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Parenting Advice Willfulness in the "Terrible Twos"


Our two-year-old son Michael sleeps in our family bed, Mom stays home and loves him all day long, and Dad who's home at 3:00 each day to love him all afternoon and night. He has four play sites all over the house and really enjoys spending long periods each day interacting with Mom and Dad, the computer with dozens of the finest CD-ROM learning games, and six of our friends who love him dearly and compete to baby sit. He is truly a joy and a wonderful human being.

Our question concerns what he is able to comprehend about others at his age. He has demonstrated true empathy many times. We see signs, however, of the "terrible twos". He has a very strong will which we like and respect but his determination to assert independence and "get his way" has pushed us to our limits at times. Our question is, "How do you understand this stage (the 'terrible twos')"?

Sam and Michelle

Jan's reply:

Hi Sam and Michelle,

Thank you for your question. I understand your concern about willfulness, which does often first appear at your son's age. However, the negative interpretation of this behavior is an unfortunate and unrealistic legacy of the term "terrible twos". Wherever this expression came from, it has only caused harm, by frightening parents into overanalyzing and misinterpreting behavior that is in fact appropriate to the child's age and experience.

Regardless of our intentions, it is unrealistic and harmful to evaluate a child's behavior by comparing it to that of a competent adult, yet that is what this term and other similar expressions of mistrust lead us to do! A child who "has demonstrated true empathy many times" and who is "truly a joy and a wonderful human being", for whom friends "compete to baby-sit" is obviously an emotionally healthy child. The answer to your question can be put into one word: trust. Trust that he is growing at his own best rate of development, and trust yourselves too, that you are doing your best for him, with your loving and enlightened parenting.

As for his "strong will", you will learn over the years what a truly precious gift that can be. He will become a person of conviction who can make a difference in our world. With the loving parenting you are giving him, that "difference" can only be a change for the better. Gently help him to focus his energy in positive directions, and try to avoid seeing his willfulness as a "terrible twos" defect that needs to be corrected or fought against. Henry Ward Beecher put it well: "That energy which makes a child hard to manage is the energy which afterwards makes him a manager of life." That's interesting advice from a nineteenth century preacher.

Try to forget what specific age he is this year - or any year - and simply accept him as he is. With this perspective, it should be easier to meet his needs in a realistic and helpful way, with compassion and understanding.

Also try to avoid seeing his desires as "wanting to get his way". Which of us does not want to get "our way"? Why is it seen as immature and selfish when a child "wants his way", and perfectly understandable and acceptable when an adult wants what he or she wants? Each and every human being wants what they want. This is a truism, unrelated to one's age, and is not really a topic for debate.

Congratulations on the good job you're doing! Enjoy your "wonderful, empathetic" child. You won't believe how quickly he'll leave the "twos", and "threes", and all the other years of childhood.


Sam and Michelle's reply:

Dear Jan, Thank you for writing back and so promptly. Your advice is wonderful. The phrase, "terrible twos" is so widely referred to. It's great to hear a "radical" perspective.

Thanks again,

Sam and Michelle

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