I’m not sure what captivates me more . . . the spontaneous belly laugh or the drool-mouthed wonder on their angelic faces. I can fall in love with a one-year-old faster than they can stink up a room with a saggy diaper. The cherub cheeks and adorable fat thighs draw me in, almost enough to make me overlook their incessantly snotty nose and the jelly they just smeared in their wispy new-grown hair. Almost.

It’s the mess that gets me. Their little fingers are drawn like magnets to anything they can break or mangle. The moment their hands become sticky-gooey, an internal signal screams somewhere in their little bodies, ‘Wipe yourself on something clean and white. Right now!’

Sitting at the dinner table, I see the same look on my granddaughter Mollie’s face that I saw on her daddy’s face so many years ago. It’s the look of curiosity that drives a toddler to snatch and smear, squish, then shriek with delight. I glance across to see the look on her mom’s face. It reads, Could I just eat a meal without being completely grossed out, maybe while the food is still reasonably warm?

It’s hard to believe, but yes, that day will come. But not until Mollie has discovered how much pasta her ears will hold or what a bowl of applesauce feels like as it drips down her face, neck, and eventually . . . to the floor.

Sweet discovery is what this phase is made of. It’s what makes patience and endurance such prized commodities for the parents of this age. You are helping your one-year-old navigate the mess of discovery.

During this phase, your brilliant bundle of exhaustless energy will climb her first stairs, say her first sentence, and begin to test her independence—independence that will be illustrated with piercing shrieks, and that vehemently spoken word: “No!”

But within the mess is an indescribable joy. He just toddled his first Frankenstein steps, three in a row, boasting the proud look of an astronaut landing on the moon. She just grabbed a crayon and scribbled her first work of art. Your darling can identify his nose and eyes and ears on command (to rousing applause), and you are certain he has the makings of a brain surgeon.

Sweet joy and pride so big it hurts—this is what wells up in the hearts of moms and dads as they watch their one-year-old develop into a little person with opinions and intellect and personality. And as you gaze, you begin to realize what this really means. Not only do you get a ringside seat to watch the beauty of potential form right before your eyes, but you get the joy of helping influence, train, and build who your child will become. Just remember: There will come a day when your once-helpless baby bathes and dresses and feeds himself, but the journey to get there comes with a little mess along the way.

– Sherry Surratt
Executive Director of Family Strategy at Orange, Former President and CEO of MOPS International, Speaker, Author, & Grandmother