As your child nears her second birthday, she is rapidly becoming more independent. She's old enough to walk and eat without help, and to play a little on her own. You might even enjoy a few quiet moments as she puts her dolls to bed or cooks in her play kitchen, imitating the actions of the adults in her world.
Your child understands most of what you say and can follow two-step directions, such as, "Please go upstairs and get your shoes." It helps that he's starting to understand the meaning of prepositions like "under," "in," and "around." But while 2-year-olds can take in much of what you say, their understanding of the finer points is still shaky.
Like anyone learning a new language, "toddlers grasp nouns a lot faster than they grasp verbs," observes pediatrician Harvey Karp, M.D., author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. That's partly because nouns are concrete, whereas verbs are constantly changing. For instance, your toddler might have a hard time deciding whether to use the word "run" or "ran"—or he may say "runned."
"It's really amazing to hear our 23-month-old daughter trying to mimic us," says mom Keri of Cary, North Carolina. "Just the other morning she climbed into bed and said, 'Hugs and kisses,' as she leaned over to shower me with lots of both. I say the very same thing to her everyday!"
While there is some similarity in how much 2-year-olds understand, toddlers vary wildly when it comes to the number of words they can say. Most toddlers have at least 50 words in their vocabulary, but some have as many as 200 words at their disposal, talk in simple sentences, and can even sing their ABCs.
No matter how many words she has under her belt, chances are it's enough to share her excitement as she explores the world. She may see her first caterpillar and tell you it's a "doggie," or she may think the moon is moving along and dancing with her and point so that you can watch it too. Your child's memory is also improving; if you're in the car and she sees the sign for the zoo, she'll get excited because she remembers the elephants and monkeys.
Taken together, your 2-year-old's rapidly developing abilities to move around physically in his world, socialize with others, and express himself allow him to satisfy his curiosity in ways he couldn't just a few months ago. His personality emerges clearly as he begins to make his preferences and opinions known (if not always in words, then through his actions).
As parents undoubtedly know, the same qualities that make toddlers so much fun to be around—insatiable curiosity and strong opinions—can create challenges and more than a little drama. You want her to wear her yellow jacket, but she insists it's a blue-bathing-suit kind of day. You want to pour her milk, but she falls apart when you try to take the jug out of her hands. In fact, these days your child's favorite phrase is "Me do it!" whether you're getting her a bowl of cereal or trying to zip her jacket. Of course, her eagerness to do things for herself far outweighs her abilities—all too often, the milk gets spilled, the jacket takes forever to zip.
On the other hand, just as your toddler is eager to try her new skills by doing "big people" tasks, she also has a long list of things she'd rather not do—and isn't shy about letting you know! She refuses to pick up her toys, announces that the chicken she loved last week is "icky," and resists going to bed—not because she's being bad or even rebellious, says Vera Frumin, M.D., chair of pediatrics at the Holy Redeemer Health System in Philadelphia, but simply because she's so intent on having things her way.
And sometimes there's no rhyme or reason as to why he's digging in his heels (you tell your child to put on his coat, and he refuses). What's going on? As children approach 2, they're just beginning to understand the concept of rules. They know there's a difference between what they want and what they can have, but they don't yet know how that decision is made. So they become determined to test your limits (and their own). Your toddler announces that he won't wear the coat—not because he's hot, but because he's driven to assert his preference (which in some case is the opposite of what you want), and to see how important it is to you that he wear the coat.
Once things escalate, all bets are off. "There's a reason why the toddler in The Flintstones was called Bamm-Bamm," says Dr. Karp. "Toddlers are basically pint-size cavemen. They walk like cavemen, grunt like cavemen, and eat with their hands. Plus, when they get upset, toddlers can really go ape."
For all of these reasons, defiance is a powerful tool in your child's declaration of independence. "The unreasonableness of 2-year-olds is what surprises most people," says Dr. Karp.
Similarly, "What challenges parents most about this age is that they perceive their child as rebellious," says Dr. Frumin. "But most of the time it's just a process of the child's learning who he is and how he can express that in the world."
How much will your child remember about his toddler years? Studies have shown that toddlers develop a good working memory and a sense of past versus present by age 2, says researcher Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., of Emory University in Atlanta. He may say, "Go swing," before you get to the playground, or protest if you skip a page in his favorite book.
Between 22 and 24 months, your child's memory will sharpen so that she can now anticipate the consequences to her actions. If you're getting into the car and she's holding a box of crackers, she may recall a past spill well enough to hand you the box before climbing into her car seat.
Most exciting of all, your child's blossoming language skills allow her to start sharing memories. Fivush's research shows that conversations about the past help kids create and remember narratives about their lives and develop "a grounded sense of themselves in the world."
Remember the days, not too long ago, when everything about your baby seemed so predictable? She ate every three hours, she pooped at the same time every day, and blowing raspberries on her belly was a guaranteed way to make her giggle. In stark contrast, the unpredictability of your toddler can be exhausting. Try building some structure into her day, advises Sara DuMond, M.D., FAAP, founder of Pediatric Housecalls, a mobile acute-care service for children in Charlotte, North Carolina. For instance, tell her, "We're going to take a nap in 10 minutes."
She may not understand the time frame yet, but she'll soon learn to anticipate that every day after lunch it's naptime. Sticking to a routine will help your child feel secure.
Holly Robinson, mother of three, lives outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2007. Updated by Parents magazine in 2018.