What is a Toddler?

A toddler toddles, with a slow, short, unsteady and uncertain gait. Between the ages of one and three years of age, she or he is mobile, is on the go and can choose to stay with the parent, leave and return. This is a time of enormous emotional, social and cognitive development that characterizes the state of the toddler’s growth as a person. Unlike the younger baby who cannot, of her own accord, leave the mothering person literally, and who mentally can hardly exist without her as a person, the toddler has begun to view self and mother as separate people.

The behavioral hallmark of the toddler’s beginning development of the self is the wish and ability to take over some self care by meeting some of her own needs. The baby begins to become a toddler when she can (1) feed herself, with fingers, cup and spoon; (2) when she can, to an extent, comfort herself and make herself feel good, by using a part of her own body, such as thumb sucking, and by using a transitional object, a blanket or soft toy that she has made her very own (this links her to mother and bridges the gap between them); and (3) when she can recognize and dislike pain and discomfort, can protest, can make feelings known to her mothering person and seek and accept comfort from her, saying, though not in all these words, “I am hurting. I do not like it. I want you to know. I trust you to make it better.”

The young toddler wants to do for herself what she already can do, e.g., pushing away mother’s arm when she tries to feed her, refusing to open her mouth for spoon feeding, screaming and struggling at being picked up when she can walk and later yelling, “Do not carry me.” The toddler also wants to do for herself a host of things that she cannot yet do so well or that mother does not trust her to do well, e.g., getting the cookie box off the shelf, turning on the water faucets or crossing the street. The unrelenting zest for “me do, me by myself” provides enormous pleasure, especially when it leads to mastery. When interfered with, it brings frustration and anger.

At the same time, mother has begun to matter as a person. The older baby recognizes her as different from everyone else and thinks about and looks for her mainly when a need arises. When the child gets closer to being a toddler, mother’s part in meeting the needs of the child is so special that the child often foregoes need-fulfillment when mother cannot minister to her, even when others do it in much the same way, e.g., not wanting to eat, sleep, be cleaned or “kissed to make better” when mother does not do it with her child.

This means the infant has reached that crucial developmental point when the relationship with the person has begun to be more important than the way her needs are met. Now mother’s companionship, their social interactions and feelings for each other are THE thing. Everything mother does with her toddler means a lot and she observes everything the mother does without her and wants to do it with her and like her, e.g., cooking, cleaning and talking on the telephone.

The toddler may do things similar to mother for the sake of keeping and maintaining her love and for the pleasure of becoming like mother. At the same time, mother’s presence and good feelings for her toddler are so necessary to sustain the child’s zest for independence, the wish to do for herself and even the desire to get away and to turn to others for additional fun, such as father, siblings and other family members. When mother is not available, the protective harbor is gone and venturing out does not feel as safe or as fun. Without mother’s presence, the toddler’s activity often becomes less purposeful and achievements may crumble.


Barney Greenspan, PhD

Dr. Greenspan is currently in full-time solo independent practice (Meridian, Idaho) as a clinical psychologist, child/adolescent psychoanalyst and zen practitioner with clients at all developmental stages.