Give your child a book now, and she'll probably hold it the right way and turn the pages as if she's reading. But she couldn't be reading yet, could she? Not quite. However, kids this age often demonstrate "emergent literacy." In other words, they're developing the skills they'll need in order to learn to read and write.
Before age 2, children typically believe that when adults read them a story, they are reading the pictures
in the book, says Laurie LeComer, author of A Parent's Guide to Developmental Delays (Perigee). They have little or no understanding of letters, words, and sentences. Sometime between the ages of 2 and 3, children start to understand that the story is actually coming from the words, not the pictures. Pre-reading skills include developing an interest in books, an increasing vocabulary, and learning that each letter has a different sound. Even before their third birthday, many children can recognize common signs like "exit," "stop," and "restroom."
Writing skills are also emerging around age 3. Once you show your 2-year-old what his written name looks like, he'll want you to write it on everything, and may even try copying it himself. And although your child's drawings may still look pretty primitive, if you ask him questions he might offer you a narrative that goes along with those scribbles.
Studies have demonstrated that parents play an enormous role in a child's emerging literacy because the one thing that all good readers and writers have in common is that they were read to as children. Two-year-olds whose parents read to them often show more advanced language skills than kids who are read to less often. And if you engage in "dialogic" reading -- the sort of reading where you encourage her to talk about the story and ask questions as you go along -- some experts say you can accelerate your 2-year-old's language development by as much as 9 months. "A child's cognitive abilities are pre-wired by genetics to some degree, of course" says LeComer, "but every enriching experience in her environment stimulates the growth of her brain."
As your child's skills and independence blossom, so will his interest in other people. He begins to feel empathy with others, and to understand the concept of taking turns.
"Begins" is the operative word here. Although most children enjoy being with other kids, few want any part of sharing. Put one new toy in a room with a pair of 2-1/2-year-olds, and things can get ugly fast. That's because, for most children this age, "the rule is 'What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine,'" says Elsbeth Brown, PhD, early childhood coordinator at the Institute for Families in Society, in Columbia, South Carolina. "Possession is 100 percent of the law when you're a toddler. It's very difficult for kids this young to see another person's point of view, wait their turn, or figure out that giving something up doesn't mean you lose it forever." Two-year-olds are egocentric and inexperienced at being with others, and they live very much in the present, so you can't expect them to learn to share nicely overnight.
Another characteristic of this age group is a lack of verbal sophistication. It takes a fairly developed vocabulary -- plus a certain degree of calmness -- for one child to explain to another that he has just stolen her favorite blankie and she needs it back right now. Instead she may scream at him as she tries to snatch the precious possession out of his sticky grasp.
"While it's important to encourage children to use their words instead of grabbing, pushing, or hitting, young children don't always know what words they should use," Brown says. "Parents need to remember that they are providing guidelines for small people who don't know the rules yet."
Some tried-and-true techniques to prevent tugs-of-war over toys are to have doubles of popular playthings and to put away things that will be hard to share. But it's also important for your toddler to know that you expect him to share. So at the start of a play date, you might ask, "What toys do you think Nicholas might like to play with? Let's put those out so you two can share."
Indeed, aside from toy disputes and "me first" issues, children this age enjoy each other's company. If there's a water table at your preschool or daycare, one 2-1/2-year-old child might start putting boats or rocks in the water, and soon another will observe this and run over to join in the fun. When the second child starts swirling his boat in the water by blowing on it, the other will do the same. Or two kids playing with the same plastic bin of blocks will start building side-by-side. A little later, they may grin, exchange a look, and knock their buildings down at the same time with a satisfying double crash.
"Your child will learn through imitating others, and soon that leads to brief conversations," Brown says. These mini-interactions gradually build social skills. "Young children do learn to get along with others. It's just a matter of giving them time, practice, and guidance."
Research shows that by their second birthdays, kids know their own sex. They begin forming gender stereotypes almost as early. By 30 months, children grasp the idea that genders persist; in other words, they know that boys become men and girls become women. Parents who have been careful not
to play gender favorites with toys may be astounded when their sons automatically make guns out of blocks and their daughters try to tuck their stuffed animals into a child-size stroller. A girl may covet a pink purse while a boy might want a superhero cape.
At the same time, 2-year-olds are ferreting out social cues about what it means to be a girl or boy. These cues start very early, and they start with parents. Parents treat their boy and girl babies differently; studies have shown that mothers smile more often at girls and pay more attention to angry sons than to angry girls. Fathers often roughhouse more when they play with their infant sons than their infant daughters.
On the other hand, nearly all toddlers enjoy behaviors typically associated with the gender opposite to their own; for instance, in one study, over 22 percent of boys and over 38 percent of girls enjoyed 10 or more gender-atypical behaviors.
When talking about gender differences, then, "it's very difficult to tease out what's inborn and what's socialized," acknowledges Elsbeth Brown, PhD. "The best thing parents can do is to try to avoid stereotypes. Parents should talk to their children about all the wonderful jobs people can do in this world, and the fact that they can help their children learn to do many, many different things."
Holly Robinson, a mother of three, is a writer who lives outside Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2006.