THE BLOG

The Alien Toddler

05/22/2014 01:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

Imagine that you've just witnessed the landing of a giant spaceship. The hatch opens and you hold your breath, excited to meet these creatures from another planet.

To your surprise, the aliens look completely human. "We wanted to fit in," they explain. "How do we look?"

"Perfect!" you say. "No one would ever guess that you come from another planet!"

Their leader smiles and asks if you would teach him more about being an earthling.

You are delighted to agree. This alien seems so polite, articulate and well-prepared that your job looks like an easy one.

And, for a while, it is. While the two of you are driving home, the alien looks out the window in wonder, marveling at this brand-new world.

Then you reach your neighborhood, and the trouble begins. "I'm hungry!" he shouts.

"We're almost home," you say. "I'll feed you very soon."

"No!" says the alien. "I'm hungry now."

You try to reason with the alien, explaining that you don't have any food with you, and that it will take a few minutes to park the car, walk to your apartment, and prepare a meal. But somehow the alien, so pleasant and courteous a moment ago, is now completely unreasonable. "Now, now, now, now, now!" he keeps saying. It's almost as though he doesn't have any concept of time.

Luckily you find a protein bar in your pocket, and the alien calms down -- until you get him into your elevator. Another tenant is there, and the alien -- so calm and confident with you -- appears terrified of her. You try to make introductions, but the alien hides behind you, squeezing himself into the corner of the elevator.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," you tell him. "Besides, that's not polite."

But the alien doesn't seem to understand. "GO AWAY! YOU STINK!" he shouts at your neighbor until you're finally out of the elevator.

Then, in the hallway, the alien turns fearless. Another neighbor's door is ajar and he runs eagerly into their apartment.

"No!" you say. "On this planet, we don't go into people's houses without being invited." But the alien has found a delicate vase on your neighbor's coffee table, and suddenly, his entire being is concentrated on learning about this strange new object. He doesn't simply look at the fragile vase -- he puts it into his mouth.

"No!" you say. "It might have germs! It doesn't belong to you. And it might break."

The alien looks at you in surprise.

"What are these 'germs'?" he wants to know. "What is 'belong'? And what is 'break'? We don't have those words on my planet."

Somehow you get the vase to safety and lead the alien to your own apartment. But it's beginning to dawn on you that initiating this foreign creature into life on earth might be more daunting than you thought.

Learning to Think Like a Toddler

As the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, I spend a lot of time working with the parents of children aged 2 to 5. I work with a diverse group of dedicated and caring parents. Yet many of them are surprisingly unaware of how differently toddlers think about and view the world from adults -- so differently, that I often speak, affectionately, of toddlers being from another planet, a world unlike ours.

Like the alien in our example, the toddler is new to our world and needs lots of help in learning our strange ways. That's what we refer to as socialization, and it's a long-term process that's made even more complicated by the fact that toddlers' brains are at such an early stage of development. Developing rapidly every moment, but still new.

Like our alien, a toddler has no sense of time. He or she lives in an eternal present that a Zen master might envy. When you ask your toddler to "Wait just a minute," she might hear the words, but the concept is far beyond her. If she's hungry, she can't envision a future in which food is present--she only knows the now, and the now means hunger.

Most parents can grasp this fact about their infants. But because a toddler has begun speaking and can say a word like "soon," we make the mistake of thinking that she understands the concept of it. To a toddler, there is only now. Which means this very moment.

Also like the alien, toddlers are ruled by their emotions. Many of us might feel somewhat shy around a stranger, but there is a high likelihood that we manage to display appropriate social behavior. Not so for the toddler who hasn't yet grasped those adult rituals. Nor does he have the ability to mask his emotions. If he sees a stranger who towers over him in a small, enclosed space, he'll express his feelings with an authenticity that most adults can only dream of: "GO AWAY!" Even the seemingly kindest person can be scary to a toddler. If we don't understand how powerful a toddler's emotions can be, we'll misunderstand his behavior as rudeness or even malice.

Another key characteristic of toddlers is their boundless curiosity and wonder about this brand-new planet they have landed on. By their very natures, they are driven to explore as much of the world as they can, using all their senses -- including taste! We adults explore our world through books and television and conversations, but your toddler's brain primarily grasps information not through words, but through her body- seeing, touching, banging, tasting.

Setting Limits with Respect and Love

I am not suggesting that toddlers have free reign. We adults help socialize our alien toddlers by teaching them, over time, about our earthly ways. This is modeled everyday in our interactions with them. But in order to teach them in ways that lead to healthy development over the long haul, we need to understand the world from their point of view.

Understand that your child's "Go Away!" to that scary neighbor comes from fear, not rudeness or bratty behavior. Until his brain develops further, he might not be able to control his emotions or his behavior as fully as you would like.

Yes, take that fragile vase out of your daughter's hands. But at the same time, support her compulsion to touch, to learn, to explore. Help her find ways she can safely engage her boundless curiosity. Give her something that she can touch or hold.

If our toddlers are highly verbal and physically adroit, it can be especially tempting to expect more from them than they are capable of. But at the end of the day, every toddler is a creature of emotion first; emotions without the capacity to handle them well. And while I have seen intellectually, socially, and physically precocious toddlers in my time at the Toddler Center, I have never seen an "emotionally gifted" toddler. They can only have the capacities that their still developing brains allow.

A 2-year-old might be able to sing a song in its entirety, word for word -- but when he gets tired, he doesn't know the difference between "soon" and "never." A 5-year-old might be able to climb to the top of the jungle gym, but when she's "trapped" in an elevator with a big, unknown, and (at least to her) scary lady, she feels as helpless as an infant.

Luckily, those early years don't last forever. Sooner than you think, our toddlers turn into boys and girls who smile and say hello to the once-scary neighbor and restrain themselves from picking up that enticing vase. And as we watch our children grow up, we might even miss those toddler years, when the life was lived in the eternal present filled with curiosity and the entire world seemed brand-new.

Tovah Klein, PhD is a child psychologist, the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, and former advisor on Sesame Street. She is the author of HOW TODDLERS THRIVE: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success (Touchstone).