How I Dodged the Terrible Twos

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Yesterday I was talking on the phone with my sister, asking how my little nephew has been.

“We’re totally in the Terrible Twos,” she sighed, her voice barely audible over the high-pitch wailing in the background that sounded like the cat was stuck in the pepper grinder. “He’s mad because I put him in timeout for stabbing the dog with a fork.

Again.”Again? How is that something that happens more than once? I can see toddlers having difficulty sitting still at the dinner table or trouble leaving the playground when it’s time to go, but stabbing the dog with a fork seems like a precursor to pulling the heads off chickens.

In spite of his recent penchant for puppy stabbing, my nephew is hardly a bad seed. He’s actually blond, cherubic sweetness. There’s a lot he wants to do—golf, play the drums, throw footballs, build forts, destroy forts, snuggle, run—and he wants to do it all at exactly the same time. He’s like any kid who’s trying to figure out this world and his place in it, which can be frustrating at times, especially when you’re given a bedtime, expected to clean your plate, get dressed, brush teeth, and asked to pee into a relatively small bowl even though that nice, big bathtub seems more practical. I want to have a tantrum just thinking about all the rules we set for them (though I have no issue with the toilet, thank you).

Ava never went through the Terrible Twos, it was more like a terrible two-week hitting phase. But I never felt the need to abandon her at Chuck E. Cheese nor did I start drinking excessively. At 4, she does find herself in a timeout about once a month. It’s incredibly effective; a 30-second bedroom sentence is equivalent to a life-sentence at San Quentin, though our rehabilitation record seems better. My sister likes to chock up our low-dose discipline to Ava’s laidback nature, but what if it’s because I’ve actually done something right?

Very early on, I guided Ava’s behavior by pointing out the embarrassing acts of other children. The toy aisles at Walmart are ideal grounds. We once witnessed a child being pulled across the floor, his hands gripping the back wheel of the shopping cart. He was screaming for a Percy engine. His mom, clearly beaten down, pushed the cart in silence—kid in tow. I shook my head in disappointment and said to Ava, “Can you believe how naughty that little boy is acting? I’m glad you never act like that. Mommy would be so embarrassed.” At the time, I was hoping it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kind of like how you’re told to never label your child “a bad kid,” I thought that by labeling her “a good kid,” she’d become just that. It may have worked.

Granted, we didn’t make many friends along the way. The last thing a mother wants to hear is someone using her child as an example of what not to do. It was even worse when Ava did it. “That girl is not being a good listener,” she once said a little too loudly, shaking her head in sad disbelief (she may have even pointed). The weary mother shot us a look that made my arm hairs curl. I felt a little bad for kicking the woman when she was already down, but I was secretly thankful for the free lesson.

Ava reminds me of myself, which makes disciplining her somewhat intuitive. At 4, she already cares what other people think of her and I use that against her (or to my advantage, if you want to put it nicely). If she gets too rowdy at a restaurant, I lean in and whisper sharply in her ear, “See those people over there? They are trying to enjoy a nice dinner and right now you’re ruining it for them.” She straightens right up. And it’s not like I’m lying, even if it’s mostly my dinner that is being interrupted. She wouldn’t care too much about that.

I should also mention that when you—and by “you” I mean “I”—let your child do whatever she wants, the tantrums magically disappear. I’m just saying.

Short of letting him use the dog as a pincushion, I don’t know how to put an end to my nephew’s tantrums, but since I’ll be seeing a lot of him over the holidays, I’m considering trying my “disciplining” tactics on him. I’ll freely point out other kids at the softplay using their heads as battering rams. I’ll tell him how disappointed the dog is in him when he punctures its flesh. But if later you see me with bandages on my arm, you’ll know that I failed—and got the fork. Admittedly, it will probably be my sister who does the stabbing. She’s probably not too interested in getting pop-psychology parenting advice from her little sister, or Ava for that matter.

It’s not easy being tantrum-free (knock on wood). If people aren’t judging you when your kid throws a fit, they’ll judge you for having a well-behaved one (and suggest that you beat and/or drug them in private). No one gives credit where credit is due and my skills as an untrained psychologist go unacknowledged. And yes, I’m fully aware that I’m going to regret saying all of this when my daughter turns 12.

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