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The Terrible Twos or the Terrific Twos?

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Don't touch! Put that down! No! Wait! Stop! ( CRASH ) Sound vaguely familiar? Hmmm, you must have a 2-year-old in the house—or at least remember what it was like in days long gone.

A few stereotypes come to mind when talking about the twos: turbulent, testing, tantrum, terrible. But what about  terrific?

Terrific twos? Is that even possible? With a little strategic parenting and the blessing of even remotely cooperative genes, yes, the twos can be terrific!

A 2-year-old child's development is exploding on all fronts—language, motor, cognitive and emotional. This God-designed stage of rapid learning and exploration is an exciting time for your child, but coping with this incessant curiosity can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating for a parent.

This is a time when your 2-year-old may surprise you with unexpected tenderness—when he or she squats down to examine the “broken” flower or rushes to the side of an injured playmate with a gentle pat and a concerned tilt of the head.

The next moment she may shriek with indignation while placing a stranglehold on her stuffed bunny that big brother is teasingly trying to steal away. The parent of a 2-year-old can experience parental whiplash—unless you know how to expect the unexpected.

Children's personalities are different

Personalities are often evident from birth. Some children are born protesting and continue to carry a chip on their shoulder for the next couple of years. Some are easier, more compliant children. Genetically, you get what you get, and a parent's job involves shaping the rough materials through consistent loving discipline.

Is your child one of the strong-willed kind? Congratulations! Yes, you'll have your work cut out for you; but strong children can grow into strong adults who, once committed, will not veer from God's way. These are the types who often grow into bold, adventurous leaders—the Joshuas, Deborahs and Peters.

So how about some strategy? Let's start with basic needs. Dr. Ross Campbell, in his 2003 book How to Really Love Your Child, explains that children have four basic needs: 1) eye contact, 2) physical contact, 3) focused attention and 4) discipline. When these four areas are met, your child's “emotional tank” gets full.

The result is a connection between you and your child, where your child is more eager to please. It doesn't mean there won't be conflict and challenge in your child rearing, but even for those bold types, it builds a strong foundation of love and greater willingness to respect parental boundaries. In my opinion, Dr. Campbell's book is a “must read.”

Foreseeing the “evil”

With that as a foundation, let's build on it. Much of parenting a 2-year-old involves the principle of “foreseeing the evil” and avoiding it (Proverbs 22:3 Proverbs 22:3A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished.
American King James Version×
).

For example, one of the biggest mistakes parents of 2-year-olds make is ignoring them and then getting upset when they do something “bad.” Two-year-olds explore. It's part of their job description! They are full of discovery and busily learning about everything around them—that baby brother's pacifier makes a splash when you drop it in the dog's water dish, some toys, with enough effort, fit in the VCR, and things disappear when you flush them down the toilet.

One of the most fun parts of parenting a 2-year-old is opening up the world of learning and exploration to them. It involves proactive parenting, joining in the excitement and guiding those learning experiences in constructive ways. It absolutely involves setting clear limits on what your 2-year-old is and is not allowed to do or to touch, but a child's every move should not be accompanied by a harsh shout of NO!” Instead, take charge. Be your child's teacher.

Consider this example: You're in the backyard with your 2-year-old and he picks up a rock. You know he will a) throw it, b) eat it or c) conk the dog on the head with it. Being the wise and loving parent you are, your instincts tell you to a) grab it away as quickly as possible, b) shout “Put that down! Dirty!” or c) call the vet.

How about alternative “d”: In a whispering, excited voice, as you reach one hand around your toddler and the other around the rock, say, “Wow! What did you find? Is that a rock? Cool. Oh, look! It sparkles. Are there any more just like it?”

At which point you may end up gathering a whole rock family —daddy rock, mommy rock, brother and sister rock. You get the picture. With his full attention, you can then teach that rocks are not for throwing (or eating). At 2, he may not fully register that, but you are using a receptive moment for positive instruction.

Will your child become a geologist because of this experience? Maybe not, but by taking charge in a positive, proactive way, you keep your child's curiosity ignited and direct his actions—and avoid a trip to the doctor or the vet.

Recognize your child's developmental abilities

Another way to “foresee the evil,” so to speak, is to keep your expectations within your child's developmental abilities. For example, a mother gives her 2-year-old a cup without a “sippy” lid and spill after spill leads to frustration. “Why can't you just … !” Yes, eventually a child will need to learn to drink without the lid, but it will come only when the child's fine motor skills are ready.

Many books are available on what to expect at each stage of development, as well as Web sites such as www.parentcenter.babycenter.com that are loaded with articles on toddler development. Just as our Heavenly Father never gives us more than we can bear (see 1 Corinthians 10:13 1 Corinthians 10:13There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.
American King James Version×
), we should extend the same courtesy to our children and not burden them with expectations outside their abilities.

Another thing to be prepared for is the notorious “meltdown.” A child can fall into a whining, crying, angry heap for several reasons. Not to dismiss the possibility that your child, complete with human nature, is simply having an ornery moment because he isn't getting his way—something every parent must deal with—but there is often fuel for that fire that can make it rage out of control, resulting in the embarrassing meltdown.

The fatal combination is expecting too much from a child who is too stimulated and too tired. This combination is the true “terrible toos.”

If you are struggling with behavior issues, are the “toos” a contributing factor? Begin by taking a second look at how much quality sleep and quiet time your child is actually getting.

Are you occasionally skipping afternoon nap times? Is the rest of the day loaded with hyperstimulation of kids' TV shows, DVDs, playgroup or tumbling classes? Does your child eat on the run, nap in the car seat and stay up in the evening until you drop from exhaustion? Chances are neither of you is getting enough sleep.

At times like these, even a simple parental directive can tip an overstimulated, overtired child out of control. Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, he can react with grouchiness or hostility.

Correction and punishment

Finally, times will come when discipline (meaning training by instruction and practice) requires correction and sometimes punishment. Verbal correction alone is suitable when your child has simply made a mistake or had an accident. Toddlers are walking accidents. They haven't quite merged their cognitive and motor capabilities yet. A parent can use an accident as a teaching opportunity: “Next time, let's remember to …”

Punishment, however, needs to accompany correction when it's a matter of your child's obedience and attitude. The goal of punishment isn't to crush the child's spirit but to begin the lesson of cause and effect—or consequences. It is to plant the seeds of wisdom, self-control and foresight regarding their own thoughts and actions.

It also is to build trust in the parent-child relationship. Privileges that come later are earned as a result of the “trust” bank that a child builds with his parents.

It's vitally important that a parent retains calm self-control and doesn't deal with his or her child's intentional misbehavior with frustration and anger. We often get most frustrated when we feel like it's not a good time to deal with them. That's when some parents try counting: “I mean it! … 1, 2, 3 …”

But your child knows you don't mean it. And “threats” like this encourage testing, challenge and defiance. If you say it, mean it the first time. If he or she doesn't do it, act on it—lovingly, but swiftly and surely.

When your child is unruly or disobedient, that's the most important time to stop what you're doing and be a parent first. It may mean leaving the full grocery cart in the store and going out to the car or home to teach your child proper conduct and attitude. It could involve stopping a conversation at church to take your child aside for correction. These things are inconvenient and take time—but, guess what? Parenting is not convenient. It's  vital.

The toddler years, especially the twos, are intense. But by choosing to proactively parent with knowledge, excitement and love during the twos, the twos can be terrific! GN

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