The Truth About “The Terrible Twos” (and Teens?)


Finding our way in Boston

As Natalie approached her second birthday, people started mentioning the “terrible twos.”  The mothers in Natalie’s toddler group braced themselves.  Strangers asked in serious whispered tones if they had hit yet.  Numerous book titles confirmed that the condition was real.  I hung on to my seat, waiting and watching for the terrible twos to descend.  Yet they never came.  I did notice other things happening.  Natalie became more inquisitive, communicative, and courageous as she began to engage with the world around her.  There were indeed a handful of temper tantrums, which I thought were quite trying, but I told myself that they were a toddler’s version of an experiment, not repeated many times if the hoped for results were not achieved.  Sure enough, like any good scientist, Natalie went on to other more satisfying experiments.

It was around this time that I learned the truth about “the terrible twos.”  William and I had just completed our documentary film “Women of Mystery,” and I was reading a book on film self-distribution.   It was here, of all places, that I learned the truth.  During the 1950s a film was being made about child development and the distributors wanted a clever title for the section on toddlers.  The “Terrible Twos” was what they came up with, and the phrase spread like wildfire until sixty years later it is still widely used to describe a stage in life that should probably be described as “The Tremendous Twos.”

I happened to be in one of my favorite reading spots, the bathtub, when I read this.   I quickly shot up, dried off, dressed and found William and Natalie in the garden.  I asked William, “Could the words we use influence the way we interact with our children?”  It was in moments like this that my undergraduate degree in communication studies kicked in.  I continued to be fascinated by influence of words on perception and experience.   After all, by rejecting the term “the terrible twos” we had ended up having a wonderful time, not a terrible time.

I’ve wondered if there is another period in childhood that has been equally mislabeled.  The “terrible teens” cover the better portion of a decade and societal reinforcement begins around age ten.  At Natalie’s developmentally sensitive elementary school, the teachers and administrators began warning parents that our 4th or 5th graders would soon undergo noticeable changes, which was “a natural part of their growing independence.”   We were told it was possible our children would not want to spend as much time with us, might be too self-conscious to acknowledge us in public, and might be reluctant to communicate with us.  To reinforce these behaviors, parents were no longer welcomed into the classroom or on field trips.

Something felt so wrong with this picture.   It got me thinking.  Then researching.  Then questioning.  I began to wonder if was even possible that it reinforced not independence, but loneliness, rudeness, and an inability to interact with anyone other than one’s own peer group.  Has it become part of our culture to complain about our pre-adolescent and adolescent children, rather than finding a healthier and happier model to offer for this stage of life?  I wanted Natalie to have a happy adolescence, not only for her sake but mine.  The last thing I wanted was to spend years of Natalie’s life complaining about her, nor did I want her to feel she had to complain about me.  Ultimately, I was curious to see if it was possible to grow and change together.  That’s part of our story, we were Two in the Middle of life.




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