The Space Between: Help Your Toddler Thrive

ToddlerThriveI get nervous when I hear about parenting approaches that are “child-centered.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m a teacher and I don’t like the phrase “student-centered.” It’s not that I don’t care about my students or their needs, but I don’t think they are the center of the classroom. I don’t think I am the center of the classroom, either. What is central in the classroom is what’s in the space between student and teacher — relationships, content, and skills. When something or someone is the center, another part or person gets relegated to the periphery.

Instead, we exist in the spaces between, settling into our sweetspots somewhere away from the extremes.

ToddlersThriveSo I admit I cringed a little bit when, a few pages into Tovah Klein’s new parenting book How Toddlers Thrive, I read that she advocates a “child-centered approach” to raising toddlers. Images of Lord of the Preschool Flies went through my head — toddlers running amok, eating cookies for breakfast, shoving kids just because they can, and never brushing teeth or washing behind their ears.

I scribbled in the margin of my book, “Isn’t there a space between parent-centered and child-centered parenting?” Isn’t parenting a practice of finding our own sweetspot?

I was relieved as I discovered that Klein’s approach did not, in fact, end up with a tot stealing the conch and destroying any attempt at civilized living. Klein explains that we need to become “disentangled from the battles, calm and clear enough to respond to what our child is really needing at any given moment.” We must drop our attachments to specific outcomes in terms of what we desire from our children. Though she never uses the phrase, many of her ideas align with mindful parenting. In fact, I think her approach finds the space between parent-centered and child-centered, in which the most essential element is how we relate to the present moment in the practice of parenting, and how we teach our children to do the same in the practice of childhood.

While my children have already sailed past toddlerhood {which Klein defines as ages 2-5}, I found many ideas in this book that can help us navigate the stormy seas of parenting. The suggestions Klein offers are intended to teach children skills for self-regulation, focus, attention, problem solving, and handling difficult emotions.

There were, however, several aspects of Klein’s approach to parenting toddlers that I disagreed with — you’ll find those referenced at the end.

The strategies that I found most helpful were those that addressed “the space between” in a variety of contexts, and are listed below.

The Space Between Baby and Child: The Toddler Brain

Human infants are born with immature brains and nervous systems. They depend upon the stable nervous systems of adults “to calm them and help them regulate”; this is done primarily through touch. Infants are primed to seek out the hugs and snuggles and soft voices of caregivers. But once they become toddlers, they begin to show a desire for independence, even though the prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment and thinking, is nowhere near fully developed. {Many neuroscientists today say the PFC is not fully developed until our early 20s.}

And this is exactly why toddler behavior can be so infuriating – one day they want help with their shoes, the next day “I WANT TO DO IT MYSELF!!!!!!”

Klein advocates parents take time to pause and see a situation from their child’s point of view. A toddler may take a long time getting ready not because they want you to be late for work, but because they want to show their autonomy. It’s not personal. When our children shout that they HATE US and they are MOVING OUT OF THE HOUSE because we are THE WORST MOMMY IN THE HISTORY OF MOMMIES {purely hypothetical examples}, they are really saying, “I’m angry!!” or “I’m frustrated!!”

Understanding the toddler brain means seeing the space between their mind and yours, between what they say and what they actually mean, between how they’re acting and what’s really going on.

The Space Between Totalitarianism and Anarchy: Meals with Toddlers

Do you have a picky eater? Klein has several helpful suggestions for surviving mealtime with toddlers. She strongly recommends that you do not become a short-order cook, making chicken nuggets and pb&j on demand. Instead, ensure that each meal has at least something in it you know your child will eat. She suggests having several additional small dishes (rice, cheese, etc.) on the table that family members can choose from. This empowers your toddler to make a choice of what to eat, but you have set the standards by selecting what choices are available.

Klein also advises that dinner should be about anything BUT the meal. Talk about your day, maybe share what you are grateful for, but avoid shaming children for how little they are eating. Klein states that children eat more when no one notices or comments on what they eat, although she does not provide evidence of that claim.

Klein argues that children should decide when they are done eating. All the parental pleas for “one more bite!” prevent children from developing an awareness of their appetite and sensing when they are full. And she strongly advises against a practice we use frequently in our home – using dessert as a bribe for eating dinner.

The Space Between Indulgence and Shame: Dealing with Tantrums

Klein argues that the most important component of raising happy children is teaching them to deal with setbacks and unpleasant emotions.

When our children are overwhelmed by strong emotions, they need to know that we can empathize with them. It doesn’t mean we indulge them to end the tantrum, but we can offer up an “I know it’s frustrating that you wanted Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast and then we discovered we didn’t have any.” We can help our children develop an emotional vocabulary by labeling their feelings and talking about them.

Tantrums are ABSOLUTELY NORMAL in toddlers. The best thing to do when a tantrum hits is pretty much nothing — don’t offer choices that will overwhelm them (as their reptilian and mammalian brains are in control, not their executive functions), don’t shame them or plead with them to be quiet. Simply take a deep breath, and wait it out. It will pass. Then give them a hug. The paradox of the toddler world is that at the same time they want to be independent, they also need to know that we are always there for them.


Klein ends with a final chapter that includes her list of 15 “new seeds for success” for parenting toddlers. I agreed with many of them, including allowing children to learn through play, letting go of perfection, developing routines, and setting limits and boundaries.

But I was absolutely taken aback by the recommendation to “stop praising your child.” Klein argues that “cheering them on knocks them down,” as it is simply a way of controlling the child by rewarding them for behavior you have decided you want. She recommends we simply smile and hug but not offer verbal praise! We should allow the child to feel their accomplishment on their own. While I know we’ve gone a bit over the top lately with disingenuous praise and giving everyone a trophy, I think praise for hard work and achievement is absolutely essential for our children. And there ARE certain behaviors that kids do need to learn to be a member of a human community, so I will continue to praise my children for their awesomeness and their kindness to others.

Klein also advises we accept our children for who they are. I obviously agree with that, but I winced at some of the wording she used: “let your child know that you love her for all she is — good and bad,” or “your child is learning to accept that sometimes I am good and sometimes I am bad.” Our children are good. PERIOD. I never want my child to think, “I am bad.” It is so important to me that my children know that they are wholly good. Sometimes they do bad things, but they are not bad. Sometimes they act or speak unskillfully, but they are full of an inner light that is pure goodness.

I want my children to say, “I am good, but sometimes I make mistakes. I am good, but sometimes I say mean things.” These words are the essence of self-compassion, and help us nurture our compassion for others. This perspective allows us to discover that just because someone said something mean to us, it doesn’t mean they are a “bad” person. Call me naïve, but I want my children to see goodness in people’s hearts. I want them to have compassion, even for those who act unskillfully — because we all do.

Ultimately, I believe the way we teach our toddlers to THRIVE is to teach them how to relate to the present moment, whatever events and emotions it may contain. That’s a powerful lesson to help parents thrive, too.


You can read more responses to Tovah Klein’s How Toddlers Thrive from my fellow Brilliant Book Club bloggers!

“With Toddlers, The Name of the Game is Empathy” by Deb of Urban Moo Cow

“Of Muffins and Meltdowns” by Jessica Smock of School of Smock

“Should Young Kids Be Expected to Listen to Their Parents?” by Lauren Apfel of Omnimom

“Shaming of the Twos: Finding a Better Way to Parent Your Toddler” by Stephanie Sprenger of Mommy, For Real

Brilliant book club

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
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  1. says

    Do you know the book The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown? I’ve always loved that book, and I’ve been reading an biography of MWB. The author of the biography wrote how she nailed the conflicting desire for independence/need for a sense of security with that book. And then your sentence, “The paradox…” made me think of it too.
    Sarah recently posted…TToT36: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-JigMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Sarah — I think the struggle between independence and dependence stays with us for a big part of our lives. I have moments when I want to run to my mommy! :)

  2. says

    Gosh, there’s so much in here Sarah. I love the idea of “the space between.” One of my favourite mindfulness practices is noticing the space between trees!
    The space between indulgence and tantrums is an interesting one. I share your concerns about “child-centered.” I remember reading years ago about the issues that have arisen in the West because of misunderstandings about the writings of a woman who’d studied tribes (I think in South America). I can’t remember the woman’s name, but I read a very interesting article she wrote about how people had picked up on the “baby wearing” etc, that she’d written about but hadn’t taken on board that children weren’t the focus in the tribes she’s studied, the adults were definitely in charge.
    As for praise, I’m sort of with you and sort of with Klein. It really depends on our motivation and how we do it. If our praise is genuine because we are pleased for our children, then it’s absolutely fine! But if we praise to try to make our kids feel good enough or to manipulate them then it definitely is controlling. Too often adults praise for their benefit, not the child’s. This was brought home to me years ago after a swimming contest when my daughter, who had been a great swimmer, did badly, and people kept telling her she’d done well to get a PB, and so on. She didn’t buy any of it, and it wasn’t until we talked at night and allowed her feelings of disappointment that she felt better. The adults (including me) were uncomfortable with her disappointment, and instead of praising it would have been kinder to acknowledge it straight away.
    And that kind of illustrates your last point too – that children (toddler or older, or even adult) thrive when we relate to the present moment.
    Yvonne recently posted…A Celebrity Dies of an Overdose – Why We Should CareMy Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Agreed — kids have good bullshit meters and know when the praise is undeserved. I certainly don’t advocate disingenuous praise, but I guess I don’t see the harm in “Great job making your bed!” That’s something they need to learn how to do — perhaps it is controlling, but I know very few 3yos who make their bed out of pure internal satisfaction and motivation.

      The more I think of it, the more I like the ‘space between’ motif — it’s all about the space between parent and child…. which in many ways is the present moment itself.

  3. says

    Lord of the Preschool Flies! Haha!! I also got a little nervous at the perceived attachment-parent-y aspect of her philosophy. But then I realized that she was also a big advocate for limits, rules, guidelines. And I think Yvonne hit the nail on the head when she commented that children “thrive when we relate to the present moment.” Truth! Another reason to keep trying.

    I like the idea of the “space between” — very anthro. It’s probably an approach we should take with more things in our life.
    Deb @ Urban Moo Cow recently posted…With Toddlers, the Name of the Game is EmpathyMy Profile

    • says

      She is an advocate for limits, rules, guidelines, but there is very little discussion in the book about how actually to enforce them with a toddler who is difficult. I read her examples (the child who stops hanging from the bar in the kitchen as soon as the parent issues a firm “no”; the child who stops throwing toys as soon as he is given a space to do so) and wrote in the margins: HA.
      Lauren Apfel recently posted…should young kids be expected to listen to their parents?My Profile

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Yes, there is a big difference between Attachment Parenting (AP) and attachment as a psychological principle. ALL infants need a secure attachment to one or more adults, who they know will keep them safe. They must learn the world is safe and that their needs will be met. That has nothing to do with CIO or babywearing.

      I did like the emphasis on rules and limits — and I liked her distinction between “in charge”, and “controlling” — we can be in charge by setting those limits, but we can’t control our children, though I did think she took it to a bit of an extreme.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thanks, Lauren. I think we need to see all these parenting approaches as being on a spectrum, and we piece together the elements that work best for us and our children (and it may be different for each child!) In my psychology textbook that I use with my HS students it notes that parenting is not something that a parent DOES TO a child, but it is an interaction between parent and child. I think about that line a lot!

  4. says

    Well, as you know, I didn’t quite make it to the end of the book yet. And I fully intend to continue praising my toddler for things that may be ridiculous. Because I share in the joy of her creating things- I can’t help it. I really loved this piece, my last-minute sister- you really put a great spin on this with the space between. And I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that my favorite paragraph used the word “unskillful” several times. 😉 Miss you, too.
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. recently posted…Shaming of the Twos: Finding a Better Way to Parent Your ToddlerMy Profile

  5. says

    This is the 4th review I’ve read of this book now. I love this Brilliant Book Club and how you all have different perspectives and come at it from different angles. I’d heard somewhere else recently that our pre-frontal cortexes aren’t developed till the early 20s! Wow. That explains a lot. I also read somewhere else about not necessarily offering praise because there have been “studies” that children (not sure what age either), when their accomplishments are confronted w/ a neutral response, will be more willing to challenge themselves. Wish I could remember where I read this because I’m sure they articulated it better.
    Liz recently posted…Zoe vs. the British NannyMy Profile

  6. says

    Really great review, Sarah, I like that you have covered comprehensively all the points that would make me want to read this!

    I agree with you in the aspect of believing that our children are essentially good, but human in that they make mistakes. I also believe in praise when it’s earned, because I can see how well my children respond when I cheer them on, or tell them that they did a good job. AND (phew), I’m glad I am handling tantrums the right way (by ignoring them).
    Alison recently posted…My StoryMy Profile

  7. says

    Wow. I had a lot to say but then got to the part about letting your children know that you love them when they’re good AND bad. I’m so so with you – children ARE PURE GOOD. Sometimes, they make mistakes and say hurtful things but I never ever want my son to think “I’m bad.” In fact, I’m already a little bit worried because he has such a tendency to not own up to his bad behaviors OR be completely and horribly sad about them, to the point of tears that seem too steep in comparison to the less-than-desired behavior that I wonder if his anxiety and whateverness is already telling him that he’s bad. I try really hard to acknowledge his feelings and tell him that it’s okay to be mad/sad/ whatever. But I never want him to think he’s bad! He’s the light! Also, it’s kinda funny – the entire basis of ABA therapy (that we’ve been doing with him for the past 2 years) is the ABC method. Antecedent, behavior, consequence. It totally works. It’s what made my little boy talk. So yeah, here, we’re ALL about the praising, when it’s justified. Fabulous post and I can’t believe you did this so quickly, and possibly, um, a little bit um, with less brain power than usual? And I LOVED meeting you. I miss you. xxoo
    Kristi Campbell recently posted…A Review of BlogHer14: The Magic and the DisappointmentMy Profile

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