Being a full-time parent, particularly to a toddler, can seem so stressful in today’s environment. But really, parenting is easy. The key to remember is this: kids really don’t need much.
First of all, get them outside. Humans weren’t meant to sit inside. There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothes — so get lots of all-weather clothes. Rain jackets, rain boots, full-body waterproof coveralls, snow suits, snow boots, ski gloves, ski goggles, and a variety of woolen hats are a good place to start. Be sure to replace them as needed, as your child will outgrow them in 6–8 weeks. Get outside at least eight hours a day. Kids need to play with their whole bodies in mud and sand and tar and wetland grasses, so make sure you live no further than a close walk from a national park.
But if that isn’t available to you (so sorry), make sure you have a full occupational-therapist-approved collection of acrobatic equipment. Gross motor development is so important at every changing age, so don’t forget to switch things up frequently. Also make sure it’s located on soft grass. If soft grass is not available, do your best to replace your driveway, porch space, or living room floor with natural cork, a more environmentally friendly alternative to EVA foam.
But also, kids need quiet time to slow down and chill. Who doesn’t! Build them a quiet corner where they can rest and recharge. It doesn’t need to be anything crazy! A $300 reconfigurable child-sized sofa or some large velveteen throw pillows, some Montessori-approved bookshelves, gauzy scarves dangling from the ceiling, a single perfect beam of light streaming in from a window outside of which it is somehow always the golden hour. Give them that gift of alone time, to replenish themselves. Even if they hate it, it’s good for them.
But also — be with them. Just hang out with them. Don’t interact with them, just watch them silently. Pretend you are invisible! (You are.) Or, do play with them! Get those steps in and run around the house (you could use it)! Or just play with them on the floor. Gently, serenely, repeat the same phrases and stories 11,000 times. Playing with toddlers is so meditative. Or, you could also read to them. There are so many options! Make sure you choose the right one.
Kids also need some activity and stimulation, of course. Nothing too extravagant — frequent trips to your local science museum, farm, swimming hole, farm-to-table eatery, planetarium, Ocean State Job Lot, nightclub, or zoo should do the trick. Have a few memberships to these spots up your sleeve for those days when you’re not feeling creative (sorry!).
Give them space to grow. Assuming you are not over-parenting them, they should be able to be quite independent by [your child’s age here]. Picking out their own clothes, dressing themselves, preparing light meals. These things are all well within the grasp of a [your child’s age here] year old as long as you, the parent, are handling things and aren’t, you know, a bad parent. Things like simple knife use, drawing their own baths, and lighting the grill really let these little people feel like valued members of the family! As long as you haven’t been over-parenting them, this should all come to pass naturally. Quite quickly. I mean, earlier than it has for you. But remember, no pressure! Kids are on their own time tables.
As for those big toddler feelings that we’ve all heard about, remember that children are innocent, this is just what their brains are telling them to do. Empathy is key! (You monster.) There’s no point in feeling anger or upset at their emotions (and of course if you display anything resembling anger toward them, they will crumple into grey, ruined piles of human beings), so just push it deep, deep down inside of you. During a tantrum, become a perfect emotional sponge for your child, while also supporting them physically, oh-so-gently holding their tiny but surprisingly strong arms to prevent them from destroying your belongings and/or corneas. For a real trust-building moment, try incorporating some sly humor here!
Let your children feel their feelings, and hey, while you’re at it, you should too, buddy! Make sure you correct all generational trauma by keeping up a steady therapy habit, reading lots of self-help (and parenting!) books, and feeling those feelings, like I said. Except when you can’t, of course. Don’t worry about doing everything right all the time — just doing everything right most of the time should be fine. Probably? I guess you’ll just have to find out!
Make sure your child is getting enough social time. Not too much! Kids don’t need much! But also not too little. If you don’t live near any playgrounds and your local national park doesn’t have other kids to play with, enroll them in a fun, affordable $40/hour class where you bang egg shakers together in the presence of other crying children. Use your body and/or paycheck to create other human life so they will have friends (or, if you don’t manage their sibling relationships perfectly, other people they sort of look like whom they dislike or are indifferent to). Make friends with other parents who have children who are not only similar age to your child but also similar temperament, interests, and clothing size so they can swap clothes for fun. It may sound hard but it’s not if you actually try!
Children also need to be prepared for the competitive world that awaits them, so make sure they’re getting at least a few hours of early math and science every day. STEAM is so important! You could use an app on an iPad, if you’re the kind of parent who allows their child to be in the same room as a screen (I knew it). But good news for you: the science is starting to show that small amounts of screen time won’t be irreversibly harmful, as long as you are physically and mentally tuned in the entire time to supervise. I recommend you get a degree in early childhood development, shoplift heavily from your local Michael’s, and create a buffet of fun, educational, preschool craft activities from which your child can pick and choose. These activities are easy to assemble and never simply forgotten about after ten seconds of play that creates twenty minutes of cleanup.
But really, a more hands-on approach to education is the best, and easy to do if you integrate academic learning with your normal daily activities: ask about counting, colors, and create small science experiments as you incorporate your toddler into every single waking moment of your day, from when they accompany you in the bathroom for your morning shit, to when they finally close their sweet eyes in the evening, as do you, eight minutes later.
But also, friend, before you close those eyes, make sure you are taking enough time to care for yourself! You can’t be expected to care for anyone else if you’re not taking care of YOU! It’s SO important to find that time. So FIND IT. Take a bubble bath! Get that workout in! Read that book you heard about three years ago! If you’re not taking the time to self care, I don’t really know what to say to you except that it’s simply irresponsible.
Just remember: kids are resilient, and they grow up fast. As I have been trying to tell you, there’s no need to stress as parenting is truly the easiest thing a human being can do, these little people don’t need much! Some fresh air, a little stimulation (not too much!), a little quiet time (not too much!), and above all, a calm, relaxed, and mindful primary attachment, parenting with their whole heart and mind, 100% of the time. Just relax and enjoy it, and don’t forget to do your best! Failure is not an option. Whoops, did I say that? I meant, look, I know it’s not easy, especially for you. But I promise, if you try really, really hard, all the time, maybe you will manage to not screw it up too badly. It’s only your literal flesh and blood. Kidding! All you have to do is love them, spend time with them, give them space, respect them, discipline them, be patient, and stay calm. And do NOT forget the Montessori bookshelves.
Ashley Holtgraver has been a stay-at-home mom/unpaid caregiver for three years to a legitimately wonderful little boy, and to her own perfectionist brain. Here is a real piece of advice: if you are a parent and ever feel like your kids are growing up too fast and the time is flying by, quit your job and be a stay at home parent to them during their toddler years. Or, keep your job and also be a full-time parent to them during a pandemic. It will fix this problem.