Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The terrible twos, or whatever

I keep hearing things about the so-called "terrible twos." Some people say they don't exist. Some people say that extended breastfeeding will turn them into the terrific twos. Some people say they really start at eighteen months. Some people say it's really the threes that are terrible.

Me, I have no idea. For us, the stages seem much shorter. We have a rough week, and then a great week. We have a few weeks of some new, puzzling behavior that has me pulling out my hair -- and then I figure out out how to respond to it, and it's suddenly no big deal.

The two big things that are new in this almost-two stage are really big emotions and a lot of what you could call contrariness. The emotions are what cause those massive tantrums. They're pretty awful, I admit. But I've learned not to take them personally and to remain calm, and in response, he's never again thrown a fit like that epic one. I've also realized they always happen when he's tired, so I've prevented a lot of trouble by being really, really obsessive about bedtimes.

As for the contrariness, I actually find it more funny than anything. I could suggest he eat an ice cream sundae and then go fly an airplane, and he'd still say no. It's a big revelation to him that he can say no, so he tries it all the time to see how much of his life he can control.

I was getting gray hair over the potty last week. I would know he needed to go - we've had a very good rhythm going on lately - and I'd suggest the potty. Instead of running over happily, he'd say no. I'd offer to read a book, remind him that he could get a treat if he goes - no dice. Sometimes I dragged him over and forced him to sit down. That backfired big time. He'd scream, cry, not go - and then the instant I let him off, he'd go on the floor. It was a full-on potty battle, and I was in despair because he'd been doing almost perfectly just the week before!

So I tried something else. "Do you want to sit on the potty?" "NO!" "Okay, maybe later." "Yes!" And he'd run over and go! He didn't mind sitting on the potty. He just wanted to be able to say no.

We've had similar battles with clothes. He now knows how to take certain shirts off. So wrestling him into clothes in the morning is kind of pointless. He's spent a lot of time naked lately, I admit. I hear many voices in my head telling me I'm a lousy parent, that I should assert my authority, and so on, but on the other hand, what does it matter? When we're leaving the house, he always cooperates because he loves going places. Before bed, we mostly just have to wrestle him into his pajamas and remind him that a story comes next. He stops complaining once we're done dressing him. (I say we because it's kind of a two-person job. Ever try to force an angry cat into a tight sweater? Pretty much like that.)

There are a million other ways he's been asserting his independence, as it were. Throwing books in the sink, knocking over piles of books, pouring water on the floor. And if I say no, he yells "Yes!" as many times as it takes.

Kinda scary, no?

It's kind of a turning point for me. Do I punish, threaten, or intimidate him into submission? I admit I've tried. But it never goes well. There is nothing more stubborn than a toddler. Even if I "win," he will be angry at me and take it out on me some other way. But mostly the only way to win is with overwhelming force - i.e. removing him from the scene altogether.

So my usual tactic is to skip the arguing, yelling, and punishing. After all, the only way to win is to refuse to fight. He wants to fight. So I decide whether to just let him do whatever it is and clean up later, or physically stop him. This usually means either taking the offending object away or picking him up and moving him. Either way, he gets hopping mad. But he usually gets over it fast, and I avoid getting mad.

I know this is supposed to be the golden opportunity to show who's boss. But I think he already knows that. After all, I decide when and what he can eat, where he may (and must) go, when bedtime is, and whether or not to read him dozens of books every day. The question is not, "Am I the boss?" but "How much freedom do I let him have?" My rule of thumb is that if it affects only himself, or if it's an arbitrary manners thing (like please) I usually don't sweat it. Bedtime isn't negotiable, but because I'm careful to watch for signs of tiredness and to wind him down with a story, it's rarely a point of contention. And if it affects someone else, then he doesn't get to choose. An annoying habit he has recently is grabbing my hands to try to make me do various things. I hate that, so I keep my hands away and prompt him to ask for what he wants. If he keeps trying to grab, I just walk away, saying, "You have the right to your body, but you don't have the right to mine."  He hates that, but he's been learning that you have to treat people better if you want them to stick around. It's not exactly a punishment - I'll come back a minute later if he asks - just a natural consequence.

Sure, I could spend a lot of effort trying to prove to him that he has to obey me. It would be a huge battle. I'd label him a "strong willed child," because I suppose he is one. Then, if Dr. Dobson is to be believed, I'm just going to have to go through the whole thing again when he's a teenager. That's a lot of fighting that doesn't really have to happen.

Everything else I do is about using an ounce of prevention instead of a pound of cure. I obsess over sleep. I offer snacks often, because he's kind of oblivious to his own hunger signals. I pay into his "love bank" often with lots of reading time (which is the only time but bedtime that he'll snuggle) and into his "fun bank" with games like "get me a rag and we'll clean up this mess together" or "wash the dishes." (Yes, I'm lame like that, but he so loves being helpful that I take full advantage while I can.) The days I don't do these things are the days when he gets into mischief. He loves attention and he'll take yelling if he can't get the other kind.

Meanwhile, he get cuter every day. He plays independently a lot, usually while singing and talking to himself. He's communicating better all the time. I kinda like this stage. I don't find it terrible. We have our days, but we always have. And when those days are over, we've both learned a lot about getting along with each other.

Do you believe in the terrible twos?


Sarah Faith said...

no, it's my favorite!! I love it. I can deal with strong willed - it's whining that gets under my skin! age four. blech

Hannah, Horn, and Hannabert said...

I am fairly certain Hannabert is already strong willed (and plain strong - taking away anything from his requires at least two people). I know it is hard not to show him who the "boss" but I hope your more gentle approach will have a much longer lasting impression.

Sheila said...

It's actually not hard for me not to be bossy. I hate bossing anyone around (this is why my libertarian husband is so happy with me) and the times I've tried, I've realized right away that I'm not going to "win" that way. I can only win by working WITH this kid, because when we go head to head, I usually find nobody gets what they want and we both end up miserable.

What seems hard to me would be having battles like that a dozen times a day. I think I'd go crazy.

The only thing that makes it hard is fear of others' judgment. I'm afraid that when people hear I let my kid run around naked today because he so adamantly didn't want to be dressed, or that I didn't punish him when he made a mess, they're going to call me a lax, permissive, terrible parent. And they kind of do, even for silly things like whether or not he's wearing shoes. I just hope they're wrong and I'm right! Considering he's my kid and not theirs, I think the odds are in my favor. ;)

Unknown said...

I do believe in the terrible twos. I think that toddlers brains are developing complex emotions and they really can't deal and process them all maturely. So I just wait out fits, do the best I can, and know that it's just all part of the process. Sometimes I think of clever ways to trick my daughter into not being contrary, like saying I am going to go potty first, and that spurs her to run to the potty and go. Or I just tell her, well then we will have to put on a diaper. And she does not want that, so she goes. I really just try to keep things in perspective and enjoy the good parts because in a few years I know I am going to miss this time. I was once told, "Is it going to bother you in 5 years? If not, there's no reason it should bother you now." And I always think of that when I am dealing with a mess or a fit or something.

courtney said...

I think it's so important to allow toddlers (all children) the oportunity to say 'no' and be respected in that (we as adult expect no less) so that they feel confident enough to say 'no' in uncomfortable situations as they get older eg peer pressure, dangerous people/abuse potential (god forbid), etc etc.

CatholicMommy said...

I love that Marko is enough older than Peter that I can get a glimpse of what's coming and how to deal with it. Thanks! :-)

Sheila said...

I know, CatholicMommy, I follow lots of blogs of kids a few months older than mine, just to get some early warning!

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