The Terrific Twos

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It was nearly nap time as we left the pool this morning after a good, energy burning session. Little M, seeing Dad use his entry card, resulting in a fascinating beep and flashing light combination, wanted to exit through the turnstile. From her height level, I could imagine the noise, lights and the shiny turning bars, like a untried climbing frame, were nearly irresistible. Much more interesting than the child friendly swing gate we would have to use. “This way” I cheerfully sang out, aware that this needed to be handled swiftly to avoid melt down. “No” came the reply. The line of people trying to leave had started to form behind the two exits, and I could already feel the tension from the irritated adults with so much to do in the remainder of their morning. This situation could play out in a number of ways.

A few years ago, when I was a Year Coordinator, I was working closely with a variety of external professionals ensuring the most appropriate and successful learning plans were put in place for students. I clearly remember reading a report from a clinical psychologist stating trauma that had occurred when a student was two years old was the probable cause of issues with the child settling into high school. This was in contrast to a report from a few years previous, for the same child, which highlighted ADHD and Aspergers as the reason for some behaviours. I recall rereading the report and trying to get my head around the fact that anything witnessed or experienced by a two-year old could have such an impact on a now teenage brain. Surely a two-year old had no way of comprehending, processing and memorizing events? They barely talk, have no control over their “selves” and have no individual personalities. After all, I can’t remember anything from my life before the age of about 5. Oh, how naive I was to the complexities of a toddler. Now thanks to Little M, who turned 29 months this week, I have been taught the error of my ways by the Master herself.

One of the things that makes my blood boil the most is the judgement and treatment of two-year olds and their loving parents by strangers in public places.

The “Why don’t you control your child?” from queue weary people in the post office, as Little M, sings and dances to the joy only she hears in elevator music.

The “Well, I’d just pick her up and throw her in” from drivers impatiently waiting to get into their cars, as Little M shows me how she can now climb up “All by myself” with such pride in her newly discovered strength and dexterity.

The “Hum, In my day, I’d have given her something to cry about” from a ‘well-meaning’ shopper as Little M breaks her heart and screams her lungs out, parting with a carefully chosen box of strawberries so they can be scanned and returned to her, because it stops her being helpful to mum.

As with everything in life, it is all about context. Little M’s context is that she is a thinking, independent, helpful and growing being. To the external world of polite yet disconnected, passive-aggressive yet rule-following public, she’s a noisy, messy, pain in the arse. She has yet to master the social ‘niceties’ of not expressing joy, not trying new things and not giving without expecting in return. These norms somehow forced upon us to maintain the status quo and keep us busy. It is for exactly these reasons that most would look at me pityingly and say, “Oh it’s the terrible twos! I hope it will be over for you soon”, that I simply adore two-year olds. I would do anything to press the pause button now, and keep her as this wild, unyielding, strong-willed, joyful bundle of energy. But I also know that the next stage will be just as wonderful to observe too.

These are my reasons as to why we should embrace the Terrific Twos and celebrate them at every opportunity.

They Love unconditionally – All emotions are scary. They creep up on you and you are unsure how to release them, and come out the other side in one piece. For two-year olds, this is all-encompassing. They do not have the language or the understanding to healthily express them. They need to be taught to understand the feeling, give it a name, comprehend what has caused it and then respond, as society expects, appropriately. This, when you consider it, takes a vast amount of cognition and self-knowledge. There are many adults who still struggle with this. So we shouldn’t be too harsh with the outbursts of these little ones and instead walk with them through the experience. However, the love given by a two-year old is the purest thing. Little M. for no reason will stop and say “I love you so much”, hug me and then continue with whatever she was doing.  There is no hidden agenda, she doesn’t want anything in return. She isn’t after a “I love you” back, she is just expressing her emotion. She even does this after my less than perfect parenting moments. If only we could be this forgiving when our little ones mess up at times. Love is the one emotion we don’t need to be shown what to do to express it. We do it instinctively. In the emotional rollercoaster of a day with a two-year old, the times when they just want to give you their love, makes the rest of the mood coaching worth while. Unconditionally, because you are just you. Their rock in this time of disarray.

They truly see the world and make us see it anew – There can be no rush with a two-year old. Nothing can just happen in a logical, adult paced sequence. Because you know what, the world is AMAZING! It’s fascinating. It’s big and it’s tiny, wet and gritty. It’s colourful, fast-moving, intricate and constantly changing. The walk from the front door to the car is different every single time, because the light has changed or there’s been some rain. And many more ever altering, equally mesmerizing things have occurred.                             Stop.                                                                                                                                                  Take the time to sit outside the front door and watch, with the same fresh eyes as the two-year old, the ant, or the growing weed, or the shadow. We live our own isolated, forever on the treadmill existence,with our appointments and our busy. The world is a very  different place to a two year old. Let them teach you what is really going on outside in the real world.

They love their bodies – How many times can you watch a two-year old jump off a step? How many times do you hear “Watch this one”? Can you sit and watch the thrill they still have on jump number 86? Two year olds are in awe of what their bodies can do. They love the changes they see within a day in their strength, dexterity and developing skills. “All by myself” is a chant of sheer delight. It is Mastery. One of the main components for positive mental health in adolescence is that of Mastery. It is vital for us to feel accomplishment. Two year olds have this in abundance. They are mastering everything. They naturally have a Growth mindset and they try, and try, and try. They rejoice in the slightest improvement and they know they have done it unaided, through practise. The damage comes when we stop letting them try. When we fail to celebrate their personal mile stones with them. When we stop giving them opportunities to do “All by myself”.

They show their joy without reserve – This links very much to the previous point. With pride in their new abilities, they are happy to use them whenever and wherever. Shame is not part of a two year olds make up, nor should they ever be made to feel it. Any time there is music in a public place, I want to be where the two-year olds are. They will dance, sing, jump and generally build up a mini sweat. ‘Who cares what others think? I am loving this beat and look what I can do with my legs and arms’ is the general air around them. It is infectious too. They express their joy without reserve, and they can change the mood of the most boring waiting room or out of tune Carol service. The delight they show on the return of a loved one, a dog-eared teddy or a piece of cake, can literally alter the atmosphere and change an observers demeanour. It makes me sad to think that at some point Little M. will be more concerned with what a stranger may think then how a song or a loved one makes her feel. Maybe we should try to rid shame from the experience of children full stop.

They are desperate to be of value and to give to others – Having spent the last 12 years working with teens, I am painfully aware that the likelihood of a 14-year-old doing something to assist an adult, without being asked (or in many cases bribed) just because they are able to do it, is zero. Sorry to say, but the natural inclination to be ‘helping mummy’ will exponentially decrease with age. So why stop them or not allow them to do things when they so clearly want to? They love you to death, they are aware that they are developing skills every day that they have to practise in order to get right and they are absolutely in awe of every little thing they come across. Let them help. Let them do. When I handed my two-year old the butter knife, the butter and the Vegemite jar along with the toast, I know fellow cafe goers looked at me with a mixture of shock (a toddler with a knife, what a careless mother) horror ( imagine the mess ) and disgust ( no one is going to want to eat that toast after the child has hacked at it) But do you know what, you can clean up a mess, toddlers and hungry mums will eat anything and I’d rather she practised with a butter knife, under my guidance, then by herself with a bread knife when she’s older. Little M. loves having chores. She can’t wait to do them. She feels like she is a fully functioning part of the family. It gives her independence, skills and most importantly, enables her to feel the joy generosity brings. I am hoping that we can cultivate it enough so that the onset of the can’t-be-arsed teenager is delayed, ever so slightly.

This is why I am determined to use the term Terrific Twos as it really is just a matter of mindset, and by that I mean adult mindset. It is really, really difficult being with a two-year old but by reframing our own expectations and looking at experiences and growth through the eyes of a two-year old, maybe we will have a more positive impact on their developing brain at this very important time in its formation.

So there I am with the growing, tutting crowds at the Shiny Turnstile V. Boring Gate situation. An elderly lady states, “She’s a strong-willed one, isn’t she?” I smile and nod. She’s right. “That way” M. pouts, in a louder, getting grumpy voice.                                                                           The battle is on. The options are :                                                                                                   A) Pick her up. She will scream like a banshee and kick and shout – she can walk by herself after all. She will continue to scream and thrash around all the way to the car, leaving us both exhausted and emotionally spent. People will stare at us. We will both feel shame and we will have reinforced the stereotype of Terrible Twos and Mothers who can’t cope.                                                                                                                                                       B) Try and teach her that unfortunately we can’t always do what we want by explaining the situation. Using a calm, loving but firm voice. Checking she understands and regardless of her reaction to this course of action, be prepared to show that I love her unconditionally, as she loves me. And hang the reaction of the adults around us.

“You don’t have a card like Daddy yet. But as soon as you are old enough you will get a card and you can use that side all the time. Until then we have to use the other side. Do you understand?” Pause. Thinking. Eyes up one gate, then the other.                                                                                                                                                   “Ok. Let’s go, go, go!” And she’s jump skipping through the correct gate. Much to the delighted smiles of the previously agitated patrons.                                                             “Wow, that was calm and reasonable, and she took it well.” said the same elderly lady, now with a smile replacing the scowl.                                                                                        “Oh yes, two year olds can be very reasonable. Didn’t you know that? Have a great day.” And we scuttle out, hoping to get to the car before same lady witnesses the next round of “Get into the car seat, please” .

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