The Terrible Twos: Children’s Self-Determination and Four Lessons for Parents

If parents understand the “terrible twos” as a developmental stage for parents as well as children, they can take parenting to the next level and keep supporting their children’s drive for self-determination.

1. At 22 months my grandson, Musa, discovered the word “No” and has suddenly become (in his mother’s words) “very Dr-Jeckel-and-Mr-Hyde.”

But this was not always the case. When I was camping with him and his family two months ago, I saw a twenty-month-old who was driven to please. His greatest delight was to make others happy.

Because Musa isn’t talking yet, one wonders what he understands, but one quickly learns that he understands everything going on around him. He pays attention. Boy does he pay attention!

As the four of us were sitting down to eat one evening, I said (just to see what would happen), “Musa, would you please go to the cooler, get out the jug of cider and bring it to the table?”

Musa paused in his eating for a split second, got down from his chair, walked to the cooler, opened it, got out the half-gallon jug of cider, and brought it to me.

“Thank you, I said.”

Then, he went back to the cooler and got out a quart of milk and brought it to me.

“Does anyone want milk?” I asked.

The others said no; so I said: “No thank you, Musa. Would you please put it back?”

He did, then came back to his chair and went back to eating.

Moral #1: Act as if kids want to be helpful, and they will prove you right.

2. Then one month ago he discovered the word, “No.” His mother asked him to bring her a book from the table, and he got a little gleam in his eye and said, “No.”

“I could see the wheels turning in his head,” she told me, “as he made the discovery that doing or not doing was his choice. He was obviously thrilled with this discovery. In the month since then, not a day goes by that he doesn’t say ‘No’ at least once.”

It is very important that parents go through this stage in their relationship with their children without getting stuck in authority battles. It’s tricky business, but if we remember that our goal is to continue to increase parental authority in such a way that it strengthens the authority of the child we will be okay. (Moral #2 )

3. We all know examples of parental authority gone awry—especially those parents who simply abdicate their authority and don’t set limits for their children. However, it can be equally bad for children and for our relationship with them, if we allow it to go the other way.

Arnie, for instance, turned in his homework inconsistently. At one conference Arnie’s mother reported that his father was merciless in pressuring Arnie to measure up to his standards. Indeed, his demands would put most “Tiger Moms” to shame.

We tried to address this in parent-teacher conferences, but he kept saying, “Arnie needs to be held to high standards.” Arnie’s father wouldn’t let up.

By eighth grade, Arnie had devised a strategy for not letting his father’s domineering nature interfere with his own education. He did the work, but didn’t turn it in. Moral #3 Children are resilient. They can transcend most bad parenting.

4. Paternal over-control was a problem for Illana, too. Her reaction was to disrupt class, which she did with increasing frequency until finally, in sixth grade she became a bully, and we had to expel her from school. In our final meeting her father said, “Listen, don’t feel bad. We understand. She is like that at home, too. But maybe you can give us some counseling. Is it like Illana just wants to do her own thing?”

The father’s question gave me an insight. I said, “No, it is as if she doesn’t have her own thing. Her only ‘thing’ is to find out what the adult authority wants and to thwart it.”

Moral # 4 Self-determination is the name of the game for all humans and around the age of two, as everyone knows, children’s need for autonomy becomes paramount. This drive to be in charge of their own action can be a problem for many parents, hence “The terrible two’s.” If parents understand the child’s drive for autonomy as desirable, and are willing to keep learning, they can keep supporting their self-determination.

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6 thoughts on “The Terrible Twos: Children’s Self-Determination and Four Lessons for Parents

  1. I like this meaning (developmental milestone) for saying “no.” It is indicative of a huge step: ‘I am my own being now, and saying “no” is a new option for my self-expression.’ This could be a cause for celebration (yes!) rather than dread (oh no!)!

    I think it is very helpful to ask our children to do things which are really fine with us when they say “no.” And we are likely to find that, when any fear of upsetting us is gone, they will say “yes” far more frequently (as Musa did in your post). And when they say “no,” we can still say, “Thank you for considering this,” and “Thank you for being honest,” to underline our ongoing love and support.

    Ooh … I just noticed there’s a hidden gem in your post, Rick. It reveals an effective way to ask questions: “just to see what will happen”! I like finding ways to say things that are outside the box of “how do we make our children do what we want.”

    If our children aren’t going to learn from us that saying “no” is a valuable social skill when young, then from whom, and when?

  2. Novel advice–I think it is very helpful to ask our children to do things which are really fine with us when they say “no.”–and excellent.

  3. Thanks Rick. I appreciate your morals and the idea of trying to find the flow with our children. Each child is different but looking to support their individual edges and appreciating that it is about developing strengths at a natural pace is a great reminder (even for ourselves as parents :-).

  4. I think you could easily replace terrible two’s with terrible teens and it would be just as educational!

  5. Thank you. One parent emailed me:
    “Sometimes I think preserving our own sanity overrides doing the ‘right thing’ as a parent.
    “My husband and I have a pretty good sense of when we need to say ‘no,’ and we’re both comfortable exercising parental authority (and we agree about the value/importance of that – which is a big relief). The challenge is that when we DO decide to say no, we need to be prepared for the consequence. Which is sometimes a big fit, and is sometimes more than we bargained for. It can be exhausting!
    And given how exhausting raising a young child is in general, I wonder if we don’t say “no” as frequently as we could or should… Being a parent of a young child is exhausting – the energy required is epic – and sometimes I think preserving our own sanity overrides doing the “right thing” as a parent. Sigh…

  6. As a toddler teacher and mother, I have found that it is indeed a developmental milestone when they begin to discover their independence. I have found that giving the child a choice between 2 acceptable things, makes the child feel like they have some control over the outcome and gives the parent/caregiver more cooperation from the child. For example, instead of telling the child that it is time for nap and getting the usual response of “No”, you can ask “Would you rather have your bear or your bunny to sleep with at nap?”

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