A mother and father came to see me together about their two year old son. The mother reported that having been a sweet, easy to manage child, he suddenly was defiant and rebellious. The example she gave was that he liked to play with the window shade cord. While previously this had been permitted, he now is pulling at it and her fear is that the shade will come down on him. When she tells him to stop he doesn’t listen and even goes after it more deliberately. She has tried time out, which upsets him but doesn’t change his behavior.
This story is typical of those I hear from many parents. What is going on? Is this what is meant by the “terrible twos?” Actually, it is an example of the development of autonomy which goes along with a child’s other developing skills. According to the dictionary autonomy means “self-governing, independent.” Self-governing implies being able to take responsibility for yourself and for your own behavior. The dictionary definition includes the phrase, “subject to its own laws” that while referring to countries, applies just as well to two year olds (and later on adolescents.)
It is at this stage of emerging autonomy that children decide they should be subject to their own laws rather than the rules of their parents. The problem is that while now wanting to govern themselves they are not yet ready to take responsibility for their own behavior. This is what creates many of the conflicts between children and their parents that often end with tantrums, punishments and frustration for both children and parents. It is also an example of the challenge parents face in trying to foster independence while providing still needed protection.
In talking with the parents described above, it was clear that the mother more than the father was finding the child’s behavior challenging. The father felt less troubled, seeing the behavior as “normal,” but wanted to be supportive of his wife. The difficulty was that mom felt she had lost her authority and searching for a way to “make” her son listen to her she had become increasingly punitive. It was her need to show him that she was the boss that her son was rebelling against by defying her wishes.
I asked the mother if her goal was to get the boy to stop playing with the window shade cord or was it to acknowledge that she was the boss. She said her goal was to stop the behavior and we talked about ways to accomplish that. For one thing, it was confusing to the boy to have been permitted earlier to do something which now was off limits. Without scolding she could simply tell him this was not a good idea and then present him with a better idea of how to have fun. The mom herself immediately knew various other things that would interest him.
In looking at the child’s behavior in terms of his need to assert his emerging independence rather than simply to defy her, I said he is a little boy and you don’t want to cut off his . . . , at which the father smiled. Mom said she knew her husband liked that and she really got the point. It is often the case that fathers are more comfortable with children’s explorations while mothers may be more cautious about safety factors. On the other hand, fathers are also known to react negatively to challenges to their authority.
As children reach for autonomy and independence, parents increasingly are faced with a decision about when to protect and when to let go. Both parents and children make mistakes along the way – children overreach at times and parents hold too tight. Both can learn from their mistakes and grow.