At a recent dinner party, moms shared stories of their little cherubs suddenly turning into terrible, hard-headed toddlers. Snuggles and smiles had been traded for tantrums and time-outs. Baths had become battles and dinnertime a danger zone. They swapped war stories ("Well, if you think that's bad...") and said they couldn't wait for this stage to pass. I nodded and agreed, but I couldn't help feeling a tug at my heartstrings. As much as the terrible twos come with their own set of challenges, they're also a time of great milestones and imagination. Even in the hard moments, I am completely smitten with my blossoming little creature and his strong spirit. Even in his despondent "no's," he is finding a voice all his own. So I celebrate the reasons to love this pivotal age, knowing that one day I will look back and wish it hadn't passed so quickly. Here are ten reasons why you should appreciate the terrible twos.
"This is the stage where a child goes from being a baby to being a person with thoughts, opinions, and a will of her own," says Peggy Shecket, a child development specialist in Columbus, Ohio. "Ironically, these are the very attributes that make the twos turbulent. But ultimately, all toddlers really want to do is figure out how the world works and how they can participate."
"They're beginning to express preferences and have the verbal skills to demand what they want," says Jack L. Herman, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Pace University in New York City. For example, Jonathan Moeller of Lexington, Massachusetts, 26 months, has a very discriminating palate. "We go through our illustrated cookbooks, and he helps pick our evening meal," says his mom, Rosemarie. "Soon enough, he may want to cook for himself!"
The baby whose needs you catered to day and night now wants to care for you too. Erin Cummings, 2-and-a-half, is a case in point. "One night at dinner, she turned to me and asked, 'How was your trip?' " recalls her mom, Jackie, of Dallas. "I'd left her with a neighbor while I went to the doctor, and she wanted to know how it went. Just eight months ago, such a concept wouldn't even have registered."
Why are twos so cued in to you? "They're developing a sense of self. They're beginning to identify their feelings, which leads to an ability to perceive how other people feel," says Victoria Youcha, Ed.D., a child-development specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Zero To Three, which promotes the health and well-being of young children.
But milestones alone shouldn't get all the credit. "Empathy is a learned behavior," says Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist in New York City. "Children act on their feelings based on examples they've seen." So if your toddler exhibits empathy, give yourself a few points.
If you've always wanted to know what your toddler really thinks about your meat loaf, wonder no more. Two-year-olds are full of opinions and have the language skills to express them. Most children start the twos with a vocabulary of about 300 words. "By the end of the second year, they're putting together three- to five-word sentences," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., a child-development specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn .
That's a milestone for which Kristine Brown of San Juan Island, Washington, is enormously grateful. "When my son, Carson, was a baby, dinnertime consisted wholly of his stuffing food in his mouth. Now that he's 2, he tells us what he wants to eat, along with his thoughts on everything else."
Although their strong wills can exhaust Mom and Dad, toddlers are natural leaders when it comes to decision making. They're opinionated, bossy, and know what they want -- even if it's cookies for dinner. Their demanding nature, if channeled appropriately, can help mold them into natural, confident adults whom others look up to. So how do you tame your budding CEO? Heidi Murkoff, who writes the What to Expect series, encourages parents to "provide some choice whenever possible. Being able to make decisions ('Do you want to eat cereal or yogurt this morning?') helps a toddler feel more in control." As we all know, Little Miss Independent is happiest when she can call the shots.
Putting crayon marks on the wall and dead bugs in mom's underwear drawer may not seem like acts of genius, but 2-year-olds do have their own way of looking at life. They are creatures without inhibitions and with raw creativity, approaching everything they do with fresh eyes and passion. But this artistic flair can lead to outright destruction if not guided correctly. If you provide a "free creativity" space, like a backyard sandbox or a driveway with sidewalk chalk, your young artist can express himself without causing lasting damage. More important, these precious moments of unrestrained play give your mini Van Gogh the self-reliance he desperately desires, building his confidence and making it easier for him to settle down when it's time to be calm.
My fearless toddler is a climber. He monkeys his way onto tables and high beds, then launches himself without thought into piles of pillows and blankets. This perilous play frays parents' nerves, but limits and supervision can instill courage. Jana Murphy, author of The Secret Lives of Toddlers, believes this adventurous spirit is actually necessary for self-discovery: "There's a fine line between shielding your toddler from danger and frustration, and smothering him. Unless there's an immediate danger, let your child climb the stairs, pick up the big rock, step in the puddle, and let him try a little longer to put together the puzzle himself. He needs a chance to realize his limitations, his strengths, and his ability to make things happen on his own."
Two-year-olds are notorious for an "I can do it myself!" mentality -- a stubborn attitude that can discourage even the most patient parents. This self-sufficient spirit also makes for great helpers who love to help put away piles of laundry, get diapers for younger siblings, or even feed the dog. One way I curb this ubiquitous power struggle is to find a toddler-size chore that my 2-year-old can help me with. If I'm unloading the dishwasher, he can "organize" the Tupperware cabinet. If I'm folding laundry, he gets a small bundle of clothes to "fold" as well. I've learned that if I give him his own task, he is happily occupied while learning that helping Mommy is fun.
Though their short attention spans can be wearisome, we could all learn a thing or two about being present. Instead of holding grudges or worrying about the past, toddlers focus on what is before them -- often content, amused, and in awe. From eating a cupcake to building with blocks, every second is savored. As for meltdown moments, take comfort in the fact that if we just wait a few minutes, our tumultuous toddlers will soon forget and be over what's ailing them.
Crying one minute and belly laughing the next, toddlers are the epitome of an emotional roller coaster, but this expressive nature will serve them well as they grow (and learn to control their emotions, of course). Being able to emote is a quality that many adults lack and one that is crucial for sustaining healthy relationships with family and friends. Emotional skills can be learned sooner than we may think. As Tracy Hogg, author of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers, explains, "Studies have shown that children as young as fourteen months can begin to identify and even anticipate mood (theirs and their caretakers'), feel empathy, and, as soon as they're verbal, talk about feelings as well." Although it may be on a simpler level, you can still have a heart-to-heart with your toddler.
From colors to shapes to songs, little ones love to learn new things, dissect toys, and explore various environments. Their inquisitive nature, combined with sponge-like brains, make them storage bins of information. With their language skills rapidly developing, this is a peak time to teach them multiple languages. Best of all, opportunities to learn are everywhere. From a trip to the park to walking the dog, every moment brings new discoveries. By making up songs, creating new games, and involving your toddler in hands-on activities, you can encourage her curiosity for life and its mysteries. After all, parents are their most important teachers.
Toddlers have an innately trusting spirit -- they see all new, kind faces as friends. This willingness to play with and smile at anyone they come across is a trait that many grown-ups could benefit from developing. They are quick to laugh, easy to entertain, and at a prime stage to learn about loving relationships, healthy boundaries, and acts of kindness. By embracing their naturally soft-hearted natures, and nurturing them with patience and gentle guidance, we can empower tots to have successful interactions for the rest of their lives.
My husband and son have a routine: Every night they go outside to look at the moon. They both look forward to it, but my toddler gets especially excited, pointing to the sky and proclaiming proudly, "Moon! Moon!" From rocks to flowers to baby toes, my little man delights in life's smallest pleasures. These moments aren't just for our kids. As Murphy reminds us, "You get two big windows of opportunity in your life to do stuff like build castles, watch Sesame Street, and just plain play: the first when you are a child, the second when you have one. Don't get too busy or wrapped up in the grown-up stuff to miss it." Whether he's digging in dirt or decorating a homemade card, it's the simple pleasures that give any toddler the most joy.
Occasionally, your toddler's abilities may far exceed your expectations. Just ask Kristine Brown: "One day, when I was in our backyard with Carson, I fell and punctured my foot. My husband was out of earshot, so I told Carson to go into the house to get help from Daddy."
The 2-year-old took off through the yard, calling for his father, who rushed out and drove Kristine to the hospital. "If Carson hadn't been on hand to alert his dad, I could have been out there for hours," says Brown. So the next time your toddler begs to do something that seems just beyond his capabilities, let him try—even if it initially seems more trouble than it's worth. You never know how he might impress you.
When life's inevitable boo-boos come their way, tots often need nothing more than a kiss from Mom or Dad. This affectionate gesture is a parent's most powerful tool, for what toddlers need most at this tender age is love, direction, and the security of knowing a parent's comforting embrace is always an arm's reach away.
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.
Lauren Warner is an advertising writer by day, but her most important job is as household CEO -- as a wife and mother of two. She blogs at sippinglemonade.com