Your Two- or Three Year Old
by Ute Carson
Living with Preschoolers, Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August/September 1984

The tempestuous twos are not ushered in with the recurrence of an official birth date. We knew that for Cecile they had arrived when we found her studying her face in a mirror. Looking up, she greeted us, "That's Cecile, Mommy." Thus identifying herself as Cecile, she started down that race course of development from toddler to little girl. She would make many thrilling discoveries during the stretch of that year. Anxieties or dependency needs would overwhelm her at times. Hurdles too huge for her to handle would frustrate her. But she would achieve independence in many areas as she would insist on many occasions, "I'll do it."

Life for a two is excitement and mystery. To understand what is going on around her a child has to order her world. Games, building blocks, puzzles, and talking, as well as being read to, are means to that end. An explosion of words takes place between two and three. Speech begins with more rhyme than reason. A verse is memorized with greater ease than a story. "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man; bake a cake as fast as you can" is popular not just for its play value but for its singsong quality as well.

Parents are thrilled when their young child puts a complete sentence together for the first time. Events, too, are told in sequence. A breakfast conversation with Cecile might go like this, "Now we all eat. Daddy goes to his office. Caitlin and Claudia go to school. Kitty goes to the bathroom in her box and Cecile and Mommy go to the big bed and Mommy tells Cecile 'The Frog and the Princess.'"

But it's not with words alone that children order their existence. Games that are played over and over again, building blocks which tumble down and are restacked with enormous perseverance, and puzzles put together with great patience all play a part. Simple acts are repeated and gestures are on an even footing with words.

Cecile wants to do things herself, from brushing her teeth to giving herself a bath. Lots of extra time has to be allowed for dressing in the morning. It's frustrating when the foot ends up again and again in the wrong pant leg and the zipper has to be turned repeatedly from front to back. There are outbursts of anger when the sock won't let itself be pulled over the heel and Cecile rips it off and attacks it by biting it. But the frustrations are overcome by the joy over an accomplished task. "I look so, so pretty," Cecile tells me while stroking her sweater. She has finally managed to get both her arms and her head through the appropriate openings.

The more exploring goes on, the more fixed will be a child's attitudes toward the daily routine and the adult world. All rituals like reading or singing before bedtime or taking a morning stroll must be followed meticulously. Any digression is met with anger. "Don't put my teddy on that chair." Cecile grabs him away from me. "He sleeps on my pillow." How could I forget? I disturbed the established routine. To conquer the unknown (often frightening) new territory, the known (mastered) world has to be stable and unchangeable for the child. The need for mother is at its height for a two-year-old. The child asks for constant reassurance that mother is there when wanted. The child demands love and security most during the time when her will to break away is strongest, and her attempts at venturing out require constant strengthening. My husband suggests that he might give Cecile her bath. "No," protests Cecile, "Mommy has to bathe me." "Why?" my husband tries to find out. Cecile already has an answer which bends reality to fit the needs of her situation. "You are so exhausted, Daddy, you must go to bed. Mommy has to bathe me."

Rejoicing in all the modes of affection Cecile gives us at this age, I am more than annoyed when my lovable little girl throws a tantrum and refuses to leave the grocery store without the cans that have kitty pictures on them. Usually compromises or limited choices help Cecile through such a crisis. Cecile and I can settle on five sheets of toilet paper when she really would like to unroll it all, or we can decide to take the baby doll with us to the dinner table when Cecile can't otherwise be persuaded to leave her toys. Strict no's won't get very far during this stubborn stage of development. A substitute is more readily agreed to. "Let's not color the wall," I tell Cecile who has just lifted a purple crayon out of the coloring box and is headed for the yellow wall of her room. "I want to," is her immediate reply. Only after I show her the new book I have for her with flowers and her favorite cat in it can she be persuaded to color in that instead.

What began in the cradle as an attempt to imitate the movement of faces or the mobile above continues now in the imitating of tasks and the following of older siblings and other members of the household. If her sisters practice cartwheels on the lawn, Cecile tries to do them and calls "watch me." If her dad reads the newspaper, Cecile gets a book and reads it aloud (upside down) next to him. Armed with a watering can she follows our neighbor lady to "give the flowers a drink."

"The thunderstorm is knocking at my window," Cecile informs me after I rush to her bedside in response to her crying. Another time she calls us because the "duck is going to bite me." There are ducks in the fabric of her curtain. She tells us "they come out and get in my bed." Since reality and fantasy are not yet separated in her mind, it doesn't help to tell her the ducks are not real and can't leave the material. Instead we let her pet the curtain duck and by imitating our voice she tells them "go to sleep, duckies, right now." Reassured, Cecile asks that teddy be tucked in tightly next to her.

In the child's imagination objects are alive and toys are animated. Cecile carries on long conversations with her stuffed animals after she has put them to bed. She tells them episodes from the day and scolds and caresses them in the words of overheard adult conversations. At this age fantasy is a tool by which a child tries to make sense of things.

From my desk chair I watch Cecile on the beach. She runs after the seagulls, calling after them, "come here, little bird, please come to Cecile." She turns back to the sand and starts digging after the disappearing conquinas. She laughs when a wave rolls in and fills her dugout hole. Now she stretches out on the ground, digging again and awaiting the return of the next wave to wash over her and her burrow, self and enchanted by the feel of water and the movement in the sand. The image that suggests itself to me about this age is, "I am the center of the universe."

Watching her draw in the sand, run against the wind, sit in the bathtub trying to soak her shoulder, or hearing her call, "look, my belly button is a snail," I realize that she is no longer a toddler but a little girl. She is still quite a distance from independence but I am struck by a certain completion of her self-awareness. Soon Cecile will not only celebrate her third birthday, she will be ready for other people. A good time for nursery school, I am reminded. She is ready to include others beyond the familiar figures. She needs playmates and encounters with selected strangers.

We know that each child goes through similar passages between two and three. Each child needs to order the world. She will have her ups and downs on the emotional seesaw. She will experience the fear of loss and separation as well as the desire to let go. She will follow some leaders, like parents and siblings, and imitate their behavior. She will feel frustration, anger, and fear. But there are the glorious times of achievement and self when the child is indeed the center of the universe. In spite of the general behavior characteristics, what makes a child your child, our Cecile our two-year-old, is the curious and marvelous fact that each child colors, builds, messes up, and invents the shapes, forms, and shadings of that period in his or her own way.

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