parental guiltWhy does Jack insist upon constantly turning the lights on and off? Olivia touches everything that comes her way. Ella dumps out anything she can get her hands on. Why?

Twos and threes are active, hands-on learners who process and internalize new information through physical interaction and repetition. They are driven to arrange and rearrange their universe based on their own logic. What seems like a determined effort to destroy and mess-up everything in the house is just their way of figuring out the world.

Reasoning with Twos and Threes

“Please get in the car. We are going to be late.”

“If you don’t eat now, you’ll be hungry later.”

Although many of us have no trouble acting like 2-year-olds at the end of the day, it is extremely hard for us to think like them. We view the world in much more complex terms. Twos and threes are egocentric to the point that they believe everything happens because of them or to them. Reasoning with children of any age is difficult, but reasoning with children of this age is almost impossible.

Twos and threes view everything in extremely simple terms. They often confuse fantasy with reality unless they’re actively playing make-believe. For example, a wonderful story from Selma Fraiberg’s The Magic Years talks about parents telling their 2-and-a-half-year-old that they would soon be flying to Europe. With a worried look on his face, the little boy said, “But my arms aren’t strong enough to fly.”

Guiding the Behavior of Twos and Threes

If reasoning with your child isn’t likely to get good results, then how do you guide their behavior?

  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children consistently obtain at least nine to eleven hours of sleep each night. When children are even slightly sleep deprived, it not only negatively affects their health, but it can also make it harder for them to control their behavior.
  • Establish a routine. A routine gives children a structure and environment that fosters feelings of security, comfort, trust, and less anticipatory anxiety. They know what to expect, feel more in control, and can learn more easily.
  • Have clear, specific rules of acceptable behavior. It sounds silly, but we often don’t tell our children the rules. “We’re not buying anything at the store except groceries. Please don’t ask.”
  • Be consistent. Children understand cause and effect. If we are inconsistent in certain situations, regardless of our intention, our children will learn that their inappropriate behavior is the way they can get what they want.
  • Stop what you are doing and focus on your child when expectations are an issue. Put down the phone, stop the car, ask the shoppers behind you to wait, or come out of the shower to deal with inappropriate behavior. When you stop what you are doing and go to your child, you are acknowledging the inappropriate behavior when it happens and correcting your child immediately following his actions.
  • Speak to your child on eye-level. For young children this usually requires getting down on your knees, leaning over, or sitting on the floor.
  • Validate your child’s feelings. When your child has misbehaved, let her know that you understand, or you are trying to understand, how she feels. Validate her emotions or intentions. “I know you wanted the toy, but your sister was playing with it.”
  • Speak in a normal tone of voice. When you are upset with your child, try not to yell or raise your voice.
  • Use a positive, firm, natural tone of voice. In simple terms, explain to your child what he did wrong. He may not know. Instead of “You made a mess,” say, “You took all Mom’s books off the shelf.”
  • Offer your child choices when possible. Give your child a choice between two activities that you propose. “It’s time to eat dinner. Do you want to put your seat beside your sister or me?”
  • Redirect your child. Guide your child to a new activity and so she can no longer do what she wants to do. “You can build with blocks. You can’t play with blocks if you throw them. You can throw a ball.”
  • Have logical consequences for inappropriate behavior. Don’t allow your child to continue doing what he wants to do unless he does it appropriately. “Write on paper. You cannot use the markers, if you write on the walls.”
  • Follow through. If you tell your child that there will be a particular consequence for an inappropriate action, follow through.
  • Give your child positive attention. Some children require a great deal of attention and that can be exhausting for us. And it’s usually those children who may act up because they want even more attention. Get into the habit of catching your child being good and rewarding her with attention for positive behavior.

Activities to Keep Twos and Threes Busy and Learning

Twos and threes are full of energy, so how do you keep them busy and learning without going crazy? Keep in mind, the best toy a child can ever have is you.

  • Have lots of time to run, climb, jump, haul things around and ride wheel toys.
  • Let them play with blocks of different sizes and shapes; building and destroying.
  • Teach them to dress and undress themselves.
  • Have them help with household chores such as setting and clearing the table and watering plants.
  • Provide housekeeping toys and let them use real objects and tools: pots, pans, sponges, brooms, vacuum cleaners, and anything they safely handle.
  • Encourage them to count household objects as you perform household tasks (for example, count the spoons, cups, etc. as you set the table).
  • Read stories to them.
  • Sing songs and have them make up their own songs.
  • Encourage them to dance and move to music.
  • Answer their “how” and “why” questions honestly, but simply. And as they grow older, ask, “what do you think,” more frequently.
  • Depending on your tolerance for mess, give them paint, crayons, chalk, colored pens, collage materials, and play dough (and work on your tolerance for mess).

More on This Topic

  • On a particularly challenging day read the News Mom post Why Toddlers Make Great CEOs on our Mom to Mom blog and think about the money rolling in for your retirement.