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Towel on Head!

No, Mama! Towel on head!” This morning my partner came out of the bathroom after her shower having already dried her hair. Since we’re in that hysterical but often frustrating stage when our daughter’s vocabulary has far outstripped her pronunciation skills, it took us a bit to figure out what she was saying. It helped that she was standing at the drawer with the towels in it, yanking on one that was sticking out the edge.

Ah yes. Rebecca often, perhaps even usually, exits the bathroom after a shower with a towel wrapped around her head. And we weren’t going to have peace until she did so. She did, and then of course my daughter wanted a towel on her head, which was a little difficult to arrange stably, but we pulled it off long enough for her to admire herself in the mirror. I counted myself lucky to have escaped.

I have a sister-in-law who is training to be a Montessori teacher, and early on in her training she was sharing a particular bit of insight from Montessori’s writings about “sensitive periods” for development. These are times when kids are really really focused in on something that facilitates a skill they are learning—say, little tiny bits of schmutz on the floor when they are refining their fine motor control. (Yes, that is one. Though Montessori didn’t recognize the special appeal of schmutz and just talked about very little things.)

A particularly interesting one is what she called “the sensitive period for order,” which happens around ages one to three. Now, lest you think Montessori was off her rocker, she didn’t actually think that toddlers particularly favor neat, orderly environs. What she meant was, roughly, this: Kids of this age are really focused on figuring out How the World Works. When they think they’ve got a piece—Mama puts a towel on her head after her shower, grilled cheese gets cut in squares (unless it’s triangles), teeth are brushed after pajamas are put on, whatever—having it contradicted can be really disturbing, akin to their world coming apart at the seams.

My sister-in-law told a story of a fellow trainee who was skeptical about this idea until her son broke out with a hysterical screaming fit upon seeing his dad leave his muddy shoes at the front door, instead of the back door where they usually went. They tried everything to calm him down and figure out where this unexpected misery had exploded from, until she thought to move the shoes. Instantly better.

I have to say that knowing about this phenomenon ahead of time ranks up there on my list of parenting godsends along with slip-on shoes, arnica gel, and the question, “would you like to help do [X thing I want done]?” Otherwise I would have had a much more miserable time, for example, with the meltdown that followed my daughter observing me putting her silicone toddler toothbrush in the dishwasher, when clearly it belonged in the bathroom. In that case, acknowledging the incongruity and promising to return it to its rightful place when it was clean were enough.

Now, I’m no developmental psychologist. But I’m thinking this is not so much unique to toddlers as particularly acute for them. Depending on the context, plenty of us initially react to unexpected or incongruous information as if it’s tearing a hole in the fabric of the world. I have, as an adult, wanted to throw tantrums when things that were central to my idea of how my world worked had the rug pulled out from under them.

I think more commonly, though, we don’t throw tantrums, we just refuse the new information. Our worldviews don’t feel as shaky and partial as that of toddlers. They’ve got the weight of experience behind them, so rather than panic, we disbelieve. We don’t feel as uncertain, but we also have more to lose. When someone says, “that’s just not how we do things,” “that’s just not how I was raised,” or even “that just doesn’t feel right,” don’t they often mean: “In my world that doesn’t happen, and if it did, what else might I believe about the world that would also turn out to not always be true”?

I remember clearly, in high school, reading a book that I was supposed to be shelving at the library that convinced me the death penalty was a bad idea. I wrote in my journal about it rather grumpily, afraid that my image of myself as politically middle-of-the-road was eroding in favor of a set of positions more clearly understood as left-leaning. I comforted myself that at least I’d not yet been convinced about vegetarianism. (I later did spend some time as a vegetarian.) It was hardly a trauma, but even as teen, reconfiguring my worldview was uncomfortable.

I’ve come to a place where one of the quickest ways to earn my respect is to show that you’ve come to a position on the merits and not because it lines up with a package deal of beliefs. But I wonder how whether a crucial step toward better collective decision-making and democracy might be learning how to parent ourselves and each other through these little worldview crises and out to the other side, where we can learn to live in a world where Mama only sometimes wears a towel on her head.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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