The Terrific Two’s

by Tatiana Luna

The Terrible Two’s?  I don’t think so.  The Wonderful Two’s.  The Terrific Two’s if you want to stick with catchy alliterations.

The Two’s are when children start asking questions.  They start asking questions in an unconscious manner: experimentation.  The seemingly fickle, irrational, willful “no!” of the two year old is at root simple experimentation.  Two Year Olds are learning that they have a will, they can say “yes” or “no,” and “no” is preferable because they want to find out: “what happens if I don’t do this thing?” and “what will Mother or Father do about it?”

I think what most parents miss is that Two Year Olds really want the answer to these questions, despite the willfulness and stubborness.  They don’t just want to make you angry (although they feed off of that response in a very problematic way).  Two Year Olds still want direction even though they are also starting to want to do most things on their own.  They may act like they want complete control (which turns into a free for all if one allows that), but in fact, this new level of control combined with a lack of consistency on the parent’s part makes the child feel insecure.  Of course, a Two Year Old doesn’t have consciousness of any of these mechanisms.  But as I have seen with Isabelle, the frequency of giving into her or responding angrily to her “no”s (or, more accurately, giving up on the patient and repetitive responses) is directly connected to bad behavior, and, I’m sure, they both would have risen exponentially if I hadn’t gotten this back under control.  This connection may seem obvious to some, but the part that isn’t obvious, is that the bad behavior of Two Year Olds usually comes from insecurity (“why did this thing change?” “why is she/he doing something differently?”) and a desire for attention (the patience and repetition of being consistent in one’s response to a child’s experimentation takes a lot of time and attention).

If a parent does not see this pattern and that many of the “bad” behaviors of Two Year Olds are in fact part of a phase of experimentation and questioning, then you cannot take advantage of the opportunities this phase can afford.  “No”s can lead to fruitful discussions and answers.  I have noticed that when Isabelle begins to understand the reasoning behind my “no” or some command I am giving her, she is much more willing to comply.  So I take the time to explain everything.  Everything.  I explain things that I never expected I would explain to anyone.  “We don’t wear daytime clothes to bed, because then they will get wrinkled and we can’t wear them during the day.”  “You need to sit on the toilet before we go outside, because when we are outside, it is hard to find a toilet and you don’t want to pee in your pants.”  I break everything down, and I do it calmly and matter-of-factly.  Often when she knows this explanation behind an action, she will do it herself without my asking the next time.  She will even explain it to me herself (or to her stuffed animal friends, whom she teaches almost every practical thing I teach her.)

This is the only time in life when these practical, everyday things that we take for granted are interesting.  And if, as parents and teachers, we can step out of our “this is boring and obvious” frame of mind, it can be fun to explain these things and see our children understanding them.  Sometimes, my explanation of something alerts me to the arbitrariness in my own command.  It’s more possible to change your mind without seeming inconsistent when you are practicing transparency with your child: “I know I said this before, but I thought about it, and I think it’s okay for you to do that.”  I can see that my transparency also provides a model for Isabelle to explain her own thoughts, and that’s the best part for me: “I’m going to go rest on the couch, because I’m tired.”  Woah!  She will admit to being tired and she knows what to do when she feels tired!  Awesome.

And after the practical stuff comes the fun stuff: “What’s that?”  “What is that butterfly doing?”  The questions begin.  The curiosity about how the world works starts coming out in the Two Year Old’s newfound prowess with language in the form of questions.  I think that in the beginning this curiosity that makes children so fun if you engage it alights just as much on “boring” stuff (the practical stuff like brushing your teeth and going to the bathroom) as the “fun” stuff (animals, plants, songs, books…), but their interest in the practical things will quickly engender “no”s and bad behavior if their parents’ reaction to them is that of an obvious chore that they don’t have the patience to explain.  So slow down, parents.  Pretend you’re someone who has never used a toilet before or a sink or a broom, and realize it can take years to master these basic skills, but the practice doesn’t have to feel like pulling teeth.  And use language, clear, full sentences to stimulate that perfect language learning center in the brain.  And with these simple steps (that also take a lot of self awareness and practice) I think you will have a Terrific Two Year Old on your hands.  I know I do.