Why Toddlers Deserve More Respect

Young kids might be smarter and more empathetic than adults think.

Two kids play in a forest.
Alexandra Beier / Getty

In The Emotional Life of the Toddler, the child-psychology and psychotherapy expert Alicia F. Lieberman details the dramatic triumphs and tribulations of kids ages 1 to 3. Some of her anecdotes make the most commonplace of experiences feel like they should be backed by a cinematic instrumental track. Take Lieberman’s example of what a toddler feels while walking across the living room:

When Johnny can walk from one end of the living room to the other without falling even once, he feels invincible. When his older brother intercepts him and pushes him to the floor, he feels he has collapsed in shame and wants to bite his attacker (if only he could catch up with him!) When Johnny’s father rescues him, scolds the brother, and helps Johnny on his way, hope and triumph rise up again in Johnny’s heart; everything he wants seems within reach. When the exhaustion overwhelms him a few minutes later, he worries that he will never again be able to go that far and bursts into tears.  

“If adults experienced and enacted the full range of feelings available to an average toddler in the course of a day,” Lieberman writes, “they would collapse from emotional exhaustion.” But Lieberman doesn’t view this range of emotions as the toddler’s downside. She sees toddlers as complex, compassionate human beings, and she has dedicated her life’s research to helping adults understand the feelings and the logic behind the most seemingly ridiculous or wild toddler behaviors.

Lieberman first published The Emotional Life of the Toddler in 1993, and it has since become known as a seminal guide to life with young kids. The book’s publishers asked her if she wanted to celebrate the book’s 25th anniversary with a second edition. They asked if she had anything to add, and after following new developments in both parenthood and toddlerhood over the past few decades, she did. Lieberman recently spoke with me about the second edition of her book, out this week. She discussed what’s changed in the past 25 years—including revelations in child psychology, growing societal acceptance of gay parents, and the omnipresence of technology—and what’s stayed the same. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Isabel Fattal: In the years since you last published this book, technology became a dominant part of parents’ and toddlers’ lives. You argue in the book that people are always afraid that social changes will have a negative effect on toddlers, but that often, with time, this fear is proven unfounded. Do you think this will happen with current concerns about technology?

Alicia Lieberman: I do. I think that any pressure, any new source of stress, adds to the difficulty that parents and children have in negotiating [family] relationships and negotiating the world. For example, the data shows that when working mothers are committed to their work, and find meaning and satisfaction in their work, and have working conditions that enable them to balance their work life and their family life, working is not a risk factor for children. When mothers are feeling that the work conditions are so demanding, so oppressive, that it comes at the expense of their ability to pay attention to their children … then it does have a negative impact.

Divorce [is another] example. When the most major researcher in divorce, Mavis Hetherington, began studying divorce in the 1970s, she thought it was cause and effect: Parents get divorced, [which has a negative effect on] children. Thirty years later, she realized that it depends on: What are the mediating factors, moderating factors, social circumstances? How do the parents get along after divorce, how do they talk about each other to the child? All kinds of emotionally charged conditions that are much more predictive than the single factor of divorce. The same thing will happen with screen time and media.

Fattal: How does this theory map onto the way that parents should approach technology?

Lieberman: When mothers and fathers feel so overwhelmed about their circumstances that they use the tablets as substitutes for themselves, then their children are essentially alone with these inanimate objects. They are not engaging in reciprocal interpersonal relationships. But parents [can also] use screen time as an aid, not as a persistent substitute. I have seen children and parents who move back and forth between the use of the tablet, the same way that you use a book or a toy … something that will give the child time alone to enjoy an individual activity while the parent is doing something else, but not as a substitute for relationships.

Fattal: How have shifts in public mental-health discourse over the past 25 years affected toddlers?

Lieberman: There is an increasing understanding of how out-of-control behaviors or withdrawn behaviors—intense separation anxiety, persistent sleeping problems, inconsolable tantrums, aggression, emotional or social withdrawal—can be traced to stress and trauma that nobody has asked about. There are studies showing that when one goes to community behavioral-health clinics and looks at the diagnoses given to children in the 2-to-5 age range, the predominant diagnoses are ADHD and behavioral problems. But when one asks the parents, ‘What happened to your child?’ and one is asking systematically about accidents, frightening separations, violence in the community, violence in the home, [many] of those children have been exposed to traumatic circumstances that very clearly can be connected to symptoms. There is a group of people that is carrying that knowledge, and we are doing our best to disseminate it. We’ve come a long way, but it is by no means incorporated yet in all the systems of care that need to know about this frame.

Fattal: What impact has the growing normalization of same-sex parenting had on children?

Lieberman: I think there has been a very important and timely humanization of gay parents. [When I first wrote the book, society was] not even giving gay people permission to be parents. It was like, why would you want to be a parent? I’m a consultant for child-protective services. I was in court several times to uphold the fact that gay parents that wanted to adopt a child had all the strength that heterosexual parents had. They were giving them the love, the understanding, the socialization. That giving a child for adoption to a gay couple did not endanger the child in terms of their mental health.

People would say, “Other children are going to tease them and bully them,” “Other parents are not going to want their children to play with them,” “They won’t have a community that they can belong to,” and the point that me and others were making is that that is not inherent to the condition of being gay. It is inherent to the prejudices of society in how they relate to gay people. I think gay parents really led the way in creating communities for themselves that were able to show the world that they were healthy, loving, joyful families. Twenty-five years ago that was by no means something that was understood or accepted.

Fattal: Is 25 years a long time in the world of child-psychology research? What has changed about our knowledge of toddlers?

Lieberman: Twenty-five years ago, when I was giving talks about the book, I always started with addressing the question of the “terrible twos.” I was talking about the not-so-terrible twos; [now] I don’t even use the term. I think the more we move away from that term, the better off we are. And I think that my audience did not miss my talking about the “terrible twos.” There is a new understanding that tantrums, oppositionalism, [and] negativism are not a sign that the child is terrible or that the child’s age is terrible. It’s a sign that the ability of the child to think through a situation has collapsed because of overwhelming feelings of fear and frustration that dysregulates their emotional composure. There is more of an awareness that when we say the “terrible twos” we’re really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.

Fattal: You mentioned that in recent years, child psychology has moved away from a view of the toddler as simply egocentric. Are these children more empathetic than we give them credit for?

Lieberman: They’re much more empathetic. [They’re] so much more able to use the facial expression of the caregiver, the facial expression of the parents, to guide their behavior. I wanted to convey the simultaneous capacity of toddlers to feel empathy, to look at the world from the perspective of others, and when they themselves are flooded by emotion, to resort to an egocentric view of the world, where “this is happening because of me.”

I’m the starry-eyed grandmother of a 2-year-old [named Sam]. He’s been learning to use the harmonica. There was this 18-month-old who was mesmerized by Sam making music with the harmonica, and he kept wanting the harmonica. And Sam gave it to him. And Sam is just a regular toddler … I’m not saying [this because he is] my grandson. The 18-month-old is huffing and puffing and nothing happens. And Sam takes the harmonica back and goes very close to him and blows on the harmonica, and then gives the child the harmonica. And the child tries and tries and makes it happen, and Sam starts clapping with great joy and turns to the parents. [Here we have] two toddlers identifying a goal, and the older toddler turning over a cherished object to a little boy that he loves, and the little boy allowing himself to be taught by the toddler in a way that his own daddy could not quite do, and then the older toddler celebrating him and turning to the adults, as if he were saying, “Look at what he did!”

And you see that all over the place, if you look. What this book is really intending to do is entice grownups to take the time to look at toddlers, to observe and give them time, and really process what it is that toddlers are showing us, because they are so capable of empathy, cooperation, collaboration. And, on the other side, tantrums. They are just like us.