An Increasing Attention Span
These days, you might feel like you're running an obstacle course every hour without ever leaving the house. But what looks like another disaster in the kitchen -- a muffin pan filled with Duplo pieces and a stuffed animal tucked into your mixing bowl -- is actually delightful developmental progress: Your 2-year-old is making the leap from "a life of action" to "a life of the mind," says Stanley Greenspan, MD, author of Building Healthy Minds (Da Capo Press).
What are the signs that your child's "life of the mind" is taking shape? For a start, after his second birthday you may notice a marked increase in what psychologists call selective, or focal, attention -- the ability to switch off outside distractions and concentrate on one thing at a time. By 25 months, most children can focus on a single activity continually for a few minutes, and for an even longer time if an adult is engaged in that activity with them. "Children this age are also capable of some abstract thinking," notes Sharen Hausmann, director of Smart Start Georgia, an agency working to improve the quality of care for young children. "If you give them a toy truck, they'll understand that they can turn the wheels and the truck will go."
Although some abstract concepts like "nice," or "heavy," may be too much for children this age to grasp, Hausmann adds, "they can match objects with pictures and sort things by shapes or colors." Your child can identify circles, squares, and triangles now, so simple puzzles are more fun to put together. In some ways, in fact, the world is one big puzzle that your child is trying to understand -- a process that sometimes requires taking things apart just so he can put them back together again.
Kids this age are also starting to make sense of number concepts; for instance, if you ask your 2-year-old if she wants one cookie or two, you can bet she'll say "two!"
Understanding Cause and Effect
Further evidence that your child is growing smarter: Her grasp of cause and effect grows ever more sophisticated. As a baby, she quickly noticed that crying from her crib produced results. This taught her that she had some control over her environment, because crying brought about a desirable effect: You came into her room and picked her up or fed her.
Now she also notices that this activity causes the lights to turn on when you come into her room -- but only sometimes. Why only sometimes? Is it her crying that turns on the lights? Is it you? Or is it just the sun coming up in her room? As her attention span and her powers of observation grow, your child eventually sees you turn on the light switch to produce that effect, and understands the connection.
Experimentation and Repetition
With her improved mobility and nimble fingers, your 2-year-old is out to test her cause-and-effect theories more thoroughly. To solve the mystery of the light switch, she might try pulling a stool over to the wall, climbing onto it, and making the room go from light to dark and back again. She will be driven to try lots of other great cause-and-effect experiments too: Does a tower of blocks always fall down when she pushes it? Does her little cousin? Does Dad always use his Big Voice if she pulls the dog's tail? Because repetition is so crucial to learning, your child will perform the same cause-and-effect experiments again and again.
In his attempt to grasp the underlying logic of events in his life, your child will thrive on routine. He'll ask you to sing the same songs over and over, especially if they involve movement of some kind, both to grasp the vocabulary and to see if the same thing happens in the song every time. And his behavior will improve if you establish consistent daily patterns, since repetition of routines can help ease transitions and provide stability for kids this age. Two-year-olds with a schedule anticipate what will happen next, feel less anxious about unknowns, and are more in control of their own impulses. For instance, if your child knows he has to pick up his toys before he can have a snack in the morning, you'll have less work to do and he'll feel more independent.
Troublemaking Comes Naturally
Meanwhile, in his ongoing attempts to be master and commander of his universe, your child will not only make messes but he'll also land himself in trouble. He might climb onto a chair, then onto a counter, and then onto the top of the refrigerator to reach the cookies he saw you hide there. Or he may realize that, yes, he can play with his older sister's forbidden toys -- as long as he sneaks into her room during school hours, when she isn't there to stop him.
But, Hausmann reminds us, your child isn't being deliberately defiant. "This is a time in every child's life when he is driven to plan things independently and try to solve problems on his own. Children this age have a wide range of strategies for learning new things. Offer them a safe, nurturing environment and they will be motivated to develop their cognitive skills at a pace that will leave you breathless."
A Time for Whining & Potty Training
Between 25 and 27 months, your child may exhibit more control over his impulses. For instance, you may notice that, when asked to wait for a minute before opening his package of raisins, your child can do that without a total meltdown.
Why Do Kids Whine?
However, many children are perfecting a practice that can be just as relentless and exhausting to their parents: whining. Why do kids whine? Whining is, in essence, "a tantrum in miniature form," says Sharen Hausmann, director of Smart Start Georgia. Whining is brought on by many of the same triggers as tantrums: hunger, fatigue, too much stimulation, an inability to articulate emotions, and, eventually, habit. It is a behavior often associated with periods of development during which a child feels overwhelmed, or expects failure or disappointment, Hausmann adds. "They feel defeated or tired before they've even tried to do something."
Toddlers latch on to the whining habit because they quickly learn that it gets results. Like a mosquito in your ear, whining is almost impossible to ignore. It's not that your toddler is necessarily trying to annoy you, he's just a survivalist who wants to do whatever it take to produce the desired effect (getting you to give in). If it takes a nasal continual droning sound to achieve his goal, then so be it.
Parents add to toddler confusion about whining because they sometimes give in only to make it stop. In addition, your child is not aware of how annoying whining is. He only knows that this particular voice makes you sit up and take notice. "We're so busy that we too often ignore our children to talk on our cell phones or get one more thing accomplished," says Hausmann, "so our children end up resorting to a more insistent tone of voice. It's all about getting our attention."
When to Potty Train
When is it time to toilet teach? Two things must happen before a child can successfully use the toilet: He has to be able to control the muscles of his anus and bladder, and he must also be emotionally ready, says Margaret Albrecht, curriculum specialist at the Parents as Teachers National Center, based in St. Louis, Missouri.
Signs of physical and emotional readiness include being able to sit on a potty and get off it easily, knowing when the urge hits, being able to undress without help, staying dry for two hours during the day, asking for "big kid" underwear, preferring clean diapers, and waking with a dry diaper after a nap.
Things generally go more smoothly if parents let kids take the lead: Girls typically train between 24 and 30 months, while boys are more likely to train between their third and fourth birthdays. If your child resists toilet training, or experiences a setback, says Albrecht, that could be a sign that he is either engaged in a power struggle with you, or has experienced something -- a painful bowel movement, or pressure to perform in a public bathroom -- that upset him. Then it's best to take a break.
What Baby's Doing:
Month 25: Refuses help, then cries when unable to do something; is aware of differences between self and others
Month 26: Soothes self when stressed; is capable of short periods of play with other children
Month 27: Repeats easy songs or rhymes; finds a favorite cereal by the picture on the box
Holly Robinson lives with her five children outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.