Why Twos Aren't So Terrible

Two-year-olds get a bad rap. Here's why the "terrible twos" aren't terrible at all.


For generations, 2-year-olds have suffered from bad PR. We've all heard the litany: They're difficult; they throw tantrums; they say no all the time. These complaints, while all undeniably true, have saddled them with a notorious moniker: "the terrible twos." But if you examine the flip side of the coin, you'll discover how terrific the twos can be too.

"This is the stage where a child goes from being a baby to being a real little person -- a person with thoughts, opinions, and a will of her own," says Peggy Shecket, a child- and family-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. And that's something every parent should celebrate." Below, five of the main reasons twos are terrific.

They're Learning to Love

Surprise! That baby whose needs you catered to day and night now wants to care for you too. Two-and-a-half-year-old Erin Cummings 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 Zero To Three, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that 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 with the Heights Center for Adult and Child Development, in Brooklyn. "Children act on their feelings based on examples they've seen." So if your toddler exhibits empathy, give yourself a few points: You've been a good role model.

They Love to Express Themselves

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 (William Morrow, 1999).

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."

They Actually Want to Help

Maybe you've always wanted an extra helping hand around the house. Well, if you're lucky enough to have a 2-year-old, you'll get service with a smile. Why? "Toddlers love to imitate their parents," says Owen Lewis, M.D., vice president for education and research at the Children's Mental Health Alliance, in New York City. "Even better, they really want to please them."

Happily, at this developmental stage, 2-year-olds' motor and cognitive skills have matured to the point where they can help with simple tasks, such as gathering socks to put in the washing machine.

Then again, there are times when a toddler's ability to help far exceeds a parent's 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 his mother 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 help, let him -- even if it initially seems more trouble than it's worth. You never know when he'll come in handy.

They Live to Learn

"Ever since Erin was a baby, Goodnight Moon has been her favorite story," says Jackie Cummings. "One day, she amazed me by pointing out that the Runaway Bunny, a character from another Margaret Wise Brown book, makes a cameo appearance in Goodnight Moon. She's incredibly observant, and she learns so quickly!"

Two-year-olds have a thirst for knowledge -- and the ability to retain it. "Show them something and they soak it up like a sponge," says Clare Winer, a child-development specialist at Hope Children's Hospital, in Oak Lawn, Illinois. "They're intensely motivated to learn how the world works -- especially when their parent is the teacher." And since teachable moments are everywhere at this age, you don't need to worry about pursuing formal learning experiences.

They're Becoming Individuals

The frustrating urge that makes toddlers insist on wearing their sandals in the snow is the very same one that inspires them to make and act upon their own decisions. "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. Twenty-six-month-old Jonathan Moeller, of Lexington, Massachusetts, for example, 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!"

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the January 2000 issue of Parents magazine.