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Two-year-olds aren’t terrible—they’re just learning how to be human

Ask any parent what he or she wants most for their children and the majority will say, “I want my child to be happy.”

Yes, parents also want their kids to be safe and resilient, knowing the world can be an adversarial place and that in order to truly succeed in life—in whatever they aspire to do and be—they need to develop certain emotional skills and become well-adjusted.

They will also say they want their children to be “kind,” “caring,” “respectful,” and often “successful” and “smart.” These are all values that most of us share. Who wouldn’t want a child to grow up to be kind, caring, successful, and happy?

But can we really make our children happy? Can we force them to be genuinely kind?

No. We really can’t make our kids do anything. We can kiss them, love them, hug them, and indulge them. We can sign them up for myriad activities, plan playdates and vacations, give them music lessons, Mandarin classes, gymnastics, soccer, and ballet, and do our utmost to get them into the best schools.


But think about it for a moment—is “happiness” really what we are after anyway?

This drive we have as happy-seeking, often overachieving parents begins early—our plump little babies are allowed to coo, cry, spit up, and awaken us at night until they are about one year and ten months. Then, whammo! As soon as they reach two years old, suddenly and as if overnight, we have a whole new set of rules for them: we want them to behave, listen, follow rules, and “be nice.” And just as we shift our expectations of our no-longer babies, all hell seems to break loose. A switch is flicked and our sweet little ones turn into demanding, irrational, often defiant toddlers. We worry that if we don’t clamp down on their “bad” behaviors now, they will have these behaviors forever.

It may surprise you to know that parents often—unwittingly, unintentionally—get in the way of their toddlers growing into the well-adjusted, empathetic, resilient, happy older children and adults they envision them to be.

Parents often think they are doing what is best for their children, when in fact, all they are doing is blocking the needs that are at the core of who that child is. And when we suffocate those needs, or even simply overlook them, when we, unwittingly or not, try to mold our children, and shape their behavior according to some preconceived expectations of who they are and who we think they ought to be, we stamp out and smother them. We deny them the crucial foundation necessary for every child to grow up well. By getting in their way, we can inadvertently sabotage our children’s development in, we take away their ability to understand themselves, to explore the world in a way that makes sense to them and encourages their curiosity. We truncate their motivation to learn. We take away their confidence to forge relationships, and most crucial of all, we interrupt their ability to develop the emotional skills necessary for them to succeed in school and in life.

I don’t mean succeed in the way we tend to think of success these days: that they will become straight-A students, awesome athletes, accomplished artists, or the next great business innovators—though all of that might happen, too. What I mean by success is this: a person who feels confident to explore the world around him with excitement and curiosity, who is not afraid to make mistakes, who feels secure enough to begin to make friends, and who feels well-adjusted enough to bounce back when she is disappointed. A person who can handle life is motivated to learn, stands up for herself, and cares about others. Sound too good to be true?

Not at all.

Toddlers do or say many things that from an adult point of view appear to be irrational, unsocialized, or even absurd. Indeed, many of our toddlers’ seemingly illogical choices make us parents very nervous. We can get embarrassed. Our response?

We tend to overcorrect them, or criticize them, or simply stop them. As adults, we see our toddlers’ erratic behavior as needing to be controlled because they seem so out of control, which,from an adult view, they might be. This is when we tend to fall back on generalizations about the classic “terrible twos”—or threes or fours. We see kids this age as misbehaving or rude or not listening or losing it or throwing temper tantrums over nothing. But when looked at with fresh eyes, these misbehaviors can make sense, even to us. Then you will be able to guide your child through it to a more socialized way of being. Eventually.

So what can parents do? There are six key ways parents can interact with their toddler. Parents can:

1. Mirror back a sense of safety and relative order;

2. Listen to children instead of always talking at and directing them;

3. Give children freedom to play and explore on their own;

4. Allow children the space and opportunity to struggle and fail;

5. Work to understand who each individual child is and what he needs at a given age; and

6. Provide children with limits, boundaries, and guidance.

These simple actions give any child a strong foundation to grow during a time when they are just beginning to test and understand themselves in relation to others and respond to and manage their complicated feelings.

And guess what happens when we interact with our kids in this way? We suddenly become disentangled from the battles; calm and clear enough to respond to what our child is really needing at any given moment (rather than starting with what the adult needs at that moment); and flexible enough to give our kids choices while at the same time providing support and boundaries.

This excerpt from “How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success” is republished with permission from Tovah Klein.

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