It all looked and sounded very scary, and something unavoidable. After all, parenting is all about experimenting and often, there is no right or wrong way to do something. Viv and I were prepared for the twos, yes. But we were also apprehensive. And then, something miraculous happened. Xena's twos were not terrible at all. They were terrific to say the least. For the most part, she was a delightfully well-behaved two-year-old. And while Viv and I do think that maybe we just got lucky, we did put in a lot of effort to maintain sanity in the household. Of course, we don't do everything right, but some things we do work well and are worth sharing. I had written this post on how to stay sane for the first two years of parenthood. Carrying the series forward, here are some tips and strategies we used that helped make Xena's twos a truly terrific experience.
I was really thankful for all the things we had done in the first two years. It really made it so much easier for us to establish our authority without stepping on her independence. We also took the 'Let's all be reasonable' approach forward, and she was open to it because she had been exposed to it from a very early age.
Benefit of doubt
It's not that Xena never gets cranky. She does. And when she does, instead of getting all worked up, the first thing I do before trying to correct her behaviour is to ask myself - is she hungry/sleepy/bored/unwell? If either of the four is true, I give her the benefit of doubt and take a gentler approach. On the way back from school, she's often rather cranky in the bus. But I know that it's because she didn't eat anything or much at school (story of my life), had an active day and is tired and hungry. Also, when she's unwell or bored, she tends to throw things, which she generally does not otherwise. I don't tick her off then. So how do we deal with such situations where they have a "valid reason" and we can't exactly tell them off? The answer is in the next point.
I love distraction as a tactic to correct bad behaviour, though I'm not sure how long I can keep using it. Sooner or later, she will catch on. But it works wonderfully at the moment. If I know that the bad behaviour comes from a "valid reason", I don't want to stretch the situation further by telling her off to trying to make her see reason. If I'm taking her to the beach and I bump into an old friend and start chatting with her, it is inevitable that she would get fidgety after a while. She's three, she really really wants to go to the beach, and Mommy is not moving. It is unreasonable for me to expect that she would understand that I need to stop and chat with my friend. So if I need a few more minutes of talktime, I distract her. Show her a butterfly, or ask her to 'show aunty how you blow bubbles'. Distraction also helps to make sure the tantrum situation is as short as possible, because if it is stretched too long, the kid will remember how it went and take advantage of it the next time. For example, if a kid realises that crying for ten whole minutes or writhing on the floor eventually gets him what he wants, he will use that every time. So it's important not to show your true emotion, no matter how frustrated and/or embarrassed you are, because you need to stop that memory from forming in the kid's brain. So no matter what, don't give in just to bring the situation to an end.
I can't hear you
One of the most annoying things toddlers can do is whine without a reason. When Xena cries or whines for no reason, I get annoyed but I simply tell her in a very calm voice, "I can't hear you if you talk like that. Please speak in your normal voice." And then I actually ignore her and pretend that I can't hear her at all. It took her a few times to get the hang of this, and now she can simply tell from my body language that she needs to talk in her normal voice and only then will Mommy listen to her. And obviously, if I can't even hear her, she would not be able to convey to me why she is whining. If she continues, I simply walk out of the room, really pretending not to hear her. This also prevents any tantrum from escalating to louder and more frustrating levels, especially in public.
Intolerance for bad behaviour
Xena is now very clear that under no circumstances will bad behaviour be tolerated. I can't stand badly behaved kids, even if it's my own. Rules are rules, and Xena knows them. For example, she knows that no matter how much of a hurry she's in, she needs to tidy up her play area before we leave for the beach or the playground. On some days, when she's in the mood to test limits and flout her individuality, she refuses to tidy up. I then tell her calmly that we can leave after the mess is cleared up. There was once she still refused and even started defiantly throwing more things on the floor. I immediately cancelled the beach trip we'd planned. I really did. I can be mean mommy at the snap of a finger. She had her castle-building equipment and digging tools all ready, and had been really excited about the trip because it was going to be the first sand play session after a long hospital stay. And even though I had a nagging feeling that I should just take her before she fell sick again, I was unmoved. She knew that bad behaviour would not be tolerated and I didn't want her to see any exceptions.
A proper apology
If she shows disrespect towards her toys or books (e.g. by throwing them, standing on them or being rough with them), I give her one warning. After that, the toy or book immediately goes to the storeroom where she's not allowed access. If she wants it back, she knows it's not a simple case of saying 'sorry'. She has to tell me what she did wrong and why it was wrong, with a promise that she won't repeat the behaviour. (Sometimes my weird insistence on 'respect for toys' lands me in odd situations. I remember a play date we'd gone to and as a gift, I'd taken a lego airplane set for her friend. The moment we gave it to him, he wanted to open it. I thought they could build the airplane together and how fun it would be. I almost had a heart attack when his mother opened the box and poured all the tiny pieces into a large container that was already half full with millions of other lego pieces. And then she threw away the box and the instructions. My heart sank as I realised that the airplane was never going to be built. That was the end of that toy.)
The TV ban
I'm infamous in my neighbourhood for my no-TV stance. I kid you not. Many mothers have indicated to me in a not-so-subtle manner that they think I'm crazy. The thing is that most people think that banning TV is all about addiction. It's not. First, it's proven that TV literally switches off the brain and if your kid watches TV before the age of 3, he/she will have fewer brain cells than he/could have had without TV. Now that Xena's 3, the pressure is off and I probably won't be as strict as before. However, there is no reason to watch it for the heck of it. I'd much rather she watches butterflies in the garden below than a cartoon programme or an 'educational' programme featuring butterflies. I'd rather read books with her than have her watch some baby Einstein DVD on the alphabet. My issue is the instant gratification that devices such as the TV and smartphones provide to these kids. You turn it on, you get something amazing. This generation is already over-pampered and has everything. I need Xena to know that she has to work to get things, and rewards only come after hard work and even then, not everything comes with a reward. It's probably just my theory, but I feel that the lack of TV has made her a patient person, ready to work hard and wait it out. The TV ban also helps her connect and interact more with people rather than devices, and show a true interest in them. She's much more of a people person than Viv or me. Other than the kids she plays with, she also makes a note of the names of all the babies she sees in the playground and how old they are and how many teeth they have, and which tower they live in and what their parents' names are. The other day, I was packing up her old clothes to donate to an orphanage in Cambodia, and explaining to her what I was doing. She listened patiently and then asked me what the names of the Cambodian kids were, who would be getting her clothes. (I made up names from A to Z.)
Set the right example
I had an epiphany the other day when she was tidying up and I was sitting on the couch with her doll on my lap. I neatly tossed the doll across the room into her toy hamper. Feeling rather proud of my accurate aim, I turned to see Xena staring at me. It was then that I realised that after all my 'don't throw your toys' lecture, I had done precisely that. I had just thrown a toy. So we talked it out and I told her I would not throw any of her toys. That's why I don't believe in hitting kids (though sometimes I really really feel like giving her a tight slap) because it just tells them that their parents tell them not to hit other kids, but don't follow it themselves. Another incident was when one day she started swishing a pointy stick in the playground. My first instinct was simply to snatch it from her before she poked someone in the eye, but I also remembered my 'don't snatch things from anyone' directive to her. So I went over to her and gently told her what could happen if she swished that stick around. She understood and was more than happy to throw it in the dustbin by herself. That day, I learnt that I need to adopt a 'Do as I do' approach rather than just a 'Do as I say' approach.
Correct wrong behaviour, no matter whose it is
It's tough at the playground because she sees kids do the very things that I always tell her not to do - don't snatch, don't pluck flowers, don't push, don't cut the queue, etc. I get around it by always explaining to her why she shouldn't do these things. From a young age, I've been organising play dates for her and getting her to understand the concepts of playing together and taking turns and sharing, so by now she's great in these aspects. However, I realised that a few days ago that because of her puny size and agreeable nature, she gets pushed and shoved at the playground quite a bit. For example, she always gives way, even if she's first in line for the slide or the swing, because she's scared of being shoved. I started to reiterate to her that since she was in line first, she does not need to give way to anyone and their turn will come soon after. I have to tell the other kids that too, that they can't push her and get ahead. I literally stand there with a 'I will destroy you if you misbehave' look on my face, and that look is meant for everyone. It's a little weird but I have to be quite firm with them at times because their parents are not there in the playground. Only the helpers are, and not all helpers bother to teach manners and good behaviour.
The right words
Terminology is very important because whatever I say will come back to me in weird ways. I try to avoid saying things like, "Xena, you're making me very angry." or "Don't be a bad girl." etc. As much as possible, I take the path of reason and she responds well to it. I avoid if-then statements because they can cause her to pick up a pattern. Instead of the 'If you tidy up, we will go to the beach.' I use a 'We will go to the beach after you tidy up.' approach. There's a difference between the two and it's huge. These days, she insists on picking out her own clothes. This can take forever, and is frustrating if I'm in a rush. So instead of 'What do you want to wear to the party?', I ask her 'Do you want to wear the red dress or the blue jumpsuit?' This makes her feel that she's still in control as she's the one who has the final say, but saves a lot of my time. Similarly, if it's getting dark, but she wants to continue playing, I don't drag her back. I simply say, "Do you want to leave now or in two minutes?" Obviously, she picks the latter, but she sticks to it.
So here they are --- some tips which really helped us and which might just help other parents too as they go through the terrible twos with their kids. I, meanwhile, am focusing on something even more challenging. A time when according to experts, defiance is at its peak. I can actually see it already.
Threenage, it's called.