoon. This time, he walked back to set his place a little more slowly and carefully. Arriving at his seat at the table, ready for his meal, he sat down and happily waited for his cohorts to join him.
The adults set small serving bowls with the food on the table—of such a small size that toddlers could pass them. When everyone was seated, they sang a song and cheered for their meal, showing what seemed to me to be outrageous delight at their simple, nutritious meal of chicken breast, beets, and quinoa. One girl walked around the table with a basket of rolls and asked each of her fellow students if they would like a roll. During the meal, they carried on conversations, to the best of their abilities.
The young children had a lot of responsibility and opportunity to direct themselves in preparing for the meal—so it took quite some time to get ready for the meal.
I wondered– is that all it takes to raise courteous and capable children—giving them a bit more time?
These were children that would be welcome at any table. I wondered– why are these toddlers so different from the toddlers I have known and seen out at restaurants? Choked up with emotion, with tears in my eyes, I realized that the adults were sharing a meal with fellow human beings, treating the children with very high regard. These young children were being treated like valued members of the human community, and they were responding with grace, courtesy, and human dignity.
I learned that day babies and toddlers thrive when adult caregivers show them high regard, trust them and give them appropriate opportunities to do things for themselves– and enough time for little humans with less coordination and skill to get the job done.
What are the take-aways for YOU as you hear about my observations of toddlers?