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Expecting Too Much from Toddlers?

You have a three-year-old son.  You are going out for dinner and want him to behave well, sit still, be quiet, stay clean, and not say or do anything that will embarrass you in public.  Do you have reasonable expectations for your toddler?  For most three-year-olds, the answer would be no.  However, different children mature at different rates, and some children will consistently require more active parenting than the “average” child of his age.

Further, the toddler years, which encompass the period of approximately 13 months to 48 months of age, are a period of tremendous growth for children (and the people who care for them as well).  What a child of 48 months can be expected to do can be dramatically different than what a child of 13 months can be expected to do.

Therefore, the age-specific expectations listed below are to be construed as a general guide only: you will need to adjust for your child’s age, maturation, and personality.

13 to 24 months

In this age range, fine motor skills are improving but are not refined yet.  Grasping small objects can be difficult.  At 13 months, children should be able to drink from a sippy cup, take their own shoes off, and perform other simple manual tasks.  By 15 months, children should be able to scribble, drink from a regular cup without spilling, and mimic simple manual tasks performed by adults.  At 18 months, children should be able to throw a ball, eat from a spoon without making a mess, and begin to exhibit signs of a sense of independence.  By 24 months, children should be able to run, ascend and descend stairs, and begin showing a left-hand or right-hand preference (i.e., the hand in which he prefer to hold his crayon or spoon).  Oh, and 24-month-olds have further refined their sense of independence, and by this age are displaying the tantrums associated with the “terrible twos”.  These children stubbornly want what they want:  what they want may not be reasonable or achievable, but they are not yet old enough to reason through the situation.

Language will include a small cluster of words that children can say and a much larger number of words that your children will recognize when spoken by others.  Children in this age range will also recognize the names of those people closest to them.  Because these children are able to understand basic language, they are able to respond to simple commands (i.e., “Sit still, please.”).   At 13 months, children should be expected to speak approximately two or three words, each used individually.  By 24 months, children should be able to speak two or three word sentences (i.e., “I want that.”).    A typical 24-month-old can say about 50 words in total, and the number of words that this child can understand when spoken by others is much larger.   A 24-month-old should be able to communicate verbally (not by pointing, gestures, or other non-verbal means) his needs and wishes. 

 25 months to 36 months

Fine motor skills are continuing to improve.  A 30 month-old should be able to thread a bead onto a string, and a 36-month-old should be able to stand balanced on one foot and ride a tricycle.

Language skills are also continuing to improve.  A 30-month-old can say approximately 200 words.  A 36-month-old typically asks lots of “why” questions, can count to 10, can dress and undress himself, and understands the concept of sharing.

37 months to 48 months

Between 37 and 48 months of age, children will develop the ability to use the toilet on their own, exhibit empathy, and use safety scissors effectively.


Given this information, it is probably not reasonable to expect a three-year-old to behave well, sit still, be quiet, stay clean, and not say or do anything that will embarrass you in public (as referenced in the first paragraph above).  For a child to have the reserve to sit still, be quiet, and stay clean, he must not only be able to respond to simple commands (which should be a reasonable goal at 13 months), but to be able to sustain that for a period of time.  Additionally, to expect a child to understand how not to embarrass you in public (and why that is important to you and him), he needs to have not only empathy (which should be a reasonable goal by 48 months), but also the ability to sustain a chosen course of action for a period of time.  It is this concept of sustaining a behavior over time that is typically beyond the grasp of the typical toddler.  Thus, you can expect your three-year-old to behave well in a short period of time, but it is not reasonable to expect them to sustain that behavior over the course of an hour or more.  That will come with further maturation.

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