Childhood:  The User’s Manual



Chapter 5  Independence:  the Terrible Twos. 


“The Terrible Twos” is a  very silly phrase.    It makes moms anxious, and I think it is a complete misnomer.  I found the whole period interesting, challenging, and not terrible at all. 


It doesn’t, incidentally, start at age two.  Like adolescence, the stage starts and ends at very different times for different kids.  In our case, it started at about 22 months and ended at about age three and a half, but I’ve seen other families where the stage started at two and a half and ended about ten minutes before the kid went to kindergarten.  (Actually, in the case of one of Andrew’s friends, the stage appeared to end in his first semester of college, but that’s another story.)


But the phenomenon is real.


What goes on is that the kid stops being a baby and transitions into being a kid.  First (and this begins at age 1) the kid notices that he is DIFFERENT from his parents and that they can go away and leave him and he will be either alone in his room or supervised by people who are “other” or “not family.”  Then a few months later the kid notices that he can have, sustain, and remember opinions and needs that his parents don’t meet and with which they don’t agree.  Now, mind, it isn’t new for the kid to want his own way and not get it.  The difference in the twos is that he can remember not getting his way, be indignant for a prolonged period about not getting it, and articulate his indignation.  He can, and will, fly into a sustained rage.


There are several challenges in dealing with this newfound independence (challenges both for the kid & for the parent):


            First:  at the beginning of this stage, the kid doesn’t have much vocabulary for articulating his needs and may not articulate them clearly.  His increasing memory and ability to conceptualize exposes him to new and very unpleasant feelings (anxiety, envy, frustration, regret, disappointment) but he doesn’t have the faintest idea how to talk about them and doesn’t know the words.  And he isn’t aware that these are just feelings and that they will pass.  It’s got to be scary for him.


            Second, the parents are accustomed to treating the kid like a baby and making decisions for him without much consultation.  At one, he doesn’t notice.  At two he finds it as insulting as you or I would.


            Third, the kid is in the process of developing long-term memory, but that process is not yet complete.  This means he is not capable of very much in the way of “waiting” “sharing” or “remembering rules”—which are all skills required of kids but not of babies.   As the parents transition into thinking of their baby as a child (and sometimes a difficult child) they expect him to begin to behave like a child.  By age 5 he can.  But at the beginning of the period he has to be taught the common rules of civilized life.  And since many of these rules are counter-intuitive, the teaching takes time and has to be accompanied by an obvious payoff in increased autonomy.


            Fourth, the kid has no skills whatsoever for coping when he loses his temper.  His personality melts down and he doesn’t know how to reassemble it.  (This happens again in adolescence when all those hormones flow at the same time).   We have to teach him coping skills, too, & it doesn’t help that he has gotten adept at pressing all our buttons and may sometimes cause us to melt down as well.  We have to model the behavior that we want him to learn, rather than regressing to his level.


            It isn’t just the child who has to change.  The parent has to change too.  And if the parent is willing to think about this annoying behavior as developmental growth, analyze it, talk about it in advance, and plan a strategy, then there are two really beneficial outcomes.  It is much easier and less painful for the kids to make the change, and it is much easier and less painful for the parent to experience it. 


            So start early to think about the independent child you would like your kid to be in the third or fourth year.  How do you want her to behave and what behaviors do you need to adopt in order to encourage her growth?  How do you need to think differently about your baby in order to have her become an independent and socially adept child?  Start early.  Start sometime around 18 months. 


            Let’s begin by thinking about the different behavioral goals for a nine month old and for a four year old.  With a nine-month old, the child gets up and is fed, dressed, changed and cuddled.  When we go somewhere with her, we pick her up (and her forty pounds of supplies) and head off, possibly telling her where we’re going, but certainly not asking her opinion.  If we go with her to a restaurant, we know that the caretaking adult needs to be primed to go for a walk with her if she starts to cry, or to give her an early bottle if she needs to eat.  We don’t go to movies with her.  If she starts to crawl or walk towards an object that may hurt her, we deftly take it away and substitute something more attractive, knowing that she will forget about object one if an enticing second object is offered.  If she does something we don’t like we will say “no,”  but we certainly don’t expect her to remember our correction.  We’re not even sure she understands the words yet.  She has no responsibility for her own care and very little responsibility for her own behavior.


            At four we expect our child to get up and (with coaching) dress herself.  We expect her to eat her breakfast when we serve it to her.  We expect her to be able to be in a room alone for a brief period without getting into anything harmful.  We expect her to know not to stick the knife into the electric socket and not to run with scissors and not to go out in the street and not to pinch her little sister or snip the tail off the cat or eat the cigarette butt on the street.  We expect her to remember all these things.  We expect her to go to a restaurant or a movie and sit still and keep quiet.  We expect her to play with other children, take turns, and share her toys.


            Why would she want to do ANY of these things?  Why is it surprising that she objects to learning them, especially if nobody explains the point?


            Remember the fantasy in the last chapter about the Visiting Tibetan Dignitary?  Let’s change that a little.  What we really have now is an Uncivilized Alien Dignitary from another planet or another time.  It is our job to train him to function in 21st century US society, however he is hampered by volatile emotions, iffy long-term memory, and limited language skills.


            That’s why I think  that actively teaching language early is so important.  If the kid enters this stage of highly-charged mood swings already having some words, then the whole process is easier.    If the kid can understand why there are limits to his behavior—if he has learned the word “limit” for example—then it is much easier for him to accept it.  Also memory develops as it is pegged to words.  Even if your kid isn’t talking back, if you talk, talk, talk to them then his comprehension will develop faster and then the behavior issues will come much easier.


            I learned a lot of the skills I used in this chapter from a woman named Mary at my son’s day care.  Mary was better with tiny children than anybody I have ever known, and I just followed her around when I visited and listened to her talking to the kids.  She talked all the time, in a slow calm voice (not the high squeaky voice that we use talking to small animals).  She explained what she was doing as she did it and when she observed a process between two kids she had a continuous flow of narrative:


   “Oh, look, Rani wants the toy and Andrew has it.  What are we going to do?  Two kids want the same toy and there is only one toy.  Rani, can you wait for Two Minutes?  Andrew has the toy now and Rani wants it.  Andrew can have it for Two Minutes and then it will be Rani’s turn.  On, now Rani is sad because she wants the toy.  I’m sorry Rani, but that’s the limit.  I’m going to take you over here Rani because it is not your turn for Two More Minutes.”


The point is that after six months with this kind of narrative, Rani (who had a spectacular flair with temper tantrums) did get the idea that she had to share, that there were limits, that she would get her turn (and get it in merely 2 minutes) and that 2 minutes was not a very long time.  (Some toys got shared after 5 minutes.  And Mary did have a watch and she was fair about watching it.)


Mary was about ten times more patient than I am, but I really tried hard.  And (as I said in the last chapter) we taught the words “mandatory” “optional” and “limits” as soon as Andrew was capable of understanding them. 


You’d think that Mandatory and Optional are big long hard words, but if your goal is to give the kid autonomy while at the same time demanding obedience to the minimum rules of society (and that, folks, IS the goal of this period), then the kid has to get these three key concepts. 


Key Concepts

1) There are limits to the kid’s behavior, and they are inflexible.

2)  Other behaviors are optional, and the kid’s desires will be respected as long as the kid behaves within the limits.

3)  As the kid internalizes the limits, he gains more power and control.


There are LIMITS and those limits don’t go away.  They are inflexible, set by society not by the parent, and they must be obeyed.  It is important to decide your limits in advance.  Sit down with the spouse and talk about the limits.  Brainstorm situations.  What limits do you require in a restaurant?  What limits do you require in a grocery store?  What limits do you require in a theatre.  Figure out what your child is capable of and don’t take her into situations where she can’t function—but don’t change the limit for the kid in public situations.  In private, (e.g., getting dressed by herself, helping with housework) the limit changes as the kid matures.  Set the limit for this period, explain the limit, work with the kid till she achieves the limit, and then talk to her about the next limit.  (Some limits are achieved very quickly—my kid learned about Not Being Mean To His Mother On Purpose in two seconds and has hardly ever breached it in his entire life.  Some limits are incredibly difficult.  My son is 19 and I still can’t get him to pick up after himself and I’ve tried everything I can think of.   His future wife is Doomed.  I have failed on that one, and also on the Eating of Carrots.)


Some behaviors or activities are OPTIONAL.  This is the key change that the parent, not the kid, has to make.    It is your primary goal during the terrible twos to identify as many things as possible that CAN be optional, and let the kid make choices.  When the kid is very little there are fewer possible choices—which toy to grab, for example.  But as the kid grows, you can find areas where the kid can make the decision, and the act of making decisions makes the kid feel respected and reduces the tension of the terrible twos.  Even if you know what the kid is likely to want, find opportunities to offer choice.  The kid is far more likely to accept the many many areas where he has no choice if you can find some areas where he can make choices. 


Especially, observe, and find out where the kid desires to make choices.  She will certainly let you know, but if you can anticipate and reward her by giving her choice in the areas that she cares about, it will make it so much easier when you enforce limits in other areas. 


For example, some kids care desperately about what clothes they wore every day and some of their choices were eccentric.  Do you really need to fight with your kid about this?  If your kid wants to wear something silly or inappropriate in a public place what is wrong with that?  If you are dressing the kid contrary to her wishes in order to gratify your own ego, then you are in the wrong.  Nobody will think you are a bad parent because you let your kid wear her ballerina tutu to the grocery store.  And if they do, what do you care anyway?  If you taught her today, successfully, to keep quiet and ask nicely for things at the restaurant, that’s an achievement.  If she wants to behave in this civilized fashion while wearing a ballerina tutu—she should get to do it. 


In general, if they are dressed warmly enough on cold days, let them wear what they want.

If they are not getting scurvy, let them eat what they want.  Our son ate lima beans for breakfast for two years—this the child who would literally weep if a person sat next to him with carrots on their plate.  I don’t know why.  He still likes lima beans & won’t eat carrots.


The reason this all has to be discussed in advance (or at least thought threw carefully if your spouse isn’t up to the conversation) is that you have to determine which rules you care about enough that you will go to the mat over it and which rules you don’t care about.  I decided, ultimately, that I didn’t really care about carrots. 


Once you have established rules for a type of behavior.  You can plan ahead, talk to the kid before the event, and tell the kid what the limits are.  Some types of behavior are MANDATORY, others are OPTIONAL.  That is, in some areas, you will choose and in other areas you will offer the kid the choice.  Some behavior by the kid is mandatory—and these behaviors indicate the LIMITS. 


Talking in advance is really important.  Before you go into the restaurant, you spend a minute or two in the car reminding the kid what “restaurant manners” are and how those are different from “home manners.”   Before you have to leave a play date where the kid is having fun, you give them a ten minute warning, a five minute warning and a two minute warning.  The kid may still cry, but over time he begins to understand that there is a consistent and reliable warning system before a separation.


The kid will, of course, test all of this, and a key phrase I learned from Mary is:  “I’m sorry, but that LIMIT is still there.  It hasn’t gone away.”  The reason phrasing it this way is so helpful is that it reminds the kid of all three awkward behavioral realities—Mom doesn’t set the limit, society does;  the limit is unchangeable; and the kid is really going to have to remember it, or be reminded.


Every time you establish a limit and then cave

because the kid cried or whined, you have made a mistake.

Don’t make too many of them or you will have one heck of an adolescent in twelve years.   On the other hand, sometimes the kid is right and you are wrong.  That is the one case where it is OK to cave and change your mind.  The statement that should be made then is, “I’m sorry, I have thought about it and I think you are right and I am wrong.  We’ll do it your way.”   When you are genuinely wrong or have behaved badly, owning up to it is one of the most powerful ways you can show respect for your kid.  A kid who sees adults as powerful and omnipotent and infallible is a kid who sees himself as incompetent and powerless.  A kid who sees adults as powerful, willing to negotiate, and mostly right but occasionally imperfect has a very strong basis for growing up with self-esteem.



Two year olds have tantrums.  Unfortunately, so do three year olds and four year olds, with some regularity, and it can continue well beyond that with some kids.  Tantrums can be frightening because the kid’s personality absolutely melts down, they can’t be reasoned with, the cause seems totally trivial to the adult, and they can last for a very long time.  There are two tricks to dealing with tantrums.  The first is to try to figure out what is going on?  Is the kid testing a limit?  Is the kid frustrated by inability to communicate?  Is the kid hungry or tired?  Usually what has happened is a combination of the kid feeling frustrated and powerless, plus some environmental factor—too much stress, too much stimulation, too little food.  Unfortunately kids’ moods correlate only too well with your mood.  If you are tired and stress, your kid will act out more than if you are rested and happy.

The trick to dealing with a true tantrum is to take immediate action, but do it without rage.  This is hard because part of you wants to throttle the embarrassing little monster.  It is OK to abandon your grocery cart and go to the car.  It is OK to leave the movie, the restaurant, or your friend’s house.  It is important to identify, swiftly, that this fit of rage isn’t going to respond to conversation and move. 

Do not, I repeat, do NOT, give in to the kid’s demand because it is expressed through a tantrum.  This is the exact opposite of the earlier situation where you do what the kid wants because he has expressed himself nicely in words.  The kid should never get what he wants as the result of a tantrum, or he will have more tantrums.

If you are at home, the best way to deal with a tantrum is to take the child into his own room, go in with him, shut the door, sit with your back to the door, and say absolutely nothing.  Let him cry.  Let him throw things.  Keep him from hurting himself or destroying something valuable, but otherwise let him go.  For about five minutes.  Silently.  Andrew threw some really spectacular tantrums at ages two through four.  Then, after about five minutes I would generally say, “you don’t need to cry all the way over there when there is a perfectly good lap to cry on right here.”   Usually, he would then come over and sit on my lap and cry and I would hug him and tell him I loved him.  That is, I wouldn’t permit the behavior to happen in pubic, but I gave him permission to be very angry in private and I loved him anyway.  Then after a while I’d see if he was hungry.  To this day, Andrew has trouble distinguishing when he is hungry—he just doesn’t notice until he is cross.  So I’d usually tell him to stay in his room and get him a chocolate milkshake or something fairly quick energy.  (Peter would do it if we were both home.)  But he couldn’t come out of his room until he was civilized again, and he didn’t ever get the thing he was raging about, though he might get it the next day if it was a reasonable request and he asked nicely.  And I would explain that too.

            Sometimes we had two kids having tantrums simultaneously in separate rooms.


Toilet Training

This aspect of the terrible twos is pretty tricky.  It is a big societal limit for you, and it is something absolutely without interest for most children.  I would suggest waiting to start until the child understands speech and has a few words, so that you can explain that pooping in the pot is what big kids do and that little kids have to learn.  See if you can express enthusiasm about successful efforts, and don’t share with the kid the natural disgust you have about cleaning up messes.  At the same time, as the kid gets older, it is perfectly fine to tell them that you really don’t like cleaning up poop and that you want them to be a big kid because you are not enjoying cleaning up spilled poop and pea.  But remember that for the kid, the attractive poop is an achievement, not something disgusting.  Andrew particularly enjoyed bringing us in to praise his artistic efforts in the pot.  Because of his large vocabulary, he was also able to explain his feelings.  When I had gotten despairing that I would ever succeed in getting him toilet trained, we had a benchmark conversation one day.  I told him, for the fiftieth time, that I wanted him to poop in the pot.  He said, very clearly, with perfect diction:  “I don’t WANT to poop in the pot;  I want to poop in the playroom.”  I got down on the floor, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Well I’m really tired of cleaning up poop, so I need you to stop pooping in the playroom and poop in the pot, and I’m going to be annoyed about it till you get it.”   He never pooped in the playroom again.  Not, perhaps, the best way to handle it, because I did use a Mean Tone.  But it worked.

            Be particularly careful to avoid a mean tone about the inevitable post-toilet training accidents, or about the kid who bed wets for years.  Consult your doctor about the night time bedwetting.  Clean up the accidents.  But don’t humiliate the kid.  Once they get the idea they would fix it if they could.  Accidents that happen much later in childhood, particularly repeated, may indicate some underlying emotional unhappiness or insecurity, so check it out with your doctor and take their advice.  But don’t be mean to the kid.  They are not doing it to irritate you.



It is tiring taking care of a two year old and parents need a break.  We were quite cautious about introducing babysitters in the first year, because since we both worked and had limited time with our son, we really didn’t want to go out without him very much.   When you do select an evening babysitter, it is helpful to spend time with the babysitter first (paying them for it) before you go, and make the first trips away very short.   One thing we found very helpful at age two was a babysitting pool we arranged with three other couples from our preschool.   Each couple would take all four kids for four hours on a Saturday.  It was a nightmare—four kids, none of them toilet trained, having to be amused for this seemingly huge period.  But on the other three Saturdays of the month, we had four day time hours of alone time,  knowing that our kid was being taken care of by responsible parents with similar views, and was with the friends he saw every day of the week.  I recommend it.

The four kids, incidentally, were still doing “parallel play” at age two.  There is a whole section on play dates later in the book, because I think they are really important, especially for only children.  But at two there just needed to be adequate numbers of toys and if possible duplicate toys, because they didn’t share well.

Night Terrors

Most of the standard baby-book topics are beyond the scope of this book and I haven’t included them.  But this one is so upsetting to parents when it occurs that I thought I’d give it space.  We thought we had our night time routine perfectly well set, when one night we awoke to horrible screaming.  I ran in and found an apparently awake son who was completely deranged, pale with fear, in a cold sweat, and who couldn’t stop crying.   I fortunately had read some books that mentioned night terrors and figured out that he was not really awake.  Eventually I got him to wake up, smoothed his forehead with a damp cloth, held him, and explained to him that he had been asleep.  It happened only half a dozen times, and the kid didn’t remember in the morning, but it was certainly scary.


Restaurant Manners

One of the key differences in behavior you demand by age four is that the kid should behave reasonably well in public, something which they have no incentive to do.  This is an area where I think we handled it pretty well, and it is a good example of setting limits and focusing on Optional versus Mandatory behavior.


I decided that I cared really a lot about civilized behavior in restaurants.  I like to go to restaurants and I am not happy if the people at the next table have badly behaved children. 


Developing restaurant manners was not easy.  We started at about 20 months.  Then, for about 8 months my husband and I went to a series of increasingly nice restaurants with our son--and then spent the meal with one or the other of us carrying him out and sitting in the car when he breached restaurant manners. 


We explained in advance every time what Restaurant Manners meant.

It meant that:

 a) he was allowed to either eat or not eat what he wanted, in the quantities he wanted, and we would help him order what he wanted if it was on the menu;  but

b) he could not burst into tears if what he wanted wasn’t on the menu; 

c) he could play with toys quietly at the table and we would bring him small plastic toys, drawing materials and crayons; but

d) he could not get up from the table and run around;  and

e)  he could not behave in such a way that he disturbed people at other tables.

And the limit was, if he couldn’t do Restaurant Manners, he would have to leave the restaurant, and we would take him to the car and stay with him, but we would probably be cross about it.

It is critical to bring lots of toys.  I always carried a purseful of small toys, crayons, etc.  It is unreasonable to expect a kid to sit still and listen to adults for an hour and a half.  They deserve amusement at their own level, and it is unfair not to plan for it and bring it along with you.

It took, as I said, months to get this behavior to be part of his repertoire, including a time I carried him wailing out of a table for 15 and missed a really nice dinner.  His last trip to the car included a spectacular moment when he turned to my friend Diane and said, “Look, Aunt Diane, what I can do,” and then punched his coke so that it flew across the table, spilled all over Aunt Diane’s dinner, and nearly landed in her lap!  I believe I used a Mean Tone that time too.

But it all paid off, and by the time he was four, he was so well behaved in restaurants that waiters and people from the next table would come over to compliment us. 

Plane Trips

Traveling with kids is a problem at any age, and particularly during the period where they are mobile but have not yet learned to read.  Kids are not enthusiastic about leaving their normal routines.  They are very habit-driven, and have no desire for new experiences.  It is up to the parent to think ahead about how to manage the kid’s reasonable responses. 


The plane ride itself is actively painful for small kids.  When the air pressure changes we automatically pop the pressure in our Eustachian tubes.  They don’t know how to do that.  If they can’t do it, they will be in pain.  I always brought a bottle and gave it to Andrew during take off and landing, and as soon as he knew the words I told him about yawning and swallowing.  I also generally put Tylenol in the bottle.  

I also brought lots of toys that he hadn’t seen before when we went on trips, and we made sure to structure each day so that there was at least one thing that would be of interest from Andrew’s point of view.  Once he had words, we would also try to plan each day where there was a choice to be made in which he could participate—two sites of equal interest to us and his choice to make, or two restaurants on the street so that he could pick which one.  There is not much he can control when he’s out of his familiar environment, so let him control where it can be made possible.  And bring the favorite toy or blanket in the carry on luggage, not in the checked luggage.  The last thing you want is for “blankie” or “little lamb” to be flying around with your lost luggage.


Summary:   The Terrible Twos are not terrible if you think of it as a wonderful exercise in two activities:  your kid is developing autonomy and independence and you are coaching him in how to do it;   your kid is also learning the rules of society, and you are translating and explaining them to.  You are also, increasingly, setting limits for his behavior becoming more civilized—but just as you do, you are being quite careful to increase the number of his choices.   It is frustrating and exciting, and at the end of the year (or thereabouts) you will have, no longer a baby, but a real little kid—articulate, toilet trained, relatively reasonable, and ready to move out!