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The Long Memory of a Toddler

I’ve noticed over the past few
months that Maddie’s transitioned from a fearless,
why-not-try-everything baby into an anxious, jumpy toddler. Having
something scare her wouldn’t be so bad in itself; it’s
important for her to learn that there is danger out there. But
whereas she once had a baby memory –easy in, easy out, and
it’s forgotten in five minutes – now she’s got
Toddler Elephant Memory, and she won’t let go.

A couple months ago Maddie learned the
sign for “cold”. One day I gave her a glass of soy milk
I’d just defrosted – do you know how expensive that
stuff is? Buy on sale and freeze it, I say – and told her it
was “cold”. Now every time I hand her a glass of milk,
she looks mistrustfully at me, shakes her head, and signs
“cold”. “No, it’s not!” I insist. But
it takes several seconds of cajoling before she’ll believe

The flip side of that, of course, is that once she figured out an
appliance like the stove was “hot”, every appliance
became “hot” and it’s not hard to persuade her
away from them. So sometimes it works in my favor.

But more often than not, Maddie experiences a one-time scary
situation and has trouble overcoming that memory.

While on vacation, we popped some popcorn in the microwave. The
sound freaked her out, and the rest of the time we were in that
space she pointed at the microwave crying, as if it were going to
spontaneously erupt in thunderous popping sounds again. Likewise,
for some reason Maddie developed a fear of a suitcase sitting on
the bed we used as her changing table; the edge of the suitcase
wound her up so much she couldn’t calm down to go to sleep.
Even after we moved the luggage, she’d look fearfully over
her head and whine. One night of the suitcase there, a week of
haunted bedtimes.

Fortunately for us, she didn’t seem to fear the suitcase on
travel days. But once back at home, I thoughtlessly put the emptied
suitcase in the hallway ready to be taken back downstairs. Maddie
saw it and started crying all over again.

What’s going on here? Anyone had this happen with his or her
child? My daughter, who once screamed with delight as fire trucks
raced by, now begins whimpering when they’re still blocks
away. The sound of our upstairs neighbors coming in the communal
front door sends her running to our arms, though to our knowledge
there are no single incidents to explain either of these reactions.

My guess is that she’s becoming more aware of her greater
surroundings, learning she’s a part of a bigger picture. And
seeing that the picture gets bigger means you discover you
can’t control all of it, and that has to be scary. As
toddlers realize they’ve got feelings and opinions
independent of their parents – they are distinct and separate
entities – the kids discover there’s a lot out there
they don’t understand and don’t have mastery of.

I know that in the big scheme of things, my fearful,
never-forgets-a-scare toddler is actually moving forward even while
she seems to be running backwards, clinging fiercely to the
illusion of sanctuary in mommy’s arms.

But it does feel a bit disheartening. How will I teach my child
that balance: to be appropriately scared of things that can hurt
her, but to be brave in overwhelming situations? I’d love to
hear your thoughts.


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