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Two years old and choosing

September 17, 2013

The last two weeks have been an amazing journey for me. I am finishing a visit with my daughter and her family, initiated because she has a new member in the family and needs time to heal before resuming all her household responsibilities. This has meant spending a lot of time with a very smart 2½ year old while his brother learns to nurse and gets the essential second chin.

Enough said. It could have been a disastrous tug of war, as anyone knows.

But it happened that just before I went, I was working my way through a talk on Maria Montessori’s ideas about discipline. I had listened at least four times to someone named “Maggie,” a Montessori teacher of long experience. That’s all I know about her, but the ideas were dynamite and made this fortnight a joy.

What is at issue?

What she says of this age is that, first of all, since it is before the “age of reason” as Catholics understand it, six or seven years, sometimes five, there is no question of sin. I have long wrestled about this – and I know others do as well. Certainly children know (often) when they are doing what they were told not to do. They look away; they feel shame. But then, so do animals, and they don’t sin either. So the impulse of righteous judgement which sweeps over the adult when a child says, “No!” is actually misplaced. There is nothing moral to judge. There’s a serious question of what to do, but #1 is: don’t treat it like a moral issue; it is not.

And it is not a “training” issue either, because a child is never a horse or a dog, at any age. So, then, what is it?

What the child needs, developmentally, at this stage, it to make decisions. It is a time when the will is developing, the center of the self, and the making of decisions is essential brain food. Therefore, at every turn, your task in support of his development is to present a decision he can make. Do you want the red pajamas, or the stripy blue ones? Do you want to brush your teeth before your bath or afterwards? Do you want a peanut-butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich? Do you want Mommy or Daddy to help you into the car?

What can you do?

Now, you will immediately object that we can’t offer decisions at every turn, and we can’t cater to every whim of a two-year-old, and there are some decisions a child just cannot make. Right, right, right. Some thing can be taken for granted, but what I am saying is that if the 2-year-old is not yet taking them for granted, you simply present the non-negotiable thing as something that of course we are doing and immediately present a choice for him to work on.

We’re going to the library now; do you want to carry your own books or let Mommy carry them?

It’s time for dinner, do you want to sit in your booster seat or on a chair?

Here’s your squash, do you want to eat it with a spoon or with a fork?

It’s time for bed, do you want your red pj’s or your green ones with dinosaurs?

Whatever. The point is, engage his decision-making power in something he can properly exercise it on, and do this every time there is an action to be taken about which he cannot make a decision. Otherwise, the only thing he can own is protest. And he will protest with all the perseverance that God has given him for the purpose of developing his will. It is a terrible thing to fight the work of God!

Again and again, my little grandson was on the point of saying “no” when the irresistible candy of a personal decision was offered and he took that instead. By giving him another option for his will food, I made a way forward. It was simply incredible. It’s time for a nap; do you want to go to bed alone or with Nonny? It’s time to put on your pants; do you want the brown ones or the blue ones? It’s time to put on your shoes; do you want to run around the table before you put on your shoes or afterwards?

That was 90% successful, and for dealing with a 2-year-old, 90% is a lot.

And the other 10%?

Very interesting insight here too.

When my little grandson demanded to choose something unacceptable, or when he chose one thing and then switched in the middle of implementation and then switched back – this can go on forever – I had to draw the line, and there were tears.

But the tantrum is much less when the focus remains on his exercise of decision and the proper way to use it, rather than on my superior authority and power.

So it’s not: “Okay, I’m making the decision: you wear the red pants. Now! Right now!” Howls of desperate grief…

Thunders of righteous authority…

Wails of insulted dignity!

Instead: “The red pants were your choice and now it is time to put them on. You can choose the blue pants another day.”

In this way, you are taking it back to him, to his choice, and to the way we have to behave after we make a choice: we carry it out. In addition, we are emphasizing our respect for his life of decision, now and in the day ahead.

As soon as you can engage his attention, offer another choice: “When your pants are on, would you like to wear your shoes or your sandals?” There may still be howls of protest, even kicking and such. But frequently, I found a re-engagement with the new opportunity to choose.

In any case, the focus remains on his power of choice, not on your power of enforcement. Remember, parents represent God to their children. Would you like to say, “God is the Big Boss; he’s the one not to cross!” Is that the center of good theology?

Your message is that he is a child taking charge of his life. He needs to make decisions, and part of making decisions is carrying them out. This does not mean he can never change his mind. Even adults change their minds now and then. But he can’t have permission to make a game of switching back and forth. You have to stop that without slipping into Big Boss mode. You are his teacher and anger is not a virtue, even in the exercise of rightful authority.

If you keep this in mind, you are less likely to be angry, even if you are quite firm, and even if there is a storm.

2 acting 16 or 16 acting 2…?

For men especially, there is a tendency to view the aggressive behavior of a small child as proto-gang behavior. You guys think you know exactly what this two-year-old has in his mind because his actions exactly replicate what a teenager (yourself) would do to show defiance against authority. You’re not going to have a gang child; you’re going to “show him who’s boss,” which is just what guys in one gang try to show guys in another.

Women, on the other hand, as well as certain political liberals, tend to see the defiant teenager, or even the wayward adult, as a two-year-old whose needs were never met.

I admit it; that’s how I think a lot of the time.

So is he a teenager in the making? Of course! But you are he are not in opposing gangs! You are the Dad, or you are the Mom (or grandmother or whoever) and your task is to help him build up a life of rational decision, and of decisions carried out.

The foundation of morality

I remarked at the beginning that a two-year-old cannot sin; this is a logical consequence of the Church’s teaching that the age of reason is around six or seven years. The two-year old does think; he does choose. But this young child is not capable of fully rational decisions or of spiritually submitting his will to yours or God’s either. He is learning rationality; he is learning to make decision; he is acquiring a self. Only a self can sin. Your task is to strengthen this will in relation to this rationality by offering wholesome opportunities for choice.

And, not wanting to write the whole book today, it is a contribution to rationality to be respectful of a child’s dignity; when he is at peace and in trust, you can also talk about reasons for action.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Fee permalink
    September 28, 2013 12:19 pm

    Thanks, I love your perspective.

  2. Trish permalink
    October 8, 2013 7:44 pm

    Loved this! Thank you!

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