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Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender Paperback – July 15, 1980

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About the Author

Louise Bates Ames is a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center and assistant professor emeritus at Yale University. She is co-founder of the Gesell Institute of Child Development and collaborator or co-author of three dozen or so books, including The First Five Years of Life, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today, Child Rorschach Responses, and the series Your One-Year-Old through Your Ten- to Fourteen-Year-Old. She has one child, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Frances L. Ilg wrote numerous books, including The Child from Five to Ten, Youth: The Years from Ten to Sixteen, and Child Behavior, before her death in 1981. She was also a co-founder of the Gesell Institute of Child Development at Yale.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

chapter one
Your Two-year-old! Different in many ways from any other living human being! And yet, because the individual boy or girl does develop to a large extent in a patterned, predictable way, there are many respects in which he or she will resemble every other Two-year-old.
Only you will fully and intimately know your own preschooler. But because he will resemble others of his same age in so many ways, there is much we can tell you about Two-year-oldness in general that should provide something of a shortcut to your understanding and appreciation of that young person who is so uniquely your own.
The child of this age has come a long way when compared with his own Eighteen- to Twenty-one-month-old self. We have described the Eighteen-month-old as walking along a one-way street that all too often leads in the opposite direction from the one you had in mind. He bumbles along in his own peculiar way and almost seems to think with his feet. As one perceptive mother remarked of her own Eighteen-month-old, “You program him just as if he were a computer—he is that predictable.”
Predictable, perhaps, to others but not always to himself. His abilities are still so rudimentary that his life holds all too many unhappy surprises. He falls when he wants to stay upright. Things slip from his hands when he wishes to hold them. He lacks the words he needs to express his very rigorous and definite demands.
His lack of abilities all too often upsets him. He is upset with himself and with his parents. Life is by no means entirely smooth or happy.
Hence it may come as a pleasant relief to all concerned when the Eighteen- to Twenty-one-month-old boy or girl turns Two, and at least briefly things go more to his liking and to your own.
The typical Two-year-old tends to be a rather gentle, friendly little person, much, much easier to live with than he was a mere few months ago. One of the reasons for this is that life is easier for him now than it used to be.
To begin with, he is much more sure of himself motor-wise than he was just a few months ago. Now he can walk and run and climb with rather admirable skill, so the world of movement is a comfortable one for him.
Now he can talk so much better than he could at Eighteen or Twenty-one months. Not only can he express his needs much better, but since Two is a somewhat relaxed, undemanding age, these needs are not so strong as they used to be. This happy combination—less vigorous demands and a much better ability to express them—makes it easier for the child to get what he wants from the world.
Emotionally he seems calmer, surer, better balanced than he was. Anger and disappointment are not as strongly felt as formerly, nor are they as strongly expressed. He is happy much of the time. He likes other people, and they, in turn, find him a delightful companion.
A few months earlier, the child seemed to favor an extensor posture. If you tried to take him onto your lap, he would, as likely as not, straighten out and slide down. Now, if you catch him in just the right mood, he may curl up and settle in, and talk to you or merely listen.
Two expresses affection warmly. He enjoys you, and you enjoy him. Gone is the difficult, demanding little boy or girl with whom you may have suffered just a few short months ago.
The age of Two usually provides a brief and welcome breathing space for a parent, coming as it does between the difficult, demanding time of Eighteen to Twenty-one months and the even more difficult and demanding age of Two-and-a-half that is so soon to follow. In fact, the year begins so gently that one is not at first aware of the hidden sources of dominating power that will be unleashed in its midstream.
You as a parent may not feel that you need a tremendous amount of help in living with this delightful little creature. Our suggestion is, Enjoy any periods of calm, of equilibrium, of contentment, of comfort while they last, for in many children, especially during the preschool years, they tend to be rather short. In these early years one finds that most harmonious stages, when the child seems to be in tune with Nature, comfortable with himself and happy with you, easy to deal with and to live with, tend to be rather brief.
“The Terrible Twos” is a phrase that has become a part of our culture. This phrase is not entirely correct. Any parent of a friendly, amenable Two-year-old is bound to consider it a definite exaggeration.
Yet, as your child moves on through this year that begins with his second birthday (actually the third year of his life), you will discover, all too soon, what people are talking about. The gentle age of Two is all too quickly followed by the age of Two-and-a-half, when things are not so gentle. Thus one should say more accurately, “The Gentle Twos.” It is not until Two-and-a-half that many children do become rather terrible. It is Two-and-a-half, not Two itself, that gives this general age period such a very bad name.
It is as if the child could not function always on the positive side of life. Stages, or ages, when things are fine and in good equilibrium, seem to need to break up and to be followed by stages when things are not so fine and equilibrium is not so steady.
We call this manner of growing interweaving (see Figure 1). Good seems to need to interweave with bad; equilibrium with disequilibrium. The good, solid equilibrium of any early age seems to need to break up into disequilibrium before the child can reach a higher or more mature stage of equilibrium, which again will be followed by disequilibrium. But take heart. As day follows night, so equilibrium will again return.
Almost invariably, as your Two-year-old matures, he reaches the not entirely comfortable stage of Two-and-a-half. And since it is at the stages of disequilibrium that the parent or other person who is taking care of the child needs most help, we shall write somewhat briefly of Two, and will give you all the help we can with Two-and-a-half.
Remember—please remember—that every child not only has his own individuality—even identical twins differ from each other in many important ways—but each also has his own time schedule. We describe here ways in which many typical children behave at Two and Two-and-a-half years of age. But please don’t forget that your own child may quite normally be behind or ahead of this supposedly more or less typical schedule. Even though children have much in common, not every child hits every stage in exactly the same way or at exactly the same time.
Also, basic personality will have a strong influence on the way the child’s body interprets the complexities of this age. A very rigid little boy, for instance, may become even more rigid and intractable as he moves from Two to Two-and-a-half. A gentle, tractable girl may only temporarily become a little hard to manage.
Your own handling of your child introduces still another variable. Met head-on with harsh, unrelenting demands, a Two-and-a-half-year-old tends to become even more rigid, oppositional, negative, and generally difficult than he might otherwise have been. Met with skill and kindness, with good preschool techniques, with a little bit of humor, even a very demanding boy or girl may be willing and able to give in now and then.
If your own child continues gentle and easy to get on with right through the time that he is Two-and-a-half, and does not reach the terrible Two-and-a-half period until he is almost Three, don’t be alarmed. And if because by nature he is just naturally calm and adaptable, and because your own handling may be superb, he is not ever very terrible at any time during this third year, don’t worry about that, either.
Don’t worry about it, but don’t credit all of this smoothness to your own handling. His younger brother or sister, when he or she comes along, may be very different.
And if our description of Two-and-a-half-year-old behavior makes that entire age period seem like a disaster area, it isn’t necessarily so. Even the Two-and-a-half-year-old can be as delightful at times as any other preschooler. He is often very lovable, engaging, enthusiastic, and appreciative. It is interesting, though, that often the stubborn, aggressive side of the Two-and-a-half-year-old’s nature surfaces again when he becomes a teenager—moody, petulant, and all-too-ready to criticize you as a parent.
Fortunately, for all his rebelling, his stubborn opposition, even the Two-and-a-half-year-old still believes that you, his parents, are all-powerful and all-wonderful.
The hints, techniques, and warnings that we are about to give you are meant to help you keep things on as smooth a track as possible so that you and your child can most fully enjoy each other while the complex and exquisite process of maturing is going on.

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