By: Joe Newman
Two-year-old Jacob is charming but needs constant attention. The parents are taking turns following him around. Jacob is curious about a dish of olives and his father puts one in his mouth. Jacob doesn’t like it and spits it back into his father’s hand. Now the toddler decides the olives must go. He climbs onto the coffee table and grabs the bowl of olives. The father catches the bowl before Jacob can throw it and asks, “What do you want to do?”
The toddler ignores his father and tries to pull the bowl from his father’s hand. The father says, “No thank you, we don’t throw olives.”
But the toddler is unfazed. “No Daddy, no Daddy” he says, while trying to pry his father’s fingers off the olive bowl. During the next ten minutes the toddler keeps coming back to try and grab the olives. Sometimes he gets his hand on an olive and throws one before a parent can stop him.
They explain to him not to do it. They try to distract him with other things, but at no time do they firmly say “no” or give him any kind of consequence for ignoring their directions. I got the impression that if the father had been fast enough to catch olives thrown in every direction without letting any hit the floor he would have let his son throw them.
A few minutes later Jacob decides he wants to play the dog like a drum, banging his hands against its back. Fortunately, the dog remains good-natured and ignores the mild beating. “It’s not okay to use the dog as a drum. Do you need to bang on your drum?” the father asks, then brings out a drum and gives it to him. The toddler ignores the drum. A bit later Jacob decides it’s funny to pull the dog’s tail. After the parents have told him several times “No thank you. We don’t pull the dog’s tail,” the mother tells the boy, “I want you to say you’re sorry to the dog.” After repeated prodding, the boy says to the dog, “You’re sorry.” Having the toddler apologize to the dog means about as much to the toddler as it does to the dog.
Before I leave, the mother asks me if I want to watch Jacob play his piano. I stand in his playroom for almost ten minutes while he happily bangs on a toddler-sized piano. It is apparent that the mother feels that she, and maybe I, should stay, listen, and appear fascinated by his happy banging as long as Jacob wants us to.
I share this anecdote not because it’s an example of bad parenting but because it’s an example of typical, some would even say exemplary, parenting. I also share it because it is a good example of how parenting has shifted from raising children who primarily recognize others to raising children who primarily recognize themselves.
A two-year old is in the middle of the rapprochement phase (from the French “to bring together in a new way”), which is a phase of conflict. The toddler has become aware of his separateness and vulnerability and, in response to the anxiety this creates, attempts to assert complete control over his primary caregiver(s). The toddler will demand full recognition while negating those around him. In order for the child to move into mutual recognition (simultaneously recognizing themselves and others) the primary caregivers must assert their own conflicting needs. (For more on this see my last blog, “The Seismic Shift in Parenting”.)
A two-year-old is trying to find out how much power she has and who else has power. Her actions are asking questions “I have power, right? Do you have power? Are you like me? What happens when I do things? Can I get everything I want? Who’s in charge? Who’s important?”
In the example above this is what the toddler is learning: “I can do anything I want. Sometimes Mom and Dad will stop me, but I can keep trying. When I do things they don’t want me to do, Mom and Dad bring me new things. Mom and Dad are not like me. They are here to serve me. When I cry they give me things to cheer me up. They’re always asking me what I want and bringing me things I ask for. I control what happens and I am the most important person in the house.”
Here are the things the toddler is not learning: “The others in the house have needs that are different than mine.” “It is important to listen to Mom and Dad.” “I can’t have everything I want.” “There are things I can do and things I can’t do.” “Like me, Mom and Dad also have power.” “Everyone in the house is important.” “Mom and Dad are in control of what happens in the house.”
I felt like Jacob’s parents had been trying to make an environment for their son that was like some big interactive padded room where he could do anything he wanted and remain safe. Any desires or needs of the parents seemed to come a far second to the needs and desires of their son. While this type of environment was certainly stimulating and educational, it was missing the thing most needed, interaction with the clearly expressed will of another. In order for a toddler to develop connection, he must come up against the will and desires of others. There must be conflict.
When a child is two years old, he is trying to establish where you and he begin and end. He knows he has power, but doesn’t know if others (primarily his parents) have power like he has. When Jacob grabs the olives to throw, he’s saying, “I’m independent and I have power, right? Am I the only one who does what he wants?” He is crying out for someone to oppose him so he can affirm his independence. He is trying to emerge from the anxiety of omnipotence into the identity of interdependence. By accommodating him instead of opposing him his parents are unwittingly postponing this transition.
Jacob is in the middle of redefining his relationship with his parents and the world. In order for him to let go of omnipotence and move into interdependence, he must come up against a will that is stronger than his own. While he needs to oppose the boundaries that are set for him so he can establish his independence, he also needs his parents to win this power struggle so his world feels safe and in control. And in order for Jacob to develop the emotional and psychological muscles that are needed for self-discipline and self-regulation, he must experience the frustrations that come with not getting what he wants.
There is a palpable sense in most American homes with toddlers that every moment should be full of pleasure, while struggles and disappointments should be avoided at all costs. But the fact is, you either accept the struggles and disappointments now or you set your children up for even greater struggles and disappointments in the future. It’s like using a credit card instead of cash. Eventually, they will find out they are not the only ones with power; eventually, they will find out that everyone has wants and needs and often the needs of others conflict with their own.
When you are raising your toddler, always pay in cash. The sooner you can coach your child through difficulties, disappointments, frustrations, and consequences, the sooner she will develop the emotional muscles needed to successfully deal with life. Every time a toddler comes up against a natural boundary or frustration, look at it as an opportunity to compassionately teach her an important skill, not as something you should try to eliminate or solve for her. When you protect your child from the consequences of her behavior, you’re putting the struggle on credit so she can have pleasure in the moment. Your child will need to pay for that decision in the future, with interest.