Learning to Let My Toddler Have Opinions

I am the youngest sibling in my family, and even though I have a lot of babysitting experience, I’ve never had the experience of constantly being around a young child while they’re growing from a baby into a toddler. Until now, that is.

My daughter just turned 15-months old, and she is using baby signs to communicate what she wants, which is awesome because I don’t have to guess as much anymore. She is not only able to let me know what she wants (“milk,” “book,” and “bunny” are among her most frequent requests) but also what she doesn’t want. And so I’ve found myself in more situations where I need to step back and acknowledge that her opinions sometimes trump my own.

Right now, she still lets me pick out clothes for her, and she doesn’t seem to have a preference for colors or styles. I still get to pick what music we listen to in the car because she doesn’t protest (usually). With regards to food choices, I put food in front of her, and either she eats it or she signs “all done” and I take it away. Until recently, I would read whatever book I wanted before her bedtime, but now that has changed.

R has an extensive library of board books, not only because I love books but because I wanted to find baby books that were interesting for me to read. Some of my favorite selections include:


My preferred baby books have fun stories, some rhymes, a hint of a plot, and maybe a little twist at the end. But recently I had to face the facts: I’m reading books to R not for my benefit, but for hers, and her opinion on what books she likes is somewhat different from mine.

A few days ago, not too far after she learned the sign for “book,” I noticed that she would start signing for “book” even when I had already started reading a book. At first, I ignored her sign and I kept reading, and so she started signing “all done.” I thought maybe she was confused, because the book wasn’t all done (see how my brain works?) and I kept going, so she did the only other thing possible: she grabbed the book, closed it, threw it out of my hands, and wriggled out of my lap so that she could get another book.

We went through a few books like this, and then I finally realized that she wasn’t in a weird mood, but rather she was communicating her opinions about books to me, and I had been ignoring her signs because I wasn’t interested in her preferences. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would have strong opinions about books at such a young age.

So we sat down with her book collection, and I read through each book to determine which ones she liked. If we were less than halfway through a book when she signaled “book” (meaning “next book please!”) or “all done,” that book went into the Reject Pile. Mostly, we didn’t even make it past one page before she would reject a book, and only about 10% of her books passed the All Done Test. The books that passed included:


Of those books, Brown Bear is her hands-down favorite, and she will request it as many times as I can stand to read it. Most of these books have simple rhymes, and even if she can’t understand the words, she likes the rhythm. I don’t know why she likes Hop on Pop over any other rhyming book, or Moo, Baa over other Sandra Boynton books, nor do I understand why she likes the Pigeon books, because those don’t rhyme at all (although I’m glad we share an interest in preventing that pigeon from having fun, because those books are funny). I put up a gallant effort to read the beginning and ending of Hungry Caterpillar every time she picks it, but she is only interested in the pages with holes to poke–and who can blame her?

I knew that by teaching her baby signs, that I would be opening up the channels for communication and helping her establish independence. But I didn’t realize that my preferences were getting in the way of hers. For now, it’s books, and in the near future it will be clothes and music, and who knows beyond that. This is the first step, for me, in learning to let my daughter have opinions that are different than mine, and I couldn’t be any prouder of her for starting to express herself.

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Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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    1. No no, you say, that isn’t right! Pigs go OINK all day and night!

      By the way, I’m curious, do other people try to make realistic noises, or do you just read them as written?

  1. Mary, I need to do this with my toddlers because they do something similar when we read: they say “all done” and close the book when I’m a page or two in on some books, and go get one of their go-to books and say “more.”

    We lean the books against the wall in their room so they can get them as they wish, but only have about 5-8 out at a time (We were told to rotate books in and out or they would get stale, but now I’m thinking my rotation choices reflect my taste not theirs, and that’s not as fun for them).

  2. My youngest is 19 months old, an avid baby-signer, and loves all the ones on your kid’s list except for “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” which we don’t have.

    I’m mostly fine with switching books when she doesn’t like my selection (though I will usually try again later, because she is not 100% consistent in her likes and dislikes) but I do not love it when she expresses her disapproval of my dinner menu by throwing her dishes on the floor.

    I do, however, love it when she expresses her disapproval of… whatever, by throwing herself on the floor, face first, in the most dramatic possible fashion. Because it cracks me up.

    1. I have tried re-introducing books from the Reject Pile, but so far my daughter has been pretty consistent with her likes and dislikes.

      She still eats dinner right on the table. I figured that putting her food on a plate was akin to giving her a messy frisbee, so I’ve avoided it so far.

  3. My son has definite favourites too. He has autism, so introducing new things, be they food, TV shows or books can be quite difficult and often met with resistance. What I have found works fairly well to introduce new books is to sit on the couch and read aloud while he is playing, and seemingly not listening. I know he can hear what I am saying, even if he does not acknowledge what I am doing. Usually by the second reading, and definitely by the third (not all in a row, a few hours later, or the next day), he comes over to see what I am reading and looks at the book while I read it, and he often flips through it on his own too. I keep it low key, and without even knowing it he has a new favourite, or at least a new option.
    I cannot stand most children’s music, and after about a week of Sharon, Lois and Bram I snapped. We listen to music that I or my husband likes, without explicit lyrics, and he loves it. He now requests The Police, Adele, Lyle Lovett or ZZ Top. Car rides are much more tolerable now!

  4. “I knew that by teaching her baby signs, that I would be opening up the channels for communication and helping her establish independence.”
    My kids didn’t learn baby signs, but believe me, they were well able to communicate. Mine were early talkers, but I just recently spent the afternoon with my friends’ toddler who doesn’t speak many words, but communication is clearly established.
    As for rejecting things: By now I believe a few things about theit food preferences (one dislikes olives, the other one onions), but generally I ignore most things they say about which food they like or want, because it usually changes every 5 minutes. Especially when something is yucky when called courgette but delicious when called cucmber…
    As for clothing: I go for independence. I comment on the weather, and apparently every three months or so they need to get cold and miserable and wet. And about 4 times a year, when we go to social events I insist on stuff that’s a bit more posh. Apart from that, it’s none of my business.

  5. I was *so* disappointed when my kid didn’t like Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Not until she was about ten did she finally get around to explaining to me that it was because the Monsters didn’t have snouts. She only liked books in which the animals had snouts. Otherwise, BORING.

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