Toddlers and their Understanding of Time

It was bound to happen. He’s the youngest by four years and four months. He seems to be older than he is. So, I assumed too much.  It was one of those moments: I was just talking for the sake of talking. I made a mistake. OK, so shoot me.

Mr Butterfly (22 months old) and I went to the supermarket on Sunday afternoon because somehow all of the consumables I had bought on Friday had been eaten.

On the way home I said something like, “Tomorrow you’re going to Grannie’s house. You’ll see the dogs and dig in the garden. She’ll push you on the swing and read you some stories.”

“Ees,” said Mr Butterfly. “Ees, ees, ees.”

Then I pulled into our driveway and he began to scream. “Annie’s ‘ouse! Annie’s ‘ouse! Annie’s ‘ouse!”

This continued along with an arched back as I carried him out of the car and kicking legs and swinging arms and the whole she-bang. In the end, we went through the whole: Daddy go to work, Mr Hare go on the bus, Mr Owl go to kindergarten, you go to Grannie’s house – around half a dozen times until he calmed. He could see that the others were home, so hopefully he understood.

He *was* mighty pleased when Monday rolled around and he got to go to Grannie’s house.

Toddlers have a different sense of time to that of adults. It’s perfectly logical when you realise that a much older child still has little concept of how long they have to wait for their birthday or the holidays – no wonder so many of us help our children to count ‘big-sleeps’ in anticipation. For toddlers what is happening now is all there is. There is no promise of tomorrow, in an hour’s time or soon. What is happening at this moment is happening forever – for better or worse.

Now that Mr Butterfly is racing toward the grand old age of two (to his mother’s delight and sorrow) we are beginning to tell him his day-story each night. “You got up and you were so hungry you had weetbix, fruit and an egg for breakfast. We all went to the bus-stop and you ran along and jumped off all the low fences, that was fun you and Mr Owl did lots of laughing. Then we did some chores and took Mr Owl to kindergarten…” He is beginning to get some idea of before, now and later.

We also recap in small bits during the day. If he’s pointing to something we did earlier we’ll talk about it. “Mummy made the vacuum go and you cried because the loud noise gave you a fright.”

Being able to make sense of our lives is hugely beneficial to our mental health as adults.

By understanding that their lives can be retold as a story, and by trying to understand all the emotional states of the main characters, children learn that people do things for reasons and that the mistakes their parents make aren’t (in the case of most parents) malicious or with bad intent. Rather they are a reflection of where their parents’ lives are/were at – at that moment in time.

The people who grow up in tough families (or every-day ones) and go on to do well in life are those who have a strong sense of autobiography. Tell your kids their day-story from time to time. It’ll help them immensely in the long run.

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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22 Responses to Toddlers and their Understanding of Time

  1. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are still big issues. Last week and yesteerday is a big issue. Logan’s concept is everything before today is called yesterday.
    But she also refers to dinner as lunch, in fact- any meal becomes lunch in her noggin.

    • Awwww, cute. Those time concepts are big; funny how I forgot that Mr B had *no* idea what tomorrow meant and just kept blathering on…never mind: all in a day’s parenting!

  2. Asta Burrows says:

    My wee lad has no concept of time… well – it is getting better – but then he is still only 18 months old. When I am in the kitchen cooking he is getting better at waiting until I am done – and not just screaming because he wants food now! (Strange, he doesn’t seem to show any sign of hunger until I actually go into the kitchen, but then he is despereate all of the sudden 🙂 ) I was just so proud (of both him and me) yesterday when I told him that food isn’t ready yet but go tell your daddy to come. He actually left me in the kitchen and went to his daddy! (He didn’t say “please come and eat”, he just screamed a bit, but I am sure his intentions were in the right place) 🙂

    Oh – and I really like the idea of the day-story!

  3. I really like the idea of a day-story. but I think I have to wait a little longer before I start it since my Little One is just 15 months old. He certainly has no idea of time…you are so right when you say that for toddlers, the only concept is now now and NOW.

  4. Laura Weldon says:

    I think the sense of time develops alongside the sense of self as a distinct person. My oldest began to talk confidently about things that happened in the past and would happen in the future (he talked ridiculously early) right about the time he FINALLY used his own name to identify himself in photos. For months leading up to that time, he’d point to pictures of himself and call that image an amalgam of his parent’s names, “MamaDaddy” as if his own identity was made up of us.

  5. It’s interesting how a toddler has no sense of time, yet babies do! Internally, that is. 🙂 My baby girl functions as though she has a timer in her head. She keeps herself on such a schedule! And boy, when 7pm comes around, if you’re not ready to take her to bed–watch out! My 3 year old seems to do ok with time, he has lost some grandparents recently, so he understands “then” v/s now. And lately he has been asking obsessively “What time is it?” And of course, for him, it’s never bedtime (sigh).

    • Babies do seem to have a strong internal rhythm – I know one of ours used to wake at 9.30pm on the dot and scream (still not sure why). I missed the end of Project Runway (you know – the bit you want to watch) for a whole season…as for three year-olds and sleep – my next post is all about them dropping that nap and the fun it can create!

      • Marcy says:

        Today was the first day of the new quiet time. Yesterday we filled a medium basket with four books, a puzzle, and a notebook with two colored pencils. This will live on her dresser and come down only for quiet time. From time to time we’ll change the contents — not sure if weekly, twice a week, or once a month. So far so good.

        • Great news. I like the idea of rotating the items in the basket; you’ll know when because she’ll be less settled. Look forward to hearing how it all works out for you. 🙂

  6. adhdwith3 says:

    Mr. Butterfly and Deborah are only four months apart. What a challenging stage!

  7. Yulia Yudith says:

    I am agree. My younger son also the same. He is 25 months old but still i think he still cannot differentiate time, different from his brother. But I know he is learning.. And I like when they start to talk and copy us hehehe like what Mr. Butterfly said Ees Ees Ees.. I guess it means yes yes yes… My younger son also start to follow all songs that he heard 😀

  8. Juliana says:

    I feel your pain! We made the mistake of telling E a whole week in advance that we were going on a trip (she LOVES trips). Every day after that, we went through counting out the days…

    • It’s such a simple mistake to make, yet it can cause such misunderstanding – can’t it? I am certainly a lot more aware of when I tell our Butterfly about upcoming events in our life!

  9. Pingback: Toddlers and their Understanding of Time (via kloppenmum) « Scaredmom's Blog

  10. moogielight says:

    I’m not sure how I missed your blog all this time! But I’ve found it at last. 🙂
    Love the idea of a day-story. My youngest is 22 months and I think this would be great for her (and her older sis really). Thanks for sharing!

    • Day stories are an awesome way for us all to make sense of our lives, and toddlers/ small children are so vain (in a cute way) that they often ask for them! I hope you have been able to include them in your daily routine some times and are seeing the joy they bring your girls.

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