The Routines and
Rituals of Toddlerhood
By Elizabeth Hart, Ph.D
Molly is an active, inquisitive, typically-developing
two-year old. Generally cooperative and easygoing, her
parents feel lucky to have escaped the stubborn behavior
that they had expected at this stage. Until bedtime, that
is. Each and every night Mom or Dad is put through his
or her paces. Three stories – the “kitty one”
first, two songs – one loud, one quiet, and three
kisses – “one, two, three.” Neither
fatigue, nor telephone calls, nor chores to do allows
the appointed parent to deviate from the program.
Molly’s parents are far from alone.
Such repetitive, ritualistic and perfectionistic behavior
is quite common among young children. Developmentalist
Arnold Gesell, referring to what he termed the “rituals
of the ritualist” noted that towards the end of
the second year many children begin to engage in elaborate
rituals and routines. Studies of the frequency of this
type of behavior find that it is most common among two
to four year old children and tends to decline as a child
moves through the preschool years, but is still relatively
common through age five. Rituals may be especially present
at times of transition such as mealtime and bedtime or
at times associated with age-typical fears (e.g., fear
of the dark). Toddlers may begin to show strong preferences
for sameness in the environment, and exhibit rigid likes
and dislikes. The desire for repetition and sameness is
apparent in requests to hear the same story or watch the
same videotape over and over and over again. Bedtime routines
may require that songs be sung in a certain way, books
read in a certain order, blankets or stuffed toys placed
just so. Mealtime may involve requests for the same spoon
each time, insistence that foods not touch one another
on the plate or that they be eaten in a particular order.
Balance, symmetry, and wholeness are also
quite important. Your perfectionistic toddler may insist
on holding two crackers, one for each hand and may notice
and be distressed by minor imperfections – a cracker
with a piece broken, a toy with a bent or missing part.
Strong preferences for eating particular foods and wearing
certain favorite items of clothing over and over may also
appear during this time.
The fact that routines and ritualistic behavior
are so common during the toddler and preschool years suggests
that they serve an important purpose at this stage of
development. During this time children begin to establish
greater independence from care givers. Along with this
comes some uneasiness about the unknown and a yearning
for predictability. Daily routines provide security to
toddlers and young preschoolers who are going through
a period of rapid growth and learning. A combination of
similarity and repetition appears to provide reassurance
and a sense of control. Following a routine throughout
the day can help both children and parents more easily
navigate times of transition.
If however, a child’s behavior is
so rigid and ritualized that it interferes with the development
or expression of other important behavior such as social
play and communication, or if it takes up considerable
time in a child’s day, there may be cause for concern.
In this case, consultation with a child psychologist or
other child development professional is warranted.
Fortunately, in most cases, a young child’s
rigid adherence to rituals represents a passing, if exasperating
phase. So what’s a parent to do?
Let it be. Try not to alter or shortcut
the routine. Although this may be quite tempting at times,
your toddler is likely to dig in his heels and resist.
When circumstances require that you deviate from the routine,
try to emphasize the novelty and make it special. Try
to warn your toddler ahead of time of impending disruptions.
Stay relaxed about food and clothing preferences.
Food jags are usually short-lived and will generally not
lead to nutritional deficiencies. Power-struggles on the
other hand, can lead to indigestion for everyone. Likewise,
as long as she is dressed appropriately for the weather,
allowing preschooler to wear the same clothing items over
and over may offend your sensibilities but won’t
do any harm.
Record it for posterity. Write it down,
take a picture, make a videotape. As with so many things,
this too shall pass. Perhaps all too quickly.
Elizabeth Hart, Ph.D is a Clinical Child Psychologist,
an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Yale
School of Medicine, and the mother of two young daughters.
home | shopping
| shows | tips
& articles | enter
free guide |advertise
| contact us
© The Baby and Toddler Guide