Spring 2001

Alicia Bayer: Terrible Two's? Not!

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Cloth Diapers

Everywhere I look in toddler resources, I see talk about the terrible two's. There are more books on disciplining two year-olds than there are on all the rest of the ages combined. You'd think at 730 days they suddenly sprouted horns and went after your mother-in-law with a nail gun--though depending on the mother-in-law, this might get them back on the good list.

That's just the point though. They're 730 days old at two years. Days! And we expect them to know how to behave politely when suddenly told to give up that marvelous toy and go eat spinach? It's utterly amazing that they're walking, talking and interacting with us alone!

So I'm here to speak up for the two year-olds. For one thing, there is a direct link between how bossy you are and how willful they are back. It's part of the equation. They're wired to learn how to start being a little independent, thinking for themselves, and using those adult-sized emotions. Our job is not to be their masters and break their spirits, it's to teach them. That doesn't mean mother and toddler won't collapse in a sobbing heap once in a while, but if it weren't for mommy moments like that we'd all be having 16 children now wouldn't we? Some things are necessary to balance things out.

The number one aid I've found in raising a toddler is empathy. When Victoria doesn't want to share, for example, I'll say, "It's hard to share, isn't it? You want to keep the toy all to yourself. Do you see how sad Anna is that she can't play with it too though? Do you think you could both use it so you could both be happy?". Maybe she'll say no anyway, but she knows that I do understand and validate her feelings, but also that somebody else's feelings count too. She also knows how to put her feelings into words for me next time, which is much easier to deal with than the drop-and-shriek method of communicating injustices that preceded it.

I try to teach Victoria not only to name her emotions but also to brainstorm on how to deal with them. After all, part of our job as parents is to give them the basic tools for how they'll deal with their whole lives. People are disappointed, frustrated, hurt and let down all the time. Very few know how to deal with it. I guarantee that those whose toddlerhoods were spent being told "too bad" and just blindly disciplined don't know how to deal with those emotions as adults either.

When Victoria is upset about something I do not "give in." I dislike the term, because it assumes there's a battle between us and ideally it's a partnership. Nonetheless, if my child wants a 6 inch gooey-treat on a stick at Walmart, I'm going to say no. If she whines, jumps up and down, and makes screeching noises that alert all the dogs in the county, I'm still going to say no. I'm just not about to reinforce THAT sort of behavior.

However, that's not to say that in my mind the ideal response from me is to be unsympathetic and harsh, and teach her some sort of dire lesson. I'm polite. She deserves that from anybody. I'm understanding. I tell her that it sure does look like a nice treat and I bet she's sad she can't have it. I also give her a reason, so she doesn't just feel blindly ruled. Then, if it's a subject that's still causing her angst (most don't), I see what I can do to help her feel better.

To my mind, this is just as important in discipline as any other part. My child is sad. I should care about that, and I should do what I can to help--the same as I would for a friend, my husband or even someone on the street. This is a lesson for her too.

So I get down on her level and I say that I am sorry she's sad and that it is a shame. I offer up things to look forward to. I do not offer bribes, because life doesn't work that way. When you lose your job, no fairy godmother is going to come along and take you to Disneyland if you take it well. But it is an important tool to know how to see the opportunity in it and find the bright side. So I tell Victoria something like "I know that looked like neat candy, but now we're going to be having supper and do you know what we're having for dessert? Ice cream!" or "I know you wanted that but we're not going to buy candy today. I think pretty soon we're going to be passing the fishies though! Do you want to see the fishies? Yeah?! Which colors are your favorites?!" or I might even simply say that I'm sorry and ask her if she'd like a hug. I show her with my face that I truly do feel sorry, and she usually does think a hug will make her better.

I try to get into my daughter's head, and when I do I realize what a tough thing it is to be a little one. Someone else makes so many of your decisions. The world is full of bright, tasty, exciting, fun things, and yet someone seems to be arbitrarily snatching you away from it at every turn.

It's also just plain confusing. Kids need to be taught how to deal with their emotions. Many grown ups still don't know what to do when they get mad. They scream, say mean things, or even hurt people. Yet we get annoyed that a two year-old doesn't act better? And before we've even showed her how, no less!

Show your kids how you handle anger, sadness and disappointment. Talk about your own emotions and what you do to feel better. They don't just imitate us when they're pretending to cook or drive cars. They are our own little mini-me's, like it or not.

Victoria is 2 and 3/4 now and the difference between her now and 6 months ago is unreal. Those trying times are so brief, really. If you make it a power struggle, it gets stretched way out until somebody breaks, but if you treat it like a challenge you're going through with your toddler as her loving guide, it passes so quickly.

Victoria tells me sometimes that she's having a bad day now. I'll tell her I'm sorry and ask what she thinks we could do to make it better. She's already learning to think how she can take charge of her own mood and turn it around, and I'm pretty impressed by that. It's a skill some of my grown friends haven't mastered yet.

Maybe I should have a talk with their moms..... Just kidding.

Alicia Bayer is a poet and mother to daughters Annalee (one year old), and Victoria (nearly three). Formerly the coodinator of a rural domestic violence agency, she now stays home and plays with her husband and daughters, whom she's madly in love with. Find more of Alicia's writing at Themestream.

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