A Toddler’s Social Understanding

The first eighteen-odd months of a child’s life, their social skills are fairly simple, given that they revolve around another person’s ability to meet their needs: ‘feed me or I’ll scream, too late, waaaaaahhhhhhh!’

Their first hand gestures – pointing – are merely to make it easier for you to meet those needs. ‘I want that. No, not that: that! What are you, a moron?’ At this stage, it’s difficult to argue that kids are social beings at all, given that they’re self-centred hedonists who think other people exist solely to satisfy their desires, and they only acquire social skills as a cynical ploy to better manipulate those around them. If they were bigger, we’d call them psychopaths, or perhaps ‘rock stars’. It’s a good thing they’re small.

Then things get a little less selfish. They start to understand the pleasures of giving and receiving affection, by kissing and hugging and asking to be held. Around the same time they discover it can be fun to share their enjoyment with others – playing basic games, singing interactive songs, dancing, joking and imitating the behaviours of others (making pretend phone calls, cuddling pretend babies, preparing pretend cups of tea). They start to make friends, or have people they prefer to be with and those they wish to avoid. And they even learn a few key words (hello, goodbye, please, ta) to facilitate their entry into the social world. So far, so simple.

And then, after about eighteen-months, their level of social understanding mushrooms so quickly you struggle to recognise the increasingly complex creature that you share your home with.

My daughter is at this stage, and it is a daily dose of crazy.

For example, she has discovered hierarchy. A month ago, the dog was just another person around the house – albeit a hairy, smelly, waggy-tailed person. Now my daughter has realised that the dog is a non-human animal, and thus lower in status in the household than she is. And that means she is in charge, and can tell the dog to ‘shush!’ and ‘down!’ and ‘g’way!’ And woe betide if the dog doesn’t do as he’s told. It’s like having a pint-sized drill sergeant wandering around the lounge, demanding obedience at every turn. ‘Sir, yes, sir!’ cries the dog. Poor thing. She’ll be shaving his head next.

My daughter has also discovered the joys of storytelling, which is incredibly cute and incredibly confusing given her lack of spoken language. The other day I asked her what she did at her grandfather’s.

‘Izza da bed, bong da whoosh!’ she said, swinging her arms around and spinning on one foot.

‘You did what?’

‘Da bed. Dee bosh tan dum bin bed. Da whoosh da bed, an bed, sa bed, whoosh.’

‘What about the bed?’

‘Inda ban bed,’ she said, bewildered that I couldn’t understand. ‘Da bed, whoosh, bong ta bed. Whoosh. Da bed ta whoosh!’

Nope. Ten minutes of this. Something about a bed, that’s all I got.

A phone call to her grandfather established that what she’d been trying to explain was that she had been jumping up and down on the bed all afternoon. So obvious (not)!

Now, storytelling is a complex skill involving careful selection and omission – knowing what to include and what to leave out. My daughter will spend ages talking about something that lasted two seconds, and the rest of the day won’t even get a mention. She also has a weird predilection for the more morbid aspects of a toddler’s experience.

It doesn’t matter what she’s done, where she’s been or for how long – ask her what she did and she’ll tell you how she hurt herself. You went to the beach today? She’ll rub her eyes to show she got sand in them. What did you do at the park? She’ll point to a graze on her knee. Did you see your aunt? She’ll indicate where she banged her head on the table. You do not want to babysit my little girl – you make the slightest mistake, she’ll act it out and tell me all about it.

And that’s another complex social skill she’s developed lately – the concept of blame. After I put her to bed the other night, I came downstairs with the monitor and started to write. After a while, I started to hear giggling through the speakers – child and adult. This went on for around fifteen minutes until I popped upstairs to see what was happening. My wife had climbed into the little one’s cot and they were playing peekaboo. Nice.

I stood and watched for a moment, such a lovely scene of innocent joy – and then my daughter saw me.

The change was instantaneous. The smile vanished, her face fell and she pointed at my wife. ‘Mummy! Mummy!’ she shouted, as though saying, ‘It was her, daddy, it was her!’ She then gestured over the side of the cot. ‘Mummy, bed, da bed, mummy,’ she said, which I interpreted as, ‘I told her to get out, daddy, but she wouldn’t go, it’s her fault, I didn’t want to, she made me, it wasn’t me!’ Forgetting, of course, that I’d stood there and watched her, and she was in every way an active participant in the game.

Scary how quickly she’d sell out her mother. Scary that she’s already developed a concept of behaviour and consequence. Even scarier that she sees my wife as a playmate and me as the lawmaker who’ll tell them off for messing about after lights out. I guess that answers the question of how she sees the hierarchy between her parents.

For the next few nights, every time I walked past her room I could hear fake snoring as she pretended to be asleep. At 21-months! What a devious little sod. And what a socially-complex kid compared to a couple of months ago.

You have to watch out for these toddlers. One day they’re crying for a bottle of milk; the next, they’re planting evidence to frame others for their misdeeds. If your kid is approaching eighteen-months of age, watch out: the next few months are going to be interesting!

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