Exploring or Running Wild?

I have a two-year-old son whose behaviour is “out of control”, and I’m having a hard time dealing with him in a positive way. He is constantly getting into everything, taking things apart and not doing as he is told. I don’t want to break his spirit by constantly reprimanding him, but I don’t want him running wild either. I find that I ignore a lot of his negative behaviour and simply clean up behind him, but then I wonder if I’m raising a little “monster.” Do you have any suggestions?

Let me be the one to give you the good news : you have a normal two-year-old! They’re all like that, unless someone has broken their spirit. Kids come with a huge drive to explore and discover the world, because they have only about nineteen years in which to master all the basics and get ready to leave home. Normal, healthy two-year-olds get into things because they simply have to learn what things are about, because their curiosity is so tremendous. It’s actually a wonderful thing. But it’s hard for us parents to think of it that way, because it makes so much work for us, and it embarrasses us when we’re around people (either old-fashioned or childless) who disapprove of us for our “uncontrolled” children. Exploring and making messes are very important parts of learning about life at age two.

I do not recommend getting your child “under control”. He needs to explore his world so that he can master it and learn what it is about. Instead, make his world safe for exploring. Put the things you don’t want him to touch up on high shelves so that he can’t reach them. Put in your lower cupboards pots and pans and things you don’t mind him playing with : for many children they are much more interesting than children’s toys, because adults’ “toys” represent real life, and that’s what children want to learn about.

You can teach him and expect him to clean up one thing before he goes on to the next. Make it easy for him to do so, by having, for example, ice-cream buckets into which he can put things like Lego and blocks and puzzle pieces. Stay close enough to him to give him reminders. Then cleaning up can eventually become a habit. Reminding him before he starts the next task is more effective than interrupting him with a reprimand after he is absorbed in something new. A two-year-old won’t really mind cleaning up if it’s also a learning experience : he will love getting the cloth and wiping up his spills. His objective in exploring is to learn, and learning to clean up is part of learning. It hasn’t yet become “work” to be avoided.

Realize, however, that a two-year-old is totally focused on what he is doing, and doesn’t yet have the mental capacity to think about what he has just done. He also isn’t able to sort things into categories, like putting the blocks in one bucket and the Lego in another, and you’ll have to accept the kind of job he is able to do at his age rather than expecting him to be more mature. The same goes for cleanup : you will probably have to finish the job for him. Also, he will probably not remember to clean up most times without a reminder. If you don’t have the time to watch him and remind him, then your present strategy is fine : ignore the behavior and clean up behind him. That doesn’t make him a monster, it just means he’s a normal, spirited, curious two-year-old.

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