I’ve always hated the term “terrible twos”. I heard it used by parents while working in a toddler program for 18-36 month old toddlers, and always assumed it was a sort of joke. The children I was working with were far from “terrible”. Sure, they tested boundaries and explored the world around them in sometimes incredibly messy ways (Did I ever tell you the story of the toddler who tried to “paint me” using his diarrhea?). They sometimes cried or whined when they were overtired, hungry, sick, teething, or when big life changes were happening (especially during the addition of a new baby to the family). Sometimes they hit, kicked, bit, or pushed when big feelings overtook their little bodies. This did not make them “terrible”. They were just tiny humans learning how to cope with the confusing and sometimes terribly unpredictable world within and all around them.
The children I worked with fascinated me. They experimented with power and ownership, they slowly learned to use words instead of physical acts to get their needs met, and they learned to take turns and to share resources. They learned to follow daily routines and safety guidelines, and to create guidelines for themselves based on lived experience. They figured out how to ask for help when things became overwhelming, and how to verbalize their big feelings. They observed and experimented to find out how the world around them worked, and slowly developed the vocabulary and structural language skills to begin to question, reflect upon, and discuss their findings. I was amazed and excited by the changes that would happen literally overnight. Some of their learning came out of painful experiences such as skinned knees, hurt feelings, or broken structures. But nothing they did was “terrible”.
Referring to one’s child as a “little monster” or saying that he or she is “going through the terrible twos” is neither healthy nor helpful, especially when spoken within earshot of the child. I can attest to the vast differences in teacher attitude and treatment of the children in a centre where teachers were allowed to refer to the children in demeaning terms in the staff room, and those where that kind of name calling was forbidden. Our words reflect our thoughts and can shape our experiences and actions. Name calling creates a me-versus-you mentality, even when used half in jest. Referring to children as “beasts”, “monsters”, “terrible twos”, “jerks” (or other terms that I will not put in writing) is just a bit too close to Hitler’s use of the word “vermin” for my liking.
Since becoming a parent to a “terrific two”, I have become even more offended by the term “terrible twos”, and have corrected those who try to tell me that our daughter is “a terrible two”. We have an intelligent, charismatic and energetic almost two and a half year old daughter who experiments with the world around her, including testing to see if mommy’s answer will be the same as daddy’s answer. She can melt down into a puddle of toddler rage and sadness if we are out and about too close to nap time or meal time. She can become defiant or cry for seemingly no reason (although in retrospect, there is ALWAYS an underlying reason-oncoming illness, fatigue, sudden change in routine, blood sugar drop, etc). Like most humans her age, she thrives with a predictable routine and warnings about upcoming transitions, adequate rest, exercise, play, and good nutrition. She can be easily overstimulated in loud or crowded environments and needs quiet time to reset. Proactive preparation for outings (including escape plans if necessary) and frequent check-ins keep our ship running fairly smoothly on most days.
Parents and teachers are not in a war with our kids. There are no “front lines” or “trenches” in a family or an educational setting. Children are not obstacles to be overcome, nor barriers to adult happiness. They are gifts to be cherished, loved, taught, and learned from. It is our privilege and responsibility to be the adults in the relationship, to model the kind of behaviour and self-regulation skills we want to see in the next generation, including refraining from hurtful name-calling. The way we choose to think and speak about children’s behaviour and how we deal with meeting our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs (ensuring that we do not become overburdened and burnt out) have so much to do with how we experience our reality with children, how we treat them, and how happy or miserable we will be as parents and teachers. Even said jokingly, words can and do hurt not only the person spoken about but the person speaking.