Monday, October 18, 2010

NO! the terrible twos

The summer Lilly turned one, people we got to know while living in a small Greek village always commented on how happy she seemed. Our response was usually that it's because we follow her clock; she gets to do what she wants to do, at her whim, in her time. Within reason. And with a good amount of distraction and redirection involved. But our feeling was, why fight it? We didn't need to be anywhere or do anything aside from being together, eating, and sleeping. Trying to schedule and discipline seemed futile for this little one-year-old.

 curious ones

Now we're experiencing a whole new ball game. Suddenly it's a constant battle. While we might have found the living slow and a tad tedious a year ago, I do sort of miss its sweet lack of friction. Now, all of a sudden, it's relentless. As of last week, I've found myself constantly bombarded by my willful toddler's tenacious attempts at being contrary. I want to leave the playground, she wants to stay. I want to stay, she wants to go. And so on and on.

terrible twos

As David Walsh, the award-winning psychologist and author of, among other, No. Why Kids--of All Ages--Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It (2007), writes; parents spend the first nine months of their children's lives saying yes. Then they spend the next nine months or from when the baby starts to crawl, distracting and redirecting (120-21). However, he continues, from about eighteen months, "No takes on a different meaning and importance. Up until then, babies are not really capable of understanding limits and consequences" (121). Suddenly they begin to realize that their needs and wants are not the same as to those of people around them. The so-called "terrible twos" springs from "the toddler's realization that he's a separate person from his parent with different feelings and thoughts," explains Walsh (123). "Toddlers are not doing things parents don't want them to do just to be contrary. They are exploring this newly discovered difference between themselves and others" (123).

Quoting The Scientist in the Crib (2000), Walsh continues:

"What makes the terrible twos so terrible is not that the babies do things you don't want them to do--one-year-olds are plenty good at that--but that they do things because you don't want them to ... Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict ... the child is the budding psychologist; we parents are the laboratory rats." (124)

I'd read Walsh's book through the chapter on toddlers and preschoolers and thought I was safely moving along the track of a balanced parenting style (as opposed to permissive or authoritarian) but I wasn't prepared for Lilly's complete meltdown when I arrived at my friend's house last Thursday after yoga to pick her up. She refused to leave. No matter how much I coaxed or lured, she simply would not. Her thirty pound body suddenly a hundred in my arms, I was unable to strap her alternating limp, tensely strung bow, and flailing body into the car seat. Her crimson cheeks spattered were with tears.  It was not a pretty sight.

I braced myself the next day when I came to pick her up after my weekly morning to write. I tried to be firmer about the 5-minute countdown before departure, leaving less room for negotiation.

But not until I brought this up during group discussion with fellow parents at ECFE this morning, did it really hit me how sorely I had failed to live up to my own expectations for myself as a parent. Stunned by the up-until-then-for-her uncharacteristic behavior, I went blank on all good intentions of calmly insisting it's what we need to do, it's time to leave. Staring blankly and helplessly at my friend that morning, she looked back to me a question mark herself, as taken aback as I was by this sudden shift in character.

This morning fellow parents shared lessons that resonated with Walsh's insistence on the importance of being clear and consistent to our children about boundaries and consequences, and above all to remain calm, kind, and respectful, while not giving in to temper tantrums or whining.

I've experienced the importance of a parent saying and sticking to "no," because mine did not. And it did not feel right, or loving. As a child I felt unsafe, the home environment unpredictable and hostile. I'd scream and wrestle while my parents would fume and yell until finally relenting with an exasperated "you are SO difficult!" This did not make me feel like I had their full attention and care; it felt like being dropped from further consideration.

While there have been times that I've murmured to myself something along the lines of "you're such a little brat" or even "difficult," I have thankfully not spat those words out to her. I try hard to breath and  stay calm (and people wonder why stay-at-home parents of toddlers are strung out by the end of the day??), seeking recourse in a sigh that in order not to sound like my growling mom's I've turned into an "oopalopa" (that Lilly will echo, and it's very cute).

So, empowered today after talking with fellow parents, I  didn't let her go down the slide at the playground just one more time when it was time to leave to head home for lunch (and she lost it), or when we'd read the last book before nap (and she lost it wanting just one more), or when I'd sung the last song in bed ready for nap (and she lost it wanting please one more). Or when--this afternoon when we were about to head home for dinner after her first toddler's gym class at the YMCA which she LOVED, she yet again did her mind boggling combo of full body limp, tensely strung bow, and flailing body parts which make strapping her into a car seat or stroller a major feat of accomplishment--I tried what a couple of well-seasoned moms referred to this morning as "the elbow move:" you place the child calmly and firmly in the seat, placing one of your elbows between their legs, your lower arm and hand up along their body and chest, keeping them in position as you strap them in with the other hand. And each time she snapped out of her wailing self remarkably quickly and easily. And all was good and just fine.

Still, I'm just so amazed by this sudden onset of the terrible twos; I feel lucky I'm not dealing with a full blown whiplash as a consequence.

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