Treat Children As the Scientists They Are and Skip the Terrible Two’s

My one-year-old grandson, Musa, is fast. No, I mean very fast. He can be safe on the sofa and in the time it takes me to get up and take a book off the shelf, he can be waving a poker from the fireplace in all directions.

One can easily foresee the onset of the “terrible two’s,” where all his relationships are defined by a continual string of “No’s” and a battle of wills. But on my last visit with Musa before I returned to the Midwest, I got a clear picture of how it doesn’t have to be that way.
I met him, his mother Lizzie and his older brother Abdallah at Ardenwood Historic Farm in California. (Gulp. Chickens, manure, and tools, oh my—two hours in Don’t Touch City with a 16-month-old.)

Immediately after I put him down from his hello hug, he picked up a three-foot stick at his feet, waved it around, and then offered it to me.

“Thank you,” I said, as I took it, used it as a cane and gave it back to him with a big smile. He poked the dirt with it a few times, and when Lizzie said, “Come on. Let’s go see the goats” and started walking, he played with it where he was until we were thirty yards away.

By the time he caught up Abdallah was feeding the goats through the mesh of a fence. Musa picked up a leaf and cautiously poked it through to the goat whose mouth greedily took it. Life is admittedly easier when one has an older brother to show you how things are done—less trial and error is necessary—just copy.

More wandering took us to the tractor shed where a rope looping from post to post separated us from 100 years of farm equipment. All technology requires investigation; so Musa was inside in the time it takes a humming bird to go from one flower to the next.

But Lizzie is experienced. She reached over the rope, put him on the correct side, and said: “This rope is a boundary. Do not cross it.” For the rest of our ten-minute exploration of tractors, Musa stayed on his side of the rope, pointing and saying “Oouushsh.” (Musa has a two-word vocabulary. The other is “ersch.” His mother and father are still trying to translate, but both words seem to mean everything from “Look” to “I want that” to “Tell me about that.”)

A generation ago as a father I learned early to see small children as researchers rather than bestial creatures needing to be trained, and that understanding has helped me in my work as an educator. These days there is a wealth of brain research to back it up. Google “children are scientists” and see. Here’s a tidbit from Alison Gopnik’s “How Babies Think:

…children learn about the world in much the same way that scientists do—by conducting experiments, analyzing statistics, and forming intuitive theories of the physical, biological, [sociological] and psychological realms.

If Musa could talk he would say: “Look you guys there are millions of objects and thousands of processes I have to understand. I need your help. You can teach me short-cuts and boundaries so that I don’t have to learn the hard way. You can give me work that is more interesting than I could choose for myself. That’s great, but there is no substitute for my experimental method. It is my job to figure things out. You see, if I don’t engage in the scientific method now, it will be hard for me to learn it later. And how will I build a brain that others can rely on if I only rely on what authority people say?

“I certainly want us to enjoy our time together; so go ahead and say “No,” or suggest a different activity, or show me how, but don’t get mad at me for testing. It’s my job. I appreciate anything that helps me build my brain into an organ that will stand the test of perpetual newness.”

Two-year-olds are determined to become autonomous decision-makers. They come by their willfulness honestly; it is necessary for their survival, and they know it deep in the very wiring and chemistry of their being.

Furthermore, early childhood educators take note, before you interrupt what a child is doing be sure you have something better to offer. It is usually better to join a child in his investigation than to abort it and replace it with an idea of your own.

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11 thoughts on “Treat Children As the Scientists They Are and Skip the Terrible Two’s

  1. I was lucky that soon after the birth of my daughter I was given a copy of The Scientist in the Crib by Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl. I read it, despite refusing to read any parenting manuals that I had been given. I loved it and it truly helped me enter into and understand what was happening with my child. I enjoyed her first rebellions, explorations, and that first “NO!” Truly more people should embrace such philosophies.

  2. Anne, I am so glad you discovered The Scientist in the Crib and found it helpful, and Mary, really good point about all kids being unique. Both are foundational concepts.

  3. Dear Rick,
    Though I rarely have a moment to myself these days, when I take the time to read your words, it is alway helpful and uplifting. In the Montessori world the child as scientist is alive and well.
    Warm Regards,

  4. Such a wonderful post, thanks so much for sharing.

    I was often reminded by others, when my now three year old was two, that at any moment the “terrible twos” would be upon us. Well….I am still waiting. I was never quite sure why we have never experienced what so many families seem to, but I think you have just given me some insight. We treat the world as a large question mark, ready to be explored. Not only has my little man enjoyed and learned for our experiences, I too have learned so much.

  5. Great article, Rick, & thanks for sharing the photos.

    I love the preschool years — so much curiosity!

    One of my horse-training mentors has the aphorism “Make doing the right thing easy, and doing the wrong thing hard”. It’s a good parenting rule, too.

  6. “Make doing the right thing easy, and doing the wrong thing hard.” A perfect way to Play Position as we search for ways to exercise our authority in a way that increases the authority of young people.

  7. I’ve been working with toddlers for years and luckily realized this pretty quickly. I have learned to let them try out their ideas, even when they are using things in ways I never would dream of. As long as they are safe. If it becomes a safety issue, I try to help them find a safe way to do it rather than stopping them altogether. So while we have the occasional meltdown, the power struggles are usually avoided. And we refrain from using ‘no’ as much as possible!

  8. Cool stuff. I hope that it is something that is never grown out of – not even by those in their 80s and 90s. The scientific approach to learning is terribly exciting to observe, and to experience first hand. Not to say that learning from shared interactions is less so, but having to wait around for someone else just has drawbacks (for the impatient, hyperactive, … infinitely inquisitive vultures of learning). I’m in my late 40s (an educator – but not classroom teacher) and would like to think that I never let go of this. Thanks go to my parents!

  9. Thanks for the reminder. It really helps me stay patient when I see it in this light. After reading this today, I found my 2 year old twins taking a sample of CJ’s Butter and smearing it on the couch. Normally I would have freaked and said NO! and taken it. Instead, I gave them a rag and told them they could play with it and wipe it on the rag. I also told them they could wipe it on my arms and legs (moisterizer for mom LOL). They loved it.

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