The Toddler Strategy

Toddler crying

A while back I read this interesting piece on Seth Godin’s blog about the toddler strategy.

He says most people don’t get too upset with what a 2-year-old says to them. That’s because a 2-year-old is just a toddler, with little understanding of the world, just forming his/her first experiences of life. A 2-year-old may say something ridiculous, like remarking on someone’s shortcomings or making social boo-boos (“You are fat, grandma“), and that’s okay, in that no one expects such a young kid to have empathy or to understand the nuances of human behavior.


Of course, getting mad at a toddler won’t do you any good. Firstly, the toddler will get frightened. Secondly, you will feel like an idiot for making a small child scared. Thirdly, a toddler isn’t going to understand much in the way of manners, at least not in a few years. You don’t expect a toddler to understand the complex laws of human behavior and social etiquette, many of which are not spoken and are learned through time.

That’s why when a toddler calls a young lady “auntie” (which is a social boo-boo in Singapore as “auntie” tends to be reserved for older women in their 40s and above), it’s logical to just smile and wave. That’s why when a toddler stomps his feet and insists that he wants the toy, you don’t just snatch it away; you be the bigger person and let him play. You don’t shout at a kid, type lengthy rebuttals to prove your point, or sink into depression over some comment a small kid made. It’s just nonsense if you do.

And that’s the same with trolls and uninformed critics. These are the people who remark insensitively about your work and speak without knowing better. These are people who make judgment calls based on a few sporadic pieces they see; who claim that they know everything; who have expectations on what you should do or shouldn’t do when they aren’t even vested in your work; who bulldoze their opinions and speak without empathy. They mock, criticize, judge, complain, and make demands without regard of your time. These people are different from the constructive critics, who care about what you do, who are heavily vested in your work and who support you, and who want to see you succeed.

Rather than react defensively or beat yourself up over things that the negative folks say, why not treat them as toddlers? Firstly, they won’t understand even if you try to make them understand by way of lengthy responses. Secondly, they don’t care enough to understand, or at least most don’t. Most of the time, these people don’t really care about you or what you have to say. They usually just feel deprived/unhappy at that moment, have some negativity to dispense, and chose to unload that onto you at that very moment.

The internet is a miracle in that it has allowed us to find each other in this sea of people. But it also has its negative side because it has given an equal voice to folks who may be very wrapped up in hate, pride, and anger, and choose to use this power to unleash hate on other people, including every website, article, video, and posting that they vaguely dislike, when they can just focus on the positive stuff and move on.

This is why the internet is so “noisy” these days with so many negative comments and so much criticism. It’s not because the world is a negative place or that there are many negative people. It’s just that the negative people are louder and more proactive about being heard, which is why they seem like they are everywhere. For example, I run a public website where someone who has just visited the site for a few minutes and is unhappy over one small little thing that nobody else has a problem with can take the trouble to hunt for the contact button and send an angry email insulting me personally (true story). On the other hand, people who appreciate and may have vaguely benefited from some of the material may not deem it necessary for them to share their feedback or positive gains, because they assume that’s the norm or they don’t care enough to do so. This then makes the former seem much more present than the latter, when it could be happening at a ratio of 1:999,999.

But negative people aren’t everywhere; they are just louder and better at getting heard. The way you react to them can determine if they get even more attention. If you choose to respond angrily, let them drain your emotions, or give them more airtime than they should, you are in a way contributing to this noise level. On the other hand, if you just treat them as being toddlers, you recognize that there is nothing to get upset about or react to because that’s just them being who they are, vs. them trying to get you personally.

Of course, when there’s a point to be made, stand up for yourself. But for the most part, treat their behavior as you would a toddler’s. Just nod, smile, and then walk away.

Image: Crying toddler


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