I have lots of friends with toddlers. And I have lots of friends with obsessions. And many of these friends have deeply obsessed toddlers. I own one of these as well.
If you have a toddler, you understand what I am talking about. There is something about that 18 months to 3 years age spread that lends itself to obsession. Perhaps it is the burgeoning large motor ability (walking is usually now well managed, running starts a day later, and climbing is frankly a nightmare soon after that). Perhaps it is their exploding verbal ability – every day a new word, suddenly combined words, then sentences out of no where, and then you are looking around for a cheap pair of noise canceling headphones*.
It is probably both of these and something more too. In my experience, the most obsessed toddlers are the children of the most obsessed parents. While I don't have any empirical evidence to back this up, as an anecdote, I would say it is more often the case that it is not. I would definitely put myself in this category (my husband is nodding emphatically as I write this). I obsess about my work – getting it done, not getting it done, getting more, doing more, making more, work, work, work. But the thing I am most obsessed about is my children: I obsesses about car seats (particularly 5 point harnesses) and plastic and sugary additives and organic food products. Pretty much all the obsessions of privilege. I don’t obsess over where our next meal is going to come from, or where we are going to live. Oh no, I have transferred rational obsessive behavior right on over into the realm of the mostly irrational. Then I obsess about being privileged, over-privileged, and that my children are going to grow up being over-privileged. Obsess, obsess, obsess.
Little wonder I have had 2 obsessive toddlers. One has mostly outgrown this. H, as a toddler was obsessed with running (and not walking), with hitting other children in the face as a greeting, with knights and castles, with racing sausage mascots for a local sports team, and his father. OBSESSED. How obsessed? I have this easel paper role from when H was between the ages of 18 months and 2. If you roll it out, it is COVERED with racing sausage men, all drawn by his father. H has also had a blanket obsession since about age 14 months. The BeePee goes where H goes, and H is 5. (In the fall I will have an agonizing post about how H cannot take his beloved BeePee out of his backpack when he goes to kindergarten at our neighborhood school – look I am winding myself up here in a side note! Obsessed!).
My younger son is still in prime obsession age. N is almost 3. His obsessions have somehow been more pronounced than our older son’s. We partly attribute this to the fact that N arrived when H was in the throws of his obsessions and so our sleep deprivation vacated some of these memories from the long-term bank. Since about 11 months, N has been obsessed with: sleep sacks (these are his lovies, which he calls “bubbies”), shapes (mainly circles), doors (opening and closing), and lately, cacti. Yes, cacti.
My friend Laura, who has been a teacher of toddlers for nearly 30 years reasons out toddler obsessions this way: toddlers do not get to choose the where, when and why of 90% of their lives. As such, they pick fun, central events – including eating, sleeping and pottying – over which to exert control, i.e. – tantrums. They also start doing things that start making their parents concerned. Lining toys up in straight lines, sticking odd things in their mouths, imitating animal sounds, wanting the same books read, and the same songs sung, over and over and over again.
As an obsessed mother, with my first son, I start doing things like searching terms such as “obsessed toddler” and “perseverating toddler” and “OCD toddler”. Don’t do this – there is a lot of scary stuff out there and most of it has nothing to do with even the most obsessive toddler.
My favorite part about toddler obsession is listening to parents tell stories of their toddler’s obsessive behaviors. Never before have I laughed so hard. Each toddler has their own unique set of obsessive behaviors, and hearing about these from other adults makes you realize that obsession is a part of growing up – a hilarious part that you someday look forward to embarrassing your children with.
Learned from children: We need to accept and validate the obsessions of toddlers – they are fixated on these things for a reason. Given how little young children can control in their lives, allowing them to control freely that with which they are obsessed is a gift indeed.
*I know that this is “typical” development. As the parent of two children, past teacher of hundreds, and current researcher of many more, one thing I know pretty much for sure is that there is not much typical about “typical” development. Things happen out of the “order” of pediatrician charts or baby book tables, and some children skip certain milestones altogether, inspiring fear or awe in our hearts. For example, my son (N) who is visually impaired starting talking well before he turned one (saying things like “Mamagna” (Lasagna) and “Circle” in addition to the Mommy, Daddy, bye-bye, hi-hi), but he didn’t walk until days before his 18th month. He didn’t crawl until he was 12 months old and even then preferred to be carried. My older son crawled at around 6 months, walked at 14 months and talked at 16 months. I also understand, as a parent of a child with some special needs that “typical” development starts to feel like competitive development in a race that your child simply cannot win. This sucks and deserves a blog post all it’s own. And it’s gonna get one – it’s on my list.