What I Wish I Knew When My Kid Was a Toddler, According to 12 Dads

A dozen dads share the advice they wish they received when they were the parents of toddlers.

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Toddlerhood is an exciting time, one of mobility, exploration, and myriad developmental phases. It’s the period when children start to really show their personalities and transform from babies to adorable little people. But toddlerhood is also a time of messy faces and messy emotions. Toddlers are at odds with their limitations and this makes them gross little tantrum-throwing wrecking balls. Are they still adorable? Yes. But they require a serious level up in terms of patience and parenting skills. So what do dads who have raised toddlers wish they would’ve known while their kids were that age? As hindsight is 20-20, that’s what we asked a variety of dads. Some pointed out the obvious (they absorb everything, so be careful), while others reflected on missed opportunities and misplaced stress. Here’s what they would’ve told their younger selves.

That They Absorb Everything

“One day, I was carrying my toddler-aged daugter around the house, and I stubbed my toe on the corner of the coffee table. It was excruciating, and I couldn’t help but yell, ‘Fuck!’ Fast forward to a day or two later, and what do you think her next word was? She only said it once – it wasn’t like that scene from Meet The Fockers, where the kid watches Scarface – but it was infinitely clear that she’d heard me say it, and was parroting it back. We laughed, and it was definitely a good lesson learned.” – Mike, 42, New York

That Structure Is Your Friend

“When you’re a new parent, you don’t think that anyone but you gets overwhelmed. But toddlers do. If you think about it, the world to them is literally nothing but constant stimulation. Almost everything is new to them. And, even to an adult with a rational brain, anything new is inherently scary. It took me a little while to realize that building a semblance of structure with mealtimes and bedtimes goes a long way. Even if the actual times of day aren’t always consistent, especially with sleep, whatever routines you can establish will provide a sense of comfort, and will ultimately make new things seem less daunting, because they’ll be anchored around some sort of daily structure.” – Tim, 33, Ohio

That You Don’t Need That Many Toys

“When you’re a new parent, you want to equip your child with everything you can think of for a life of fun and smiles. So, you buy toys, blankies, books, and a bunch of stuff that you probably won’t need. First, I wish I’d known that hiding an old toy in the closet and then bringing it back out a week later is basically the same as introducing a new toy. Second, now I know that there are always going to be a few favorites, which makes the occasional variety important, but definitely not to the degree we went. You can save money, space, and sanity by shutting the toy box before it overflows.” – Adam, 33, Kentucky

That It’s Easy to Go Overboard Documenting Them

“We know a couple who took a picture of their son’s first in-the-toilet poop. I think that was the light bulb that it’s easy to go overboard and swoon at everything your kid does, no matter how old they are, or how menial – or disgusting – it is. Pick milestones that are important to you, not just a catchall of everything you’ve seen, heard, or read about on Facebook. It’ll make the occasions you do celebrate more meaningful, so you can really embrace them, and you’ll all feel so much more gratification when they finally happen.” – Dean, 32, North Carolina

That We Didn’t Have to Spend So Much Time “Keeping Up Appearances”

“With my first child, I think my wife and I were concerned with keeping up appearances. Whenever we would have visitors – parents, or in-laws, especially – we tried to keep up this facade of normalcy to accommodate them. Behind the scenes, though, we were both scared and ripping our hair out. If we’d saved some of the energy we spent trying to show off, we probably wouldn’t have been exhausted or underprepared for the actual parenting when it came time. You don’t have to broadcast your struggles, but you don’t have to hide them. Slack will be cut.” – Bryan, 37, Florida

That It Doesn’t Take All That Much to Keep Them Occupied

“There’s a scene in Knocked Up where Paul Rudd is watching his daughter play with bubbles, and he says, ‘I wish I loved anything as much as these kids love bubbles.’ Something like that. His character was commenting on, like, the loss of his ability to feel, of soul, but I thought of it when I saw how much my daughter loved to play with a dish rag. Have you ever seen that clip of Robin Williams on Inside The Actors Studio, where he does a bunch of different things with some lady’s scarf? It’s exactly like that.” — Jeffrey, 35, North Carolina,

That I Should Put My Phone Down

“When a toddler is napping or playing there’s a big temptation to take a mindless break by scrolling through stuff on your phone. My problem was that it became a habit, and that habit was hard to break once our son got older. I don’t think it’s a secret that most of us are addicted to our phones, but if I could tell myself one thing as a new parent, it would be to enjoy the mindless scrolling in moderation, and be active about it. Be ‘actively mindless’, I guess. So that you can enjoy it, recognize it, use the time to recharge and relax, and then be able to regroup when the time comes.” – John, 33, Indiana

…That I Didn’t Need to Stress Out Over Everything

“I lost my job just as my son hit his toddler-years. It was really, really scary for me and I was up late at night scrolling through job boards and checking my email every five minutes. But here’s the thing: there was absolutely no point to checking my email every five minutes or being unable to hangout with my wife and child more because I was job searching, which is what I did. I was stressed and scared about not providing.

But instead of providing the nurturing and emotional support that I could’ve provided — or just had more fun with my family during this time when we were all home together — I sulked and sat on job boards. Was I concerned about supporting my family? Yeah. But I let that concern take away this great opportunity I had to be with them. I needed to calm down. And that was just one thing. I always found myself freaking out about what were, in retrospect, very very minor things. I’m much better now than I was but I wish I were able to go back and talk some sense into my former self. ” — Frank, 49, Tulsa, OK

That Tantrums Aren’t Done to Annoy Us

My kid was a bit of a handful when she was a toddler and instead of understanding that she was going through all these emotional and physical changes and that her tantrums weren’t an affront to my wife and I but rather just the normal terrain of childhood development. I definitely freaked out a bit more than I should’ve when my daughter was a toddler and she threw a tantrum at the store or before bedtime or because of something. Getting mad doesn’t solve anything when it comes to meltdowns. You need to not take them personally — and ignore the stares of others — and calmly talk to your child about their feelings. I definitely needed to do that more often. — Greg, 37, Cleveland

That I Shouldn’t Cave to His Picky Eating

My son was the pickiest eater when he was a toddler. He refused to eat so much and I catered to his needs. Because this was our first child, I would spend so much time tip-toeing around his eating habits and make him only things that he liked because I was worried he wouldn’t eat anything instead of things that he needed me to make him. This was, for lack of a better word, really dumb. I did all the things you shouldn’t. I bargained. I bagged. I made him something different. It worked out much better with my second child. — Jake, 41, Charleston, South Carolina

That Observations and Judgement Will Always Be There

“Everyone is going to have an opinion on your parenting. They might not share it, but you’re under constant scrutiny whenever you’re in public with your child, or people see you interacting with him or her. So one thing I wish I would’ve realized early on is that there are no right answers. The observation and potential judgment will always be there, but it’s always done by fellow non-experts. If they have kids, sure, they may have more experience. But, going to college for four years doesn’t automatically make you smart. I don’t mean to sound cynical or paranoid, but it’s my way of telling myself from five years ago to remember that no one – not the lady at the grocery store, or the guy at Walmart — has a damn clue what they’re doing when it comes to parenting. So just relax, ignore, and focus.” – Jeffrey, 35, Pennsylvania

That I Came Home Early More Often

I was a weekend-only dad for so long. I put so many hours in the office because I wanted to provide for my family. Don’t get me wrong, I was there for them on the weekends, making breakfast and playing games and taking them places. But my kids didn’t get to see me that much during the week and I missed out on these great memories. Weekend to weekend they changed so much. This is the cliche thing but it happened to me. I was consumed by the “hustle” culture and just head downed it until my children were older. There’s that often-said Kerouak quote that goes “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” I’d change that last part to “climb that goddamn mountain with your kids” — Jason, 49, Michigan

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