Whoever said, ‘the days are long, but the years are short,’ must have spent big chunks of time keeping a toddler entertained. While raising young kids affords you the chance to, in many ways, be a kid again yourself, it can be a challenging time as you balance keeping them happy and keeping yourself sane. The summer months may allow you more opportunities outdoors, but you still need to have a plan and structure to ensure a pleasant experience. Here are some strategies I used when my boys were young.
Eat, Sleep and Bring Snacks
There are countless variables that impact a toddler’s mood. Some of them we have a modicum of control over, and others change with the shifting tides and wind. I would gauge my boys’ moods first thing in the morning. If they seemed happy then we would attempt to venture out into the world. If for some reason they seemed ‘off’ in any way, I would cut my losses and stay home. Their mood often reflected how much sleep we all had the previous night. If everyone had a good night of rest, then the likelihood we would have a good outing increased exponentially. Topped off with a big breakfast, because we know a hungry toddler can crumble in an instant, increased our chances for a positive day.
Toting snacks in your diaper bag is another way to keep your littles in a good mood. Snacks are great distraction if an unexpected tantrum erupts while you are out.
Go Small and Go Home
Do not put pressure on yourself to do grand adventures. Keep things small and stick close to home. One of the best things I ever did as a young mom living outside of Milwaukee, was purchase a membership to the Milwaukee Zoo. I used that membership regularly so I did not burden myself with making each zoo visit extraordinary. I would hit one or two exhibits, stop for animal viewings along the way and end the morning letting the boys run wild at the playground near the exits. These visits were short, but this is probably what helped make them sweet.
If you are unable to afford a membership to something like a zoo or a children’s museum, libraries are excellent options for free story times. Often during the summer, movie theaters offer deep discounts on previously released children’s fare. Other great options are city parks and if the weather is not cooperating, indoor play areas at malls or fast food restaurants (bring lots of hand sanitizer!).
Make Room for Meltdowns
Note your toddler’s natural rhythms and make the most of them. My boys tended to nap, if at all, in the early part of the afternoon. Therefore, our mornings were dedicated to outings. Even with careful planning, meltdowns still happened. This is a very normal part of toddlerhood. They are growing fast and their verbal skills cannot keep pace. They have a limited understanding of why they need rules and structure to keep them safe. All they want to do is run, play and do whatever they feel is right in the moment. This is part of why they are such a wonder to be around, but also why they crash and burn easily.
Trust me, you are not the first parent to have a screaming kid cause a scene in a public space. My boys and their tantrums were legendary. Their strong wills are now one of their greatest strengths. Speaking as a mom through the other side of this sometimes harrowing phase, be kind to yourself. You are doing your best.
Embody What You Enjoy the Most
One of my struggles with my busy boys was I had little desire to ‘play’ with cars and building blocks. Most of the things that captured their attention I did not find all that interesting. I did these things on occasion but focused my attention on the things we all enjoyed. I liked taking them outside and inventing chasing games. Pushing them in a small car with an extended handle up and down our driveway gave way to endless hours of giggles and delight.
I loved reading to them. In fact, reading was my saving grace. They were always so active that any quiet moment I could get them to sit and look at a book with me, were the moments I treasured the most. I also enjoyed arts and crafts, which had limited success at keeping my boys engaged, doing puzzles with my youngest and taking them for a ride on the back of my bike.
Find the things that you enjoy, and your happiness will spill over onto them. It is okay not to play with them every instant. They are more likely to develop skills for self-sufficiency if you let them be bored and fussy sometimes. My oldest son, when left to his own devices, would mastermind epic ‘world battles’ using his matchbox cars, dinosaurs and any other ‘players’ he could find. These battles would start small and then gradually creep into several rooms in the house. I would be in in awe over the literal and figurative expanse of his imagination.
Beyond the busyness and the meltdowns, these are the memories I miss the most. Whenever you notice a peaceful moment with your toddler, make sure you take a mental snapshot of it.
The days are long, but you will get through it.
Written by Diana DeVaul, MSW