Psst, hey, fellow stressed-out Mommies..

If you are in a similar position as me, just got your Baby/Toddler down for a nap and you really were going to get right on those dishes/laundry/emails but you’re so tired that all you can do is flop down on the couch, phone in hand… read on. I have some wisdom to share on how you can make Mommy Life with a toddler significantly less exhausting.

First, let me give you a brief background story on how I stumbled upon this coveted knowledge:

Recently my son’s pediatrician referred us to the Early Intervention program, because Baby Smoosh was delayed in a few developmental areas.

I was crushed. I’m a stay at home mom and use every fiber of my energy towards teaching my son how to do stuff. I thought I was giving him such an advantage with the 1-on-1 attention 24/7 (forget that I’m exhausted and going borderline insane, my son is going to be the next Picasso and Mozart and Einstein all rolled into one person, darn it!) How could he possibly be behind?

So I quickly set up an appointment with the E.I. therapists, who determined that Smoosh scored low enough on his Self-help and Gross Motor Skills to qualify for further therapy. However, when the price tag reared its ugly head, I balked. You want me to pay how much for someone to come play games with my kid for an hour each week?! And why am I not capable of playing these same games and having the same effect… For free?

Well, it turns out that I am. Smoosh’s evaluators have clearly been doing their jobs for a long time and know the dirty little secrets of therapy. When they saw the look of horror cross my face as they presented the price chart, I think they felt sorry for me. And then they tactfully divulged the secret that every overwhelmed mom should know:

Ready? Give your kid some space.

Now, I know as a naturally overbearing, first-time mom with a kid so cute I can’t possibly step away from him for more than 30 seconds that this is not an easy thing to do. You feel like you’re neglecting your child if he’s awake and you’re not paying attention to him. You need to be right there, down on the floor to name all of the things he points at and smile at him when he does something cute and just generally make him feel loved, right?

Well, yes. But also no.

I’ll explain.

What Smoosh and every other blossoming toddler needs is simple direction, followed by freedomFreedom to explore, make mistakes, and learn. By me helping him every time he asked, I was actually hindering his development, both physically and mentally. Here’s an example:

The therapist pulled out a puzzle to do with Smoosh. He picked up the “neigh” (horse), and after unsuccessfully trying to fit it in the correct spot, he put the horse in my hand, said “Momma” and made his sign for “help.” So of course, I helped him. After that, he decided he was done with the puzzle and went over to rifle through the therapist’s bag of toys. But the therapist closed her bag, and despite Smoosh’s protests, had him sit and finish the entire 8-piece puzzle. I was not allowed to participate. In fact, she encouraged me to go into the kitchen out of sight. Smoosh did some more complaining and lots more demanding for some help, but by the last piece, he proudly placed the duck in the correct spot all by himself. 

A few days later, Smoosh and I were playing with some colored beads from my art stash. He entertained himself for awhile pouring the beads from one cup into another, until he suddenly decided that was boring and dumped the entire cup of 100 beads onto the floor, then headed over to get some crayons. My first instinct was just to pick the beads up myself. No way did Smoosh have the attention span to do it himself. But I remembered the tactic of “Give direction, then give space.” I called Smoosh back over to the bead disaster and explained that we had to clean up, demonstrating by placing a bead back into the cup.

“No!” was his response. Of course.

“Look, Baby,” I responded, my patience already wavering. “Pick up a bead, put it in the cup. Can you show me?”

Smoosh looked me in the eye and gave an adorably devious smirk. He picked up a bead and with the force of an NBA player, slam-dunked it into the cup, sending the beads I had already picked up flying. This happened about 100 more times before he finally realized we were absolutely not playing with crayons until he finished picking up the beads. And when that clicked, he went into busy-bee mode, scouring the carpet for beads and placing them nicely in the cup while I sat back and finished my cup of coffee from two hours ago. Magical.

After weeks of this tedious power struggle, Smoosh became more and more capable of following directions and accomplishing tasks on his own. He’s even getting better at solo creative play – which of course makes me weepy that my baby is growing up too fast and doesn’t need Mommy to build his block towers for him. But such is life.

Sure, we could do expensive therapy for the next few months and yes, it would help. But I could also sit back and let Smoosh battle with getting his monster truck out of the toy bin all by himself. Yes, he will get frustrated. He’ll scream and maybe even cry. My heart will break and I’ll feel like a horrible mom for not just giving him what he wants.

Or, I can give him five minutes. Maybe a simple direction to first pick up the giant popper toy that’s pinning down the truck, then try again. And chances are he’ll figure it out. He’ll be proud and happy and have learned a new skill all by himself. 

I realize that for you experienced moms, this probably isn’t a ground-breaking discovery. But before Smoosh, I had zero experience with toddlers. I wildly underestimated their mental and physical capabilities, and assumed an 18-month old still needed to be babied. Learning this ‘giving space’ trick was like finding out the the ‘Disappearing Man’ act in a magic show is really just using a false wall and a trap door. This is why magicians never share their secrets: It takes something that appears impossible and reduces it to a “well duh” concept.

To be fair, I should probably re-title this article: “How to Make Life with a Toddler Easier in the Long-run.” Because those first few days/weeks where you train them to follow directions and struggle through a task on their own can really wear on your patience and fray your nerves. But they will learn. And they will flourish. And you will finally get to finish that morning cup of coffee before it gets cold. Doesn’t that make it totally worthwhile?

Jessica Mautone

Jessica is a first-time, Stay-At-Home mom who loves to write as an outlet for the stress that comes along with raising a strong-minded little boy and two yappy dogs. Credit for her creative inspiration goes to good wine and frequent travel.