Some parents call it meltdown. Others use the more familiar word tantrum. I call it the Land of the Terrible Twos. It’s a place never more than a moment away where our active boy goes when he doesn’t get his way or when he wants more attention.
He’ll be happy with his dessert as mommy and daddy finish dinner — when, suddenly, there’s a foot on the table. Then another one in the rice pudding.
A sharp rebuke does not set things right. And, before I reach him, our son has kicked askew the tablecloth.
Thus far, the Land of the Terrible Twos is a place my son only visits. Yet at times he appears to stake a claim and display an allegiance to the realm that threatens our family life. He seems to have a well-calculated inner motive to be mean, violent, disobedient and generally disruptive. Of course his alliance is not yet set: He has not developed the inner awareness, or self-will, by which he directs his actions and decisions.
In the big world of responsibility, he’s a wayfarer. Sometimes he’s on the right track while following the good examples of others. Sometimes he’s lost in the crowd of unformed thoughts, desires, emotions and needs. And then there are the times when he runs headlong into the thickets of the Terrible Twos. No! Me! Mine! These are the passwords to this land, and he can cross the border as swiftly as a smile turns to a stiff lower lip.
Parents with children at or near this age have a natural sympathy and affinity with one another. “Is he 2?” we ask one another with knowing smiles as we pass in the supermarket aisles, struggle to hold a pair of squirming pants in the church pew, or stand with hands helplessly on hips at the playground as our little one tauntingly explores the narrow passages of a playscape, just out of our reach.
“This behavior just seemed to click on the day after his second birthday,” my wife says repeatedly, apologetically to neighbors and strangers and anyone who will listen.
A close friend who is going through the TT phase for the eighth and ninth times with her twins has been a font of wisdom and calm for me and my wife as we seek sense and sanity. This mother of nine children has identified three facts that all parents should know.
“First,” she says, “the terrible behavior usually starts before 2 years of age. Second, each child is different. Third, the twos do not last forever, though it may seem like they’ll never end.”
Her boy tends to clear the table of bowls, plates and utensils when his will has been thwarted. Meanwhile his twin sister watches calmly. Until it’s her turn, at which time the girl expresses her tantrums with screams and kicks.
“They have different temperaments, different trigger events, different levels of toleration,” their mother says. “Even twins, I’m finding, need to be treated as individuals.”
Though the terrible twos is a phase, she warns, parents must not simply wait it out and put off discipline and formation until a time when the child seems more reasonable.
“You cannot reason with a child this age,” she adds, “but I find that they most definitely know when Mommy and Daddy are not happy with them. Whether it’s tantrums or a case of ‘No,’ you can’t let behavior get out of control at this stage, or else it will be more difficult to rein them in later. The important thing is not to get down to their level of anger and reaction, which is difficult. You need to correct and discipline in a firm and calm way, but you need to do it.”
The culture at large seems to have come around to a similar sort of sense on this subject. I turned 2 at a time when parents were reading (or misreading) Dr. Benjamin Spock and were terrified of causing permanent emotional trauma to their toddlers by any type of discipline. Yet that age of baby-boom permissiveness seems to have passed, at least according to popular websites on child rearing.
DrGreene.com comforts parents who feel like failures: “Ideal children do NOT always agree with their parents. Ideal parenting does not prevent the terrible twos — it helps children navigate them.”
The good doctor does not recommend spanking to stop bad behavior, but he favors discipline: “Whatever you do, if your child had a temper tantrum to try to get something, don’t give it to him, even if you would have ordinarily done so,” he advises. “Giving in to tantrums is what spoils a child. Giving in is the easiest, quickest solution in the short run, but it damages your child, prolongs this phase, and ultimately creates far more discomfort for you.”
The pediatrics expert in the popular About.com website recommends having “a regular routine for meals, naps, bedtime, etc.; offering limited choices only, like ‘would you like apples or oranges for your snack’ and not just ‘what do you want for your snack.’ This helps your toddler feel like he is making some decisions and has power over things, but he isn’t able to choose unacceptable alternatives.”
As I see it, my mission as a father is to make sure that my son doesn’t stay in the Land of the Terrible Twos for long and grow into the ruler of his own little realm, Terrible Twodom.
We’ve all met adults who are the tyrants of Twodom, who make life miserable for us and for themselves. To save my son from such a fate, sometimes I need to be a special-ops dad and swoop in to save my little guy when his behavior threatens himself or others. It’s a lightning operation: scissors out of hands, pencil out of ear, poison out of reach. Other times I’m the good cop talking my son down from a stubborn precipice of ‘No’ he’s not sure he wants to be on. Or I’m the skilled mediator urging him to realize that the cookie he’s demanding is not worth giving up the benefits he’ll reap if he finishes his milk.
Too often, though, I play that frustrated character “Because I’m the Daddy,” as I grab him by the seat of his pants and plop him into his room, where he can talk it over with his favorite stuffed toy.
Not long ago, Register Family Matters columnist Dr. Ray Guarendi recommended this very approach on this very page. “He’s a kid,” he wrote, exhorting a parent to take action rather than practice debate skills. “If he agreed with all your parenting moves, he wouldn’t need you to teach him virtues and values. He’d see childrearing from a parent’s perspective. He could raise himself.”
My wife and I hear our son’s intellect, will and conscience developing as he points a finger at Blue Bear and explains to the inanimate object the dos and don’ts of our house: “No throwing toys. No kicking table. No scratching furniture.”
After the prescribed time, when I come to bring him back to the land of family and community, he is all smiles.
He utters his deeply sincere “Sorry.” Which is good enough for the moment — and then it’s time for some more rice pudding.
Stephen Vincent writes from