My Toddler Isn't Terrible -- He's Just Two
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I watched a woman’s small child throw himself on the ground in protest. He kicked and screamed and demanded. I observed her from the comfort of my beach chair, my hand rubbing a belly that had barely begun to stretch. My kids will never act like that. It’s as simple as setting boundaries and telling them no. I silently corrected her from a distance, enjoying the confidence of knowing the right way to parent, particularly free from any knowledge of her actual child, his needs, their dynamics, her lack of sleep and their family history.
It’s been five years since I saw her, and I wonder what she would think, if she walked into my house today. I have a feeling that if she was standing in my living room, boys running and screaming and flipping at her feet, meltdowns over naptime or my refusal of something they want, I think she’d see the chaos and listen to the sobs, and then I think she would laugh. She’d remember these days and catch my tired eyes, which would be filled with regret for the judgment I once pored over her, and I think she would smile and tell me that she knows. She was here. She understands.
My youngest son will be four months old this week. His perception of reality is narrow. He knows I feed him and that when he cries I come to him. His needs are simple – to be fed, changed and held. But for his brothers (ages two and four), life is becoming a bit more complex. They want things I can’t provide. They enjoy things that I take away. They recognize disappointment and they are learning to communicate and respect boundaries, feats most of us will admit are still challenging.
My two-year-old cries when he doesn’t get his way (so do I). He gets angry when he loses something he wanted (so do I). He has a propensity to push the line and challenge the rules (so do I). He is learning how to exist in a world of boundaries and disappointments, which I recognize to be hard, frustrating work.
They are waddling out into a world of limitations they don’t understand and we are their guides. Let’s retire this notion of the terrible two’s and exchange it for a perspective of God’s design, our roles and His provision.
Accept God’s Design
As a psychology major in college, I studied learning and cognition. My professor was a captivating speaker and would often bring her dogs to class as a way of demonstrating how learning occurs. Towards the end of one class, a student asked, “We use bark collars for our dogs. How can we train them not to bark?” She took a deep breath and paused before saying, “If you don’t want your dog to bark, don’t get a dog. Dogs bark. It’s not realistic or fair to ask them not to.”
Dogs bark. Babies cry. Toddlers demand. That’s how God designed them.
Babies cry because they have no other way communicate when they are hungry, tired, afraid, anxious, uncomfortable. Their developing brains aren’t ready to “self-soothe.” So God gave them a voice and it sounds a lot like screaming. Toddlers demand and throw fits and cry even louder than babies because they don’t know another way. They explore and are mischievous and forget what we told them yesterday. Or if they remember, they aren’t able to regulate their behavior around it, especially without reminding. That’s where their brains are in development. It isn’t their “sinful nature” coming through. It’s how God has designed their growing mind.
My kids are discovering this world and their own emotions for the first time; and who will they most likely reflect? Me. It makes me a little nauseous to admit, but at this point, they are tiny mirrors of my best and worst habits. Maybe I should spend less time simply telling them what not to do and more time modeling the behavior I want to see from them. If I escalate, they escalate. If I want them to stop screaming, yelling at them does very little good. Taking a few deep breaths for myself and then asking them to do the same accomplishes more in 30 seconds than my firmest tone does in an hour.
When I can remember that this is what it looks like to be two-years-old, that there’s nothing wrong or broken or problematic, that this is all normal and in accordance with God’s design of a growing person, when I remember that, a weight is lifted. I enjoy him more. I’m more patient and less anxious because I accept them as they are, where they are; and I remember that teaching my kids is about modeling appropriate behavior just as much as it is about correcting inappropriate behavior.
Meet God there.
Frustrated by a child who refuses to listen? Exhausted from a toddler who runs when you call and does the opposite of what you ask? God knows something about that. He knows A LOT about that. Perhaps our best guide to navigating the frustrating emotions of a toddler or preschooler is asking the simplest question – How does my Father respond to me when I don’t listen? How does He respond when I demand my own way or refuse to follow or when I try to cover up a part of my life? When we start there, we are drawn into relationship with our Father and perhaps, refined and refreshed towards the flailing child at our feet.
These are hard years, sisters! We are being asked to exercise patience and compassion when we are utterly exhausted and often, under appreciated or unseen. He knows. He sees. He understands. Let’s meet him there.
Cara Joyner is a freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom living on the East Coast with her husband and two sons. After years of working in student ministry, she has come home to raise her boys and begin tackling grad school. She loves hanging out with college students, watching Parenthood and eating chocolate like it's one of the food groups. In addition to iBelieve, Cara is a contributing writer at RELEVANT and Today's Christian Woman. She writes about faith, marriage, motherhood and intentional living at www.carajoyner.com. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.