Raising a baby resets a parent’s priorities, gives Mom and Dad a new purpose, and shifts the day-to-day routine. Then that baby becomes a toddler, and they begin to explore and react to the world differently. They become expressive and adventurous, and they learn how to communicate their emotions to the people around them. They reflect the love and patience that we put into them, but they also teach us some things we never knew.
My top takeaways from raising a three-year-old
From hearing him blabber nonstop in the car to watching him interact with his infant sister, here are the 25 greatest lessons I’ve learned from raising our toddler son:
1. True communication does not require words.
Our firstborn, who is growing up in a household with parents who speak two languages, didn’t start using words freely until well after he turned two. He now speaks relentlessly, but even in the period when he wasn’t saying much, we had no trouble understanding and communicating with him.
He eagerly took to using baby sign language, starting with just a few signs and building up to a giant list of over 30 that rivaled his number of spoken words. Our nonverbal communication with our child has shifted my perspective on language barriers and taught me that we don’t always need words to communicate with the people around us.
2. There is beauty (and fun!) in the simplest of treasures.
Children are experts at appreciating the small beauties in life. Whether it’s tiny flowers in the sidewalk that we stop to sniff, bunnies that we patiently watch as they build a nest in our yard, or batter that we mix up and fry into Mickey Mouse pancakes, our son is always teaching me to see the magic in everyday moments I might otherwise overlook.
3. Mess is temporary.
Mess, in its many forms, doesn’t last forever. Our first instinct as parents is to try to keep our toddlers away from the mud puddle on the sidewalk or the water fountain outside the library. After trying and failing multiple times to avoid the mess, I’ve realized it’s often easier — and a lot more fun for everyone — to embrace it.
Now we let that youngster jump in the water or dump that whole basket of toys out in the living room. Muddy skin and messy floors can be cleaned, and it’s always worth that adorable toddler smile.
4. Sing out loud.
Our three-year-old has taught me that we’re often our best selves when we stop worrying about what other people think. If he’s listening to music and one of his favorite songs comes on, he doesn’t hesitate to belt it out with a giant smile on his face, no matter how many notes he’s (not) hitting.
5. Sleep is (kind of) optional.
I never realized how little sleep I could operate on until becoming a mom. Our son started off as a baby who didn’t sleep well. Once he started sleeping through the night around one year, we rejoiced, but we quickly learned that sleep comes in stages. Battling nightmares and fears of the dark are whole new hurdles after the baby sleep struggles have passed.
In the end, we’ve learned that we go through times with little sleep, but the wheel keeps turning, and eventually we catch up as the routine settles back into place. We’ve also learned that no matter whether we’re home or traveling, or whether the pets are taking up all the room on the mattress, there’s always room for an adorable little one in the bed.
6. A hug can make all the difference.
Our son has taught me to, when possible, give love. Mama’s small kiss can magically wipe away pain from a cut or a scrape. Even more, an unprovoked two-arm hug from our three-year-old lifts my spirits in an instant, reminds me of the magic that surrounds me, and leaves me filled with love.
7. Happiness comes from the heart — not from outward recognition.
This is a big one. After leaving my job and moving cities when our son was about a year old, I made the decision to stay home and raise our kids rather than working a full-time job during their early years.
Spending every day with our kids, watching them grow and introducing them to the world, I learned that joy comes right from the heart, instead of from outward accomplishments.
8. Time is our greatest commodity.
“Five more minutes” is one of our son’s favorite expressions. At three years old he already knows how precious time is. Everyone says how time will fly once parenthood begins, and it’s so true.
When I look back at the stages of young childhood (and we’re only three years in!), it’s amazing how rapidly each stage has flown by. When our toddler needs some quiet mom-and-me time, or just a quick snuggle, I try to soak up each beautiful second before it passes.
9. Every day can be the best day ever.
The world is even brighter when you’re showing it to young, innocent eyes. One of our youngster’s favorite things to say is, “best day ever!” Whether we’re out for a walk, eating his favorite breakfast, or playing a game together, he reminds me that every day can feel like Christmas if we look at the world with the optimism of a happy child.
10. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
I’ve learned from raising our toddler that the outdoors is the best place to have an adventure and learn. He doesn’t let bad weather stop him, and he loves to run in the rain and play in the snow. As long as we’re prepared to keep him warm and dry — and maybe have him jump in bath afterward — I’m happy to let him explore.
11. A good nap is the one when you wake up with your child on you and you aren’t sure whose sweat is whose.
When you’re pretending to sleep so your toddler sleeps and you wake up three hours later with him on top of you — that’ s a great nap.
12. Life keeps moving.
Whenever we’re having a rough night, a tough week, or a difficult stage of parenting, it always passes. Those little ones wake up the next day to do something magical, shift our perspective, and remind us that limbo never lasts forever.
13. Snacks should always be first on the packing list.
Parenting a toddler has taught me to over-pack and over-prepare, especially when it comes to food. Whether we’re taking a road trip, flying across the country, or just stopping at the post office, snacks make a toddler’s world go round, and my huge diaper bag stays full of them.
14. I’m here to learn just as much as I’m here to teach.
Before becoming a mom, I couldn’t wait to teach our children everything I knew and introduce them to the ways of the world. What I didn’t realize was that they would teach me even more than I could teach them (hence this list of life lessons).
Just when I’m showing our son something interesting at the park or teaching him a new concept with letters or shapes, he notices something I didn’t, asking me a question I don’t know the answer to or shifting our focus on something new. Suddenly the paradigm shifts, and now I’m learning, too.
15. Every situation is an opportunity for an experiment.
Mishaps and messes are opportunities to learn. Our son loves to pour popcorn kernels or frozen peas into different containers to see how many will fit inside, or to jump in a giant puddle in different spots just to see how high the splash will go. There’s nothing better than learning through play.
16. Doing things alone is overrated.
Having a wild, energy-filled three-year-old constantly by your side keeps things interesting. I actually miss my children when I go to the grocery store by myself these days, and I’ve come to prefer running with music bumping out loud from the jogging stroller than running alone.
17. Raising good humans is a great purpose in life.
Seeing our son’s behavior, mannerisms, and relationships with others reminds me just how much influence we have on our children’s characters. In a nutty world where turmoil and bad news are all too commonplace, raising great people to lead our future is an honorable job.
18. The process is more important than the final product.
Doing arts and crafts or getting things done around the house with our toddler has taught me to let go of any perfectionist tendencies and let him find joy in the process. Are the banana muffins going to taste perfect? Probably not. Did we have a blast making them and spilling flour all over the kitchen? You bet.
19. Self-care is not selfish.
I’ve realized over the past few years that I need to be the best version of myself in order to be the best mom I can be to our children. Whether that means taking 30 minutes to hop on the Peloton or take a shower (or, can you imagine, borrowing an hour to do both), it’s important to make it a priority.
20. An impromptu dance party is the quickest way to lift a mood.
You might picture this happening only within the confines of our home, but it’s so effective that we’ve even requested Disney music at a local restaurant just so our son can get his dance on.
Whether he’s joining me in singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to his little sister or working up a sweat to his favorite up-tempo tunes, our toddler has taught me that music really is medicine.
21. If you have 30 minutes to get your toddler ready and leave the house, you’re going to be late.
I think I’m still learning this one, although we were somehow on time twice this week.
22. Be present.
Our son has taught me that my full, undivided attention is so much greater than the sum of my attention split among many things at once. I’ve learned to stop multitasking, go all-in on the game he wants to play, give my full attention to the people around me, and leave the phone calls and the work for another time.
23. Motherhood is beautiful, but it isn’t easy. Don’t forget to lean on those around you.
I’m not one to readily admit when I need help, but parenthood comes with both immense joy and great responsibility. It really does take a village.
24. Slow down.
It’s worth taking 15 minutes out of our day to sit at the train station and wait to see if we’ll catch a train chugging by. Our son’s joy when one does finally pass by is incomparable. In more ways than one, raising our toddler has taught me to take a deep breath, stop rushing, and wait patiently for the things that are worth waiting for.
25. Our capacity to love is boundless.
All through the first two years of raising our son, I couldn’t believe how vast my love for him was. I couldn’t see how the heart could love any more fiercely, until we had our daughter, and then suddenly it did. Just when we think our heart is full, it opens up, and it gives even more.
Parenthood is unique, challenging, and illuminating. The worries are intense, but the highs are high, and the love is unconditional. I’ve never cared for anything as deeply as I care about our children, and I wouldn’t change this experience for anything in the world. I hope one day I can share with them the many lessons they’ve taught me on this wild, unpredictable journey.