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
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.