The Value Of My Toddler's Opinion

by Mike Julianelle
empowering kids
Stevie_Croft_Photography / iStock

My son can talk, which is great. Less great is that he can’t seem to stop talking.

Seriously, my kid never stops babbling. But that’s OK. The trouble isn’t that he talks, or even what he says, since a lot of the things he says are cute. He says things he doesn’t understand, and it’s hilarious when kids say darned things. I won’t brag and say my son says the darnedest things, because I’m not a braggart, and besides, that’s for Bill Cosby to decide. But my kid definitely says some pretty darned things.

The trouble begins when we actually listen to them.

My wife insists on asking my son’s opinion. He’s 3 years old.

Yesterday, she was planning to bring him to the transit museum so he could stare at and talk about and touch bigger trains than the ones he usually stares at and talks about and touches. Just as they were about to leave, she got a call from a school she was trying to visit (in order to judge its suitability for our son’s potential enrollment). Suddenly she was faced with a dilemma. Museum or school?

So she asked our son what he’d rather do.

I mentioned he’s 3, right? Guess which option he chose.

My wife (and I, and an entire generation of parents, it seems) is devoted to fostering agency in our child, to speaking to him like an adult (within reason), and to generally treating him like the person he is. Unfortunately, he’s only a person in the broadest sense in that he was born a homo sapiens. For all intents and purposes, he’s really just a beast that can talk.

Do you ask your dog’s permission to take him for a walk? Or your cat’s permission to look her in the eyes? Of course not. You do what’s best for the animals you own, and if they don’t like it, that’s too bad (except for the cat. Do not fuck with your cat.)

My son is 3! There’s no reason there. There’s no sanity. He doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and he absolutely will not stop ever until you are dead. If you attempt to engage your toddler in conversation, you probably will die before you even figure out what he’s saying—my son spent a good two months calling me “Sandwich Guy” before I realized it was (probably) from the PBS show WordGirl—let alone before anything is resolved.

I’m all for letting the kid feel his oats and have his say and do his thang, but not only does he not know what’s best for him, he doesn’t know anything. I get that we need to nurture his emerging personhood, but not everything he says is worth hearing. Not everything anyone says is worth hearing, and a toddler’s opinions are more worthless than most.

But my son does have feelings, and those are valid, even when they’re not based on logic. (I’m married; I learned long ago that ignoring irrational emotions was a lose-lose proposition.) So, all credit to my wife, we make sure to recognize his emotions (“I know you’re angry…”), validate them (“…and it’s OK to be angry…”), and then completely ignore them so we can get our shit done (“…but it doesn’t matter that you’re angry because I can pick you up by the scruff of your neck and carry you if I have to so get your goddamn sneakers on!”).

You have to let your kid have his opinions. My son has plenty. They mostly revolve around fire trucks and pretend baseball and foods he’s never even heard of but is absolutely positive he won’t enjoy, but they are real opinions nonetheless. And he may not be able to articulate all of his thoughts—half the time his responses to our questions are just straight-up gibberish—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t legitimate.

They aren’t legitimate, of course, but as a parent you have to act like they are—to a point. It’s important to recognize your children as the individuals that they’re becoming and that they deserve to be, and to give your children, even in the toddler years, a healthy sense of empowerment, right before you wield yours.

Because there’s a big difference between instilling your kids with a sense of empowerment and instilling them with a sense of entitlement. Opinions may be like assholes, but children who always get their way truly are.