Q&A: picking up your toddler too much

A reader writes:

"I didn't see this one addressed in the archive. I'd be very interestedin opinions of picking up your toddler or baby too much. I have a 15 month old son and am often being told by my husband that I am picking him up too much.  He is in a real needy stage. He will hold my legs and cry or whine, when we are  at the park he wants to hold my hand while he walks- i usually try to encourage him to walk alone. He is also a screamer- this has been going on since he was 8 or 9 months old and he does it for glee or frustration- but seems to freak out a lot of people. I personally feel like he is going through some real independence issues and needs to work through them- ie. he weaned about a month ago, and just learned how to walk alone about a week and a half ago. Also- is this different for stay at home moms? Which I am.

So I guess when is it too much?

I feel like people have been telling me not to pick him up too much since he was born."

You answered your own question: He's in a real needy stage. If he needs something, you're helping him to grow and develop by giving it to him*. If he gets what he needs emotionally, he'll go through this stage and move on to the next one. If he doesn't get it, this stage won't be resolved.

What's the absolute worst thing that could happen if you pick up your kid whenever s/he wants to be picked up? You end up with a kid who's accustomed to being picked up. (Some people say that's a bad thing. I think there are far worse things than having a child who's comfortable with physical touch and used to asking for what they need.) But for how long ("for...how...long?") will you have to keep picking your kid up if you get them "hooked"? All kids are different, of course, but most kids do go through extreme independent stages when they want to do everything themselves and wouldn't let you pick them up for love or money. Your 5-year-old will not want to be picked up (trust me) unless he's really sick. I'm sure there are 3-year-olds who like to be carried, but I don't see a lot of them (most of the 3-year-olds I see are too busy running away quickly or trying to boss their parents around).

A separate issue is whether you can stand to pick up your child much anymore or not. There are stages in which it sometimes makes you want to jump out of your skin to have to pick him up one more time. Kids can really suck you dry emotionally and physically. But that's a separate issue. Just because you don't want to pick your child up doesn't mean it's not good for your child to be picked up.

And just because it's good for your child to be picked up doesn't mean that you can stand to do it right now! A big part of your job is teaching your child to live with other human beings in the world, and to learn balance and boundaries. At the beginning you're as gentle and loving and giving as you can be (or past what you can really be), because a baby has to learn trust before learning anything else. But once the toddler years hit it's really about the dance of balancing needs, respecting and caring for your child with love while also showing your child by example to respect you and care for you.

Saying "no" because you just can't do it isn't going to hurt your child if you can say it with love and respect. But don't let anyone con you into thinking that withholding just for the sake of withholding is helping anyone. A kid who's clingy needs more connection to feel comfortable enough to venture out. Some of it is personality and some of it is stages of development and some of it is the weather and some of it is totally random.

Now, if someone's telling you not to pick up your child, your easiest bet is just to use the path of least resistance. Listen to them, say thoughtfully, "That's an interesting idea. I'll think about that." And then do whatever you want to do. Because you're the mom and it's your child.

Hang in there. This half-mobile stage is hard. A this time next year you'll be in a completely different place emotionally.

(Here's a past post about the screaming. My ears are ringing just thinking about it.)

* Note the difference between a toddler needing to be picked up and cuddled and a teenager "needing" a new Playstation.