The tempestuous twos: Reconsidering the “terrible twos”.

Given my rapture with toddlerhood, I use the words “terrible twos” uncomfortably. The word “terrible” doesn’t sit right with the excitement of the new independence that toddlers display. Tempestuous twos is my preferred description.

Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik and her compadres at the University of Washington stoked my intuitions with their book, The Scientist in the Crib. Gopnik maintains that the discovery of the fact that different people have different desires is the source of the “so-called terrible twos”:

What makes the terrible twos so terrible is not that babies do things you don’t want them to do- one year olds are plenty good at that- but that they do things because you don’t want them to.

Unlike the school of thought which believes toddlers are testing the limits of authority and demanding to be shown who’s boss, Gopnik thinks that toddlers conduct a rational and engaged exploration of personal preferences. She came to this theory after several experiments, which you can read about in this article, demonstrated that toddlers are entering a world in which they discover that the preferences of others do not match their own.

When Milla was a year old, she would scream and cry if Micah laid her head on my chest. Micah suggested that Milla did this because “she thinks I’m going to drink her milk”. Indeed, Milla was very possessive of my breasts for quite some time. Now, however, if I joke about “giving milk to Max”, Milla laughs and says, “No mommy, no Max”. It is no longer a question of tears; she seems to understand that no one else wants the breast milk except for her. Milla’s preferences for breast milk are not matched by other family members. In Gopnik’s words:

“Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict.”

The implication is that toddlers are little scientists who develop their own theories about the world and test them in the lab that is home. When evidence mounts that an existing theory is incorrect (i.e. no one else ever drinks mommy’s milk), then toddlers create a new theory to explain and understand the world (i.e. mommy’s milk is special for me). Rather than being passive receptors of whatever surrounds them, little people are active collectors of information which is then analyzed, organized, and systematized in a manner that makes sense.

Gopnik’s conclusions rest squarely with Dr. Sears’ contention that “the work of a child is play”. For us, as parents, the challenge is to address these “scientific queries” in the spirit of learning as opposed to the spirit of coercion and hierarchy. The tempestuous twos are an exciting and beautiful part of natural child development. Perhaps being “Babywise” isn’t so wise after all.