My grandedaugher is well past the terrible two phase, but I can’t resist adding this to my collection. Hope you find it helpful.
My two year old granddaughter slapped a perfect stranger at the play park. All the poor kid wanted was a turn at the slide, but as Rachel saw it, she was protecting her territory. ‘Mine’, she said, and slapped his cheek. ‘Make nice, Rachel’ I responded. I took her unwilling hand and got it to stroke the victim’s now rosy cheek. He was a sweet little boy who was surprisingly bemused by the whole situation. He stood quietly for an instant, letting Rachel do her thing then tottered off to see his mother.
It turns out that she was keeping a watchful eye just behind me. ‘Terrible twos’? she asked. I smiled and nodded but knew for certain that her vision of that phase and mine were necessarily different. I was well rested and filled with memories and hindsight. She was in the middle of a personal parenting nightmare full of sleepless nights and harried days. Two year olds are what is colloquially known as ‘in your face’ day and night. It’s an intense but mercifully short gig. The daily mantra from the moment parents haul themselves out of bed to the second they tuck their little ones into theirs for the night is ‘don’t touch, do share, don’t smack.’
‘We don’t smack, Rachel.’ I explained it for the four hundred and fiftieth time since her arrival on my doorstep. I wasn’t talking in the third person and didn’t mean it in the ‘royal we’ context. I wanted her to know about our family tradition. My parents did not smack me, I did not smack her dad and her dad does not smack his children. This meant nothing to Rachel, of course. The very next thing, she did was to try and depose her long suffering but doting six year old sister Dezzy from her swing. Rachel hasn’t got the hang of civilised behaviour yet, but I’m persisting. ‘Share,’ I said. ‘Wait for your turn, Rachel,’ but ‘mine’ is a concept more easily learned than ‘share’ when you are two. I once heard Lauren Bacall talk about herself at 19. She said it was the age when you learned about life and people. I think learning about life begins with the Terrible Twos (TTs). They are alert and aware and raring to go. We are the ones who are alarmed because they’re so energetic about it. The good news is that two is the phase where rudimentary reason takes shape. The bad news is that applying it to the budding mind can give you RSI of the throat.
As I’ve said, hindsight counts for a lot. I’m not Rachel’s full time carer, just a well-rested grandma on a two week babysitting stint. I was therefore capable of some coherent thought, a luxury not afforded to me the first time round. And what I’ve noticed is that Rachel herself isn’t so terrible it’s the situation that’s become untenable for her carers. Rachel, a recent graduate from the horizontal crawl has taken the worst possible time to blossom. Having conserved her energy for months and having fooled us into believing that this sedate phase would last forever, she is now spending her energy in the most shameless way. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, you see her here, there and everywhere else you don’t want her to be.
Rachel has this facility for pressing the right buttons just like her dad the computer programmer. She checks out what’s on TV, fiddles with the oven knobs, then turns the computer on and off. You might call her a terrible two. I see her as an energetic and adventurous two year four month old using sight, touch, movement and a heightened sense of awareness to get a handle on her environment.
When she’s not training as a computer programmer, Rachel points non-stop: ‘what’s this, what’s that?’ And it’s not the big issues she’s asking about, like ‘where do babies come from?’ She’ll probably spring that on me in a couple of years when I’m least expecting it. Right now, Rachel is anxious to start up a dialogue with the adults in her life and is going about it the best way she knows how. Even in the two weeks she’s spent with us, her vocabulary expands at the rate of knots and she’s putting longer and longer sentences together. I can’t wait for the next morning just to see what she’ll come up with. Rachel is very fond of the word spatula and has unaccountably taken to the implement. It has a place of honour next to ‘woof, woof’ and ‘blankie’. She picks up items and examines them up close. She wants to take them apart to see what they’re made of. Rachel makes sure that I’m watching, then puts a counter in her mouth and grins, daring me to challenge her. I explain that she can choke and I hold my throat and make realistic sounds. She seems impressed and lets me take the now sticky item out of her mouth.
One thing that she will never get the chance to do is to rip the spine off my gold-edged, Moroccan leather bound collection of Shakespeare’s work because her father got there before her. Like the character in Hazel Edward’s book, ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on my roof eating cake,’ I had placed my ‘best book’ in my son’s way. Edwards’ story is about a little girl and her invisible friend. It’s well worth the many reprints that it has had over the last 25 years, but when I re-read it recently a couple of lines positively leapt out at me. It was ‘I drew in daddy’s best book. Daddy gave me a smack.’ She follows it up by saying that no one smacks the hippopotamus because, ‘he’s too big.’. The offending line has since been politically corrected to ‘daddy growled’ but growling or smacking aside, two things are obvious to me: if you’re big nobody smacks you and nowhere in this story is there any mention of malicious intent. If the dad in that story had left his treasure lying around within easy reach, surely the fault and the consequences were his to deal with.
What we need is a sort of 21st Century version of the 19th Century book ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything.’ If today’s experts weren’t busy contradicting each other on vital issues like breastfeeding versus bottle feeding they could get together and work something out. It took Samuel Johnson nine years to put the first English dictionary together; before 1755 everybody suited themselves when it came to spelling. It might have been a hard ask, but how glad are we now that he persevered?
And if the experts can get together, maybe the federal government can do the same. At the moment it’s each state to decide for itself. Parents today can ‘reasonably chastise’ their children in most states. (A soft sounding word with harsh connotations meaning ‘to punish, usually severely’.) In NSW the Crimes Act has been amended to say that ‘lawful correction’ is considered unreasonable if it’s too severe or if it’s going to last ‘more than a short period.’ Tasmania politicians have been considering reform for the last three years, which is why nothing has yet been done about it.
At any given time of day, Rachel knows what to expect from me and she is slowly learning what I want from her. The short answer is respect. My philosophy is, if I deserve it then so does she. I like to teach by example and Rachel is at the age that mimics. So far she has learned that her limited life experience won’t get her into trouble with me. I will not suddenly swoop down and shout at her or smack her (another soft word for a harsh action). If Rachel wants to go through my cupboards or tries to rummage through my drawers I give her a drawer of her own that she can put her little treasures into and take out of twenty times a day. I cover my lounge suite with a throw rug so that I don’t have to worry about sticky fingers. And her tantrums don’t faze me. I don’t care about being judged by outsiders. My focus is on Rachel. I give her a minute and a half because neither of us can take any more, then pick her up and give her a cuddle. She’s ready, now, to hear why she can’t have what she wants and we move on. The great thing about TTs is that they don’t carry a grudge.
If I haven’t much mentioned Rachel’s sister, it’s because like Big Foot, Dezzy is the mythical good child we all talk about in hushed whispers but never meet. We know someone who knows someone who has sighted a Dezzy child somewhere. Dezzy slept through most nights and gave her parents a break, she grew a full set of teeth but no-one noticed their arrival, and Dezzy tiptoed through the terrible twos with hardly an incident. This paragon is also a tolerant and loving older sister who lets herself be bossed around by her little sister. It’s obvious to those who know her that Dezzy’s blood is worth bottling but I’ve got the patent on that, so the rest of you will have to make your own arrangements.
I think the trick is that if you and your child are going to survive the TTs intact then you need the occasional break from each other’s company. A bit of a holiday. Parenting is like studying for the VCE only parenting is non-stop. Even VCE students know that to function properly they need the occasional break. They need it and so do you. Bring a bit of sanity back into your life. Find a nice crèche to take over once a week then tuck yourself and a good book into bed for the day. Go for a walk. Drive to the beach and watch the waves ebb and flow, it’s hypnotic and very therapeutic. Swap roles with your partner once in a while and let him answer some questions. Give yourselves a break; you need to conserve your energy for puberty.