Last Fall I had just such an experience. My middle school son showed up ready to head out the door to school in shorts. He’d been wearing shorts since September. But lately the overnight temperatures had been consistently low. On this particular morning, it was 42 degrees outside.
I told him it was cold and he needed long pants. He insisted he would be fine. I insisted he needed to change. As he dug in his heels, I responded with consequences if he didn’t go put on long pants. Finally, relenting, I offered to let it go if he’d explain why he thought shorts were fine on this cold morning.
He sat sullenly on the couch, neither moving nor explaining. After a few more motherly hysterics (yet maddenly powerless), he finally said quietly, “I can’t wear long pants to gym.” “You can change into shorts in the locker room,” I replied. Even more quietly he responded, “I don’t want to have to change.”
My eyes were opened. Here sat a newly minted adolescent – reluctant to undress in front of his peers. It was suddenly crystal clear why he would rather be cold at the bus stop than change into long pants. My heart swelled for him and the new territory he was navigating as he moved from child to young adult. (A topic for another blog post. Hint: 12 is 2 all over again.)
“Thank you for explaining,” I answered. “Now that I understand where you are coming from, I won’t insist you change.” I finished up with an apology. “I’m sorry – hope your day at school is better than the last 10 minutes have been.” I hugged him and he trooped out the door. In shorts.
The bewilderment I experienced that morning will be familiar to parents of toddlers in the age of ‘No!”. Where does this sudden refusal to cooperate come from?
A baby’s brain is one quarter of the size of an adult brain. But in the first year of life it will double in size. By the time the child is three, their brain will be 80% of its adult size. During that journey from birth to age three, the helpless, completely dependent newborn will transform into an autonomous young child.
Right in the middle of that transformation is the “terrible twos”. That period of time when ‘no’ is their favorite word. Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer of experience-based early childhood education, called this stage of development a progression from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind. “Unconscious” because they begin unaware of their own participation in the learning process, but as they become “conscious”, they arrive fully aware of themselves as independent, thinking, learning beings.
They discover they can have a thought about something that is different from their caregiver’s thoughts. They can even have their own opinion – one that might be contrary to the adult’s opinion. They test their new understanding with practice. Lots and lots of practice. Which means lots of “No!”.
Adults have been frustrated by this phase of child development for so long it bears the label “Terrible Twos”. But understanding that the “No!” is coming from a new awareness of their own ability to choose can help. When parenting a child in this phase of development, encouraging the choosing can help encourage cooperation.
Maintain calm authority. Children growing in awareness can also be uncertain. Caregivers reassure them that they are safe and will be cared for by using a tone of voice that is confident and supportive. Try to avoid sounding angry, even as they try your patience. Use your words to help them understand what you need them to do. “Oh I see you are not happy about having to put your boots on now. We can’t leave until the boots are on.”
Offer them a choice between two things – but only 2 things. More than two can overwhelm the child. My favorite choice is: “Would you like to put the boots on all by yourself, or would you like me to help?” Countless times I found that when offering the choice between doing it themselves or having my help, their desire to be independent spurred them to action. They much preferred doing it themselves than having help. But be prepared to be patient and take the time to wait when they choose to do it themselves. Help with any hard part, but don’t rob them of the satisfaction of accomplishing the task independently.
Another option is the choice between first and next. “Do you want your coat before your boots – or boots first?” also changes the request by providing the child the opportunity to decide.
Notice that we can give them an alternative to their assumption that the choice is “do it” or “don’t do it”.
Change the subject as you proceed to help them cooperate. “Oh look, I found a fuzzy scarf in the closet.” Handing them the scarf, begin putting boots on to their feet. Calling their attention to something else helps them move past the defiance and onto a new emotion.
And finally, mission accomplished, be sure to begin a new conversation as you move onto the next activity. “Now that we have our boots on, let’s go! We are going to walk around the block – let’s look for birds as we walk.”
Sometimes you can choose from among these strategies. Sometimes you will work your way through all of them in succession – and still face opposition from your toddler. Once you’ve exhausted all efforts at cooperation, just remember you’re the parent. Lovingly, but firmly, complete the task and move on.
In moments where no amount of encouragement succeeds, doing it for them without further comment on the matter helps the child disengage from the struggle. With the child in my lap, and boot in hand, I would begin a conversation about something entirely unrelated to the boots. “Look, you have your green sweater on. It matches your green raincoat.” More often than not, their attention is drawn onto the next thing by a change of subject. And the protest is forgotten.
Yes, they are now old enough to have their own opinion, but the ‘terrible two’ is also amazingly more verbal. Listening, answering, and participating in a conversation will very often draw their attention away from the ‘no’.
And rest assured, this stage will not last forever.