With my two girls, I don’t remember any terrible two’s or three’s. Actually, the hardest year of their early childhood was between their first and second birthdays, when they were walking and getting into everything but still not quite grasping the meaning of “no.” They either ignored my request altogether or smiled while they were doing whatever I told them not to do.
I can tell this is going to be very different with my son. This past year was a breeze. But as we neared his birthday, he has begun to furiously assert his independence. Completely normal, but two-year-olds can run a lot faster and throw a lot farther than one-year-olds and they can reach the door knob and maneuver kitchen chairs easier to climb up onto counters and can unscrew peanut butter jar lids. Plus, the default tricks for one-year-olds, substitution and redirection, don’t work nearly as well on two-year-olds whose memory and focus are more fine-tuned. And then, of course, we have to remember that he’s a little boy, with energy and large motor skills galore.
So I may experience the terrible two’s for the first time with my third child. Good thing, I’ve mellowed out over the years.
In mellowing out, what I mean is not that I’m more lax in the limits I set. My discipline approach is definitely changed. I don’t spank, yell, use timeout or any kind of punishment—I teach. But what I mean more about mellowing out is that I don’t get all uptight if my kid isn’t perfectly behaved all the time. I have a perfectionistic nature, so this was a big deal for me to be able to let go. But gradually I was able to handle a little more mess, a little more accidents, a little more normal kid stuff. And a lot of it was learning about normal child development.
Normal child development, especially for early childhood, means kids are exploring and learning, and that messes and accidents and pushing boundaries and tantrums are part of that process of becoming an individual. Actually, the term is autonomy. They’re developing their identity and how they differ from their caregiver.
Still, like any parent, I would rather have well-behaved kids than not. But I’ve found that if you work in the mindset of compassion and empathy for the child, in the framework of what exactly is normal for each stage, with trust in the process, that kids will behave well on their own. What’s more, they’re happy and so are the parents. Think about how happy you’d be if you didn’t have to yell anymore and your kid was doing what you wanted.
But there is a balance here. You have to realize that your child is a different person than you are—with their own way of doing things and thinking about things—and that they won’t do everything you ever wanted. You can help shape them, help guide them, but this isn’t about receiving a blank slate and writing their destiny. What I’m talking about is relationship-based parenting, not one based on behavior control. Rarely does trying to control another person end well—either the other person rebels or they comply and completely lose themselves, lost in their bottomed-out self-esteem.
These concepts are often better explained with an example.
My daughter, turning 6 next month, was refusing to fold the laundry with the rest of the family. Because she lives in the house, it’s one of my “rules” that she then helps with the housework. But this evening, she wasn’t having it. She picked through the laundry basket and declared that there wasn’t anything she could fold. So I gave her a pile of her clothes to put away and she burst into tears.
It was time to have a talk. After finishing that laundry load, she and I went outside to the porch for a private talk. I could tell that she was tired, but even though exhaustion makes people crabbier than usual, they still have underlying feelings that are generating that crabbiness. And I asked her what was wrong, and she said she was mad at me for making her put clothes away rather than letting her fold. I explained that she didn’t appear to be folding and the clothes she put away were her own that she would have to put away anyway. She talked about how she hated doing laundry, and I explained that we all must help with the laundry because we all contribute clothes to the mix and that I wasn’t a fan of laundry, either, but there are always things to do that we don’t like to do. She was still refusing to do laundry, and I said that she would need to help if she was putting clothes in the laundry. There didn’t seem to be any way around the power struggle, so I told her that we were at an impasse. She asked what that was and I told her. She thought for a bit and said that she needed more help learning how to fold items other than dishrags and socks, her two mainstays that weren’t in the load we had just folded. And I said that I could help do that with the next load and she could always ask me for help, too. And then she smiled and began chatting away about something that happened at school. The next load of laundry, I taught her how to fold bath towels and she asked how to fold Daddy’s shirts.
I didn’t lose my cool. I didn’t feel offense when she said she was angry or that she was going to continue to refuse to do laundry. I didn’t threaten or coerce. I simply let her feel what she was feeling and calmly let her know what I was feeling, and let the conversation go how it was going to go. And I genuinely cared about her feelings, making it impossible for me to feel angry at her anger, but yet kept in perspective my side of things.
This being a relationship, I also kept in mind her developmental stage and her way of thinking. I held her on my lap while we were talking. I think it becomes more of a me-versus-you when people face each other head-on and put space between them, especially in a parent-child situation. I practiced good listening skills and reflective communication.
Kids naturally, biologically, want to please their parents. It’s in their wiring. But they can also be easily taken advantage of because of this, and the result is low self esteem and acting-out. As parents, it’s our job to find a balance between their desire to please and our temptation to take advantage of that, all the while teaching good relationship skills.
A child who is well-behaved because of control and punishment isn’t learning good relationship skills. You can see this in their peer relationships, where they’re trending toward a bully, a victim, a people-pleaser, an avoider of conflict—there’s many ways this shows itself. This is different than a shy child, though. Basically, it’s any behavior that’s antisocial in that it doesn’t promote positive social interaction. A bashful child may be less assertive, but it becomes antisocial if they put themselves repeatedly in a victim position in order to feel worth.
And kids who grow up with these behaviors, without an intervention of some sort, whether from mom and dad changing their parenting style or their own awakening of what prosocial behavior is, don’t grow out of those antisocial behaviors on their own. So, they’re carrying them into adulthood, into their work relationships, friendships, marriages and family interactions. They find relationships to be hard and happiness to be hard to attain in relationships, and since so much of life is about relationships, the way we interact with one another can color our entire life.
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Last reviewed: 6 Sep 2013