It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The child is a genius

We are preparing to go out. (To the park! Because it’s SPRING!!! FINALLY!!!!!) Three tots, their shoes and sweaters on, sit side-by-side on the bottom step of the inside stairs. The fourth is getting his shoes on, and the fifth is descending the stairs, having had her precautionary pre-park pee.

Hearing the child approaching from behind, Emily, who is one of the three on the bottom step, stands up to allow descending child to pass.

Now, anyone who has not worked with toddlers would think that I was still setting the stage for my story. They would not realize they had just read the punch line. Let’s revisit that sentence, shall we?

Hearing the child approaching from behind, Emily, who is one of the three on the bottom step, stands up to allow descending child to pass.

Let me remind you all: Emily is two and a half. She has a) heard the child coming at her from behind, b) realized she is blocking their path c) decided to move out of the way — all spontaneously, without any adult direction whatsoever.

This is phenomenal. What is really, truly phenomenal about this is that she has never been told to do this. She just has the feel for common courtesy.

This is not to say the other children are wilfully rude. Well, yes, sometimes they are, of course. They are toddlers. (So, for that matter, is Emily. She does occasionally indulge in selfishness or willful rudness. When I say “occasional”, though, I do mean occasional. It’s really quite striking.) But mostly, they are typical toddlers, which is to say, largely oblivious of their impact on others, with occasional sparks of awareness.

This is not to say the other children don’t evidence positive behaviours, either. They do.

The thing is, with Emily, it’s innate. She just gets it. In a dozen little ways every single day, she evidences awareness, concern, consideration and empathy far and away above the capabilities of the average toddler.

The other children need to be taught this behaviour on a case-by-case basis. So I could explain to the other two on the step: “When someone is coming down the stairs, you need to stand up so they can get by. Otherwise, they will be stuck on the stairs.” It would have to be explained, and then it would have to be practiced.

Emily has never needed this explanation. Ever. She just does this stuff. In the couple of decades I’ve been working with children, I have never seen such a young child so naturally aware of others and considerate. (Heck, a lot of 9-year-olds wouldn’t think to shift themselves without their buddy saying “Hey! Yer in my way!”)

She was taught to say “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me”, and “sorry”, of course, just as were all the toddlers, both at my home and with their families. But Emily is the only one who can generalize: she gets the principle behind the behaviour and applies it wherever it’s required, virtually flawlessly. With the other children, if there’s a new nuance to the situation, if it’s not identical, or at least very, very similar to another situation they’ve enountered, they will need to have it explained anew, “This is a time to say ‘excuse me’, or ‘thank you’.” Not Emily.

She bumps into someone, “Excuse me!” I move to one side so she can get a toy from behind me. “Thank you.” Someone finishes a painting. “Oh, that is a very nice painting!” She tells others when they’ve done a good job, she encourages and excuses, she takes turns, she shares first, she offers to trade when she has something another child wants. She hugs a sad child, she claps for a happy child. All things that toddlers do do, of course — but not like this.

She also instructs the other children. “You hitted him and now he’s sad and you need to say ‘sorry’ and give him a hug.” “He has the book now. You want to read it with him, or read another book?” At two years, five months old! This child is a social genius.

And when someone she can’t even see approaches, she anticipates their need and meets it. No fuss, no delay. She understands.


And when she had stood up to let Malli pass? Malli stole her seat.

Now that’s typical toddler behaviour.

April 24, 2008 - Posted by | Emily, individuality, manners


  1. bless her, baby sam, (he’s nearly 3, we cant call him that any more) is very good natured, so many times something happens or I have to say no to something and I subconciously hold my breath waiting for the tantrum to come (years with dumpling taught me to expect tantrums for everything!) but it nevers comes, he happilys accepts events or outcomes that would have most toddlers in a meltdown!

    It’s nice when they get to that stage. Though Anna is prone to stomping her foot and roaring, she calms down very quickly once sent to the Quiet Stair. We haven’t had a full-blown tantrum here in, oh, a year and a half? Lovely.

    Comment by jenny uk | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  2. Emily IS a genius! I’ve never seen a child do that without a LOT of coaching and practicing first. Go Emily!!
    I just hope she’s not the type to take a lot of crap from other kids just because she nice and empathatic. Being too nice is just as problematic as not being nice at all.

    I share your concern, and I watch for that very thing. She will hand over a toy to a demanding child too readily, that’s for sure, and so I’m teaching her it’s okay to say, “You can have it in a minute.” But she’s got enough confidence and feistiness in her that I don’t think she’ll be a doormat. She’s one of the very rare children who, when they haul off and shove another child, I feel a tiny surge of satisfaction… “Yes. She has it in her to defend her rights. Good.”

    Comment by rambleicious | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  3. She sounds both nice AND confident from what you say, what a combination. I hope her folks get her into a really good school program (and maybe some foreign language) at an early age; there’s a budding ambassador in your house!

    Of course, I say this as I am just letting my 3-1/2 year old up from time out for yelling at me. SIGH.

    She is. She’s a teeny bit too malleable some days, but she is also perfectly capable of telling another child where to get off, so that’s good. Her parents, though, do tell me that she can be quite defiant at home. Of course, with her as their only close window on the world of parenting, one wonder what “quite defiant” looks like in that house! I suspect they’d find the average level of defiance completely mind-boggling!

    Comment by Allison | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  4. Wow, that IS great! Good for her. Her parents must be thrilled, too. Because yeah, even though pumpkinpie got SOME aspects really well (thank you, she really got), certainly not all that. That is quite impressive.

    As I said to Allison, above, her parents take it pretty much for granted. Because she’s what they know, right? When I was telling them how AMAZING she was in this regard, I also thought to put in a good word for her baby brother. “You know, if he doesn’t do this stuff, it won’t be because there’s anything wrong with him. He’ll just be the normal younger sibling of a genius.” Poor tyke! 🙂

    I’m hoping my absolute gushing about the girl’s skill and abilities will make an impression!

    Comment by kittenpie | April 24, 2008 | Reply

  5. Lovely, really. I think being nice gets you way more in life than being smart.

    Oh, and she’s smart, too! The smartest in this group, I suspect. The girl will go far.

    Comment by Bridgett | April 25, 2008 | Reply

  6. Wow, that’s impressive. Some adults haven’t figured out the moving-out-of-the-way process yet.

    Ain’t that the truth??

    Comment by Lady M | April 25, 2008 | Reply

  7. “The thing is, with Emily, it’s innate. She just gets it. In a dozen little ways every single day, she evidences awareness, concern, consideration and empathy “

    the opposite of Mstr A then:-) That’s all the stuff I am trying to teach him piecemeal. It’s incredibly difficult to explain all the rules surrounding awareness, consideration & empathy. He just dosn’t “get it” there’s a word for that. Is there a word for Emily?:-)

    Comment by juggling mother | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  8. Looks like Emily was well named…she seems to follow in the footsteps of a probable name sake…Emily Post. Way to go Emily!

    Comment by Mom of a Munchkin | April 26, 2008 | Reply

  9. came here via evil hrlady… im single, no kids ( a few years older than your oldest one) but hope to have a family some day. :)..

    but you know what mary? your stuff makes a lot of sense. adults, more often than not, behave like kids. and its a lot off good stuff you are typing out…

    im reading your archives, and is now at nov 06… bit anal, i know… :))

    Comment by suza | April 27, 2008 | Reply

  10. That is incredibly impressive! I can’t believe that her parents don’t see that. I hope the brother shows the same inclinations or he’ll be constantly compared to her..

    Comment by nomotherearth | April 28, 2008 | Reply

  11. Definitely genius. Jeffrey can be expected to share for short periods of time and act appropriately but it’s definitely not innate.

    Comment by Dani | May 1, 2008 | Reply

  12. […] what’s gotten into Emily? Calm, steady, preternaturally-reasonable Emily? Emily the fabulous sharer? Emily the […]

    Pingback by Expectations « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | February 26, 2009 | Reply

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