Two-year-old Eric was napping in his upstairs bedroom, and his mother, Roberta Vinland,* had just settled down to nurse her three-week-old daughter when “I saw the window screen go flying past the living room window,” Vinland recalls.
“I ripped off the baby, set her down on the floor, raced up the stairs to his room, opened the door and arrived to see him halfway over the windowsill. That window had been painted over so many times, we didn’t think it would open, but there he was.”
With a big grin, Eric told his mother: “I being a kitty on a winnow, Mom!”
Vinland has a million stories just like that. Eric (now nine) has roared through life from the time he could walk. “He’s very active and intensely curious, but as a toddler he didn’t have the ability to plan ahead or recognize what might happen,” says Vinland.
*Names changed by request.
And that’s a big challenge for parents, says Calgary parent educator Cathie Pelly. “If we put together what we know about this stage of development, and add in a personality that’s more ‘spirited,’ then you end up with a toddler who can be a very intense explorer. This child is bouncing off the walls, jumping down the stairs, touching everything on the way.”
Pelly’s advice for parents of these fearless toddlers? “Your job is to find a way to keep your child safe while he or she explores. That may mean changing the environment and monitoring your child very closely. These are not children who need more discipline, but rather more guidance and patience from the adults in their lives.”
Vinland’s very familiar with the concept of “changing the environment.” After Eric demonstrated his ability to undo “childproof” locks, she began keeping all poisonous medications and cleaning materials locked in the trunk of her car. One day she watched Eric dig through her purse, grab her car keys, climb up on a bench, open the door and head for the car. “I caught up to him as he was trying to turn the key in the car door on the driver’s side,” Vinland says. After that, the car keys were hung from a nail high up on the wall and the front door was latched.
Even with these precautions, Vinland recalls the week she had to bring Eric to the emergency room four times in seven days (the fourth time, he’d eaten an entire bottle of children’s pain relievers and a box of Pedialyte Freezer Pops). Fortunately, her family doctor said: “Here’s my number. You can call me. I know you and your son.”
Many of these toddlers seem to have a high tolerance for pain. Loni Brown’s* son was too short to reach the kitchen counter, so he climbed on a toy truck. “Of course, it whooshed out from under his feet and he landed flat on his back on the floor,” she says. “I thought he would stop because he’d gotten hurt, but he just kept trying and falling and, eventually, got better at balancing on the truck.”
Vinland says Eric’s willingness to risk injury often scared her. “One day I was grocery shopping and Eric was in the buggy, strapped in with the harness provided,” she recalls. “I pushed the buggy over to the side and walked across the aisle to grab a jar of something. I turned around to see a woman catching Eric.” In the second her back had been turned, Eric had unbuckled the harness, reached out to grab the shelf and started climbing up — then got his foot caught and started to fall. The stranger caught him just in time, his head inches from the hard floor.
“I immediately went to the baby section, found a harness, opened the package and strapped him to the buggy seat,” Vinland says. “And after that I always used a harness. People’s reactions were often horrible — I was accused of treating my child like a dog and being cruel. I knew that I was just trying to keep him safe.” After a few outings, Vinland adds, Eric would bring her the harness when they started getting ready to go out. “I think on some level he was aware that he couldn’t stop himself and wanted security.”
Vinland’s use of a harness wasn’t the only aspect of Eric’s toddlerhood that drew criticism from others. “A young woman who worked in a preschool came up to me and said that Eric just needed a firm hand and consistency, and that if I would tell him no and be clear about what he could and couldn’t do, I wouldn’t have these challenges. I bit my tongue and walked away.”
In the face of these criticisms, Vinland found some reassurance. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka showed her how to think about Eric’s behaviour differently. “I posted a list on the kitchen cupboard door,” she says. “It lists old, negative labels like ‘wild’ and ‘loud’ with positive ones like ‘energetic’ and ‘enthusiastic.’”
It does get easier. At nine, Eric’s still high-energy. “He still has so much joie de vivre and enthusiasm,” Vinland says. “But he has the reasoning ability to make better choices. He’s gotten his nerdy parents to take up hiking, camping, biking and canoeing. He and I biked 160 kilometres in one weekend to raise money for the MS Society. Because of him, I am a way better person than I could ever have imagined — even though I do have several grey hairs!”