Taming the Terrible Twos

Your Child Means Well

"Mine doesn't," says Maria, a mother I know. "Yesterday, I showed Elisa how to wash her hands, getting them soapy and then rubbing them together until they were all covered in foam. When we'd rinsed it off, she seemed to like her hands being clean. But the minute I turned away from her highchair, she squished her whole peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in her fists and rubbed her hands together so that they were coated. If that's not being naughty on purpose, I don't know what is."

How was Elisa to know that the game her mother had encouraged her to play with a bar of soap was forbidden with a sandwich? All Elisa knew was that she liked the soft, squishy feeling on her hands. You can say, "Soap is for washing with, not for eating; food is for eating, not for washing." But don't tell her she's bad or you'll hurt her feelings and teach her nothing.

You can't make a child good by making him feel bad (or make him grow up by making him feel babyish). Know that your toddler means well overall even when he hasn't done well.

Toddlers want parents to be pleased with them so they can feel safe and pleased with themselves. That's the key to understanding their difficult behavior and channeling it in a positive direction. Your child may behave badly because he doesn't know what you want. Or because he isn't capable of doing it. Or because he's capable under ideal circumstances but current circumstances aren't ideal for anything but a tantrum. Or just because -- like the rest of us -- he sometimes does what he wants instead of what he should. It won't be because he means to be mean, though. He isn't mature enough yet to think himself into your shoes. However badly he may behave, it won't be because he intends to upset you. He doesn't. Not ever. Believe it.

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Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the April 2003 issue of Child magazine.

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