A Terrible Theory About the Terrible Twos: Countering the Idea of Counterwill

I recently read a terrible explanation of the terrible twos that claimed to explain teenage rebellion as well. It was by Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach and writer of a column called “On Parenting” at the Washington Post. Leahy was responding to a plea for help from the mother of a four-year-old whose child “does exactly what we ask him not to do.” Every parent has been there, am I right? Too many of us have come close to despair when we realized that the “terrible twos” is a misnomer – it’s terrible, all right, but the stage only begins at two; tantrums and disobedience can last for years. Help is definitely needed but Leahy’s response was based on a completely backwards understanding of child development.

How Counterwill Gets it Wrong

Meghan Leahy said that the problem child’s behavior was normal and explained by “counterwill, the deep impulse to resist being bossed around and told what to do and how to think.” She was relying on the work of child development expert Gordon Neufeld. Forgive me for being blunt, but that is absolute baloney. Unfortunately, most parents and apparently a lot of parenting experts can’t sniff out this overly processed sausage, which is why I felt compelled to set the record straight. There is no such thing as “counterwill”. On the other hand, plain old human will, the wish or desire to do something or, be someone is a very powerful force, one that drives most, if not all, of human behavior. A realistic understanding of how will operates in young children is all you need to understand the terrible twos and its adolescent cousin.

Despite protests to the contrary from overwhelmed parents, a 4-year-old is NOT the “epitome of willfulness” as Leahy claims, nor does their “immaturity prohibit [them] from understanding [an adult’s] perspective.”. A 4-year-old is more accurately understood as the epitome of imitation. For evidence of this, think about your child as an infant and the quality of your interactions with him. Everything you did was based on the unspoken understanding that your infant would imitate you. Every vocalization, gesture and facial expression you made was meant as a prompt, a stimulus that your child would imitate. In that way children are formed by their imitation of adults who initiate them into the culture in which they are born. In other words, they are “willful” but not in the sense Leahy meant as being “opposed to adults”. In childhood, willful means highly motivated to imitate our every action, thought and desire so they can become just like us.

You’re Not the Boss of Me!

Children don’t stop imitating after infancy. The drive guides their development as they devote all their energy to maturing into an adult member of society. Children desire nothing more powerfully than to be as competent, independent, and free as the paragons of self-sufficiency who parent, teach, and care for them all day. And sometimes they will insist on having their own way, not out of disobedience but because they are imitating us! They are not opposing us, but learning from us that mature human beings don’t get bossed around – they do the bossing. Where do you think children learned to declare, “You’re not the boss of me!”? From adults who refuse to bend their will to anyone else’s.

American Parents Overvalue Independence

Because Americans value independence and self-sufficiency, we are embarrassed by any suggestion that we are imitators. No one wants to be a follower. We want to be leaders and our children absorb that value from us. As René Girard brilliantly observed, “Adults are ashamed of our imitation – children absorb this and perhaps defy us in order to prove their independence.” (Evolution and Conversion, 59) Rebellion and disobedience is a direct result of the overemphasis on independence. How do we know? Because children behave very differently in other cultures that emphasize community and mutual responsibility. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ‘terrible twos’ phenomenon is not universal. In fact, it is far less dramatic—even completely absent—in some cultures.” The article reports on an experiment comparing the parenting styles in Utah with those in Guatemala.

The children were allowed to play with a novel and attractive object like a pencil case or an embroidery hoop. In Utah, toddlers and older siblings typically fought over the object, and mothers usually demanded that the toddler share or take turns with the older sibling. At the end of the observational period, toddlers had the desirable object a bit more than half the time. In Guatemala, however, both mothers and older siblings routinely let the toddler have the object—and older children often asked their younger sibling for permission to play with the object. If the mother got involved, she gave the object to the toddler 97 percent of the time, without insisting on sharing or turn-taking.

The parenting style observed among the mothers in Utah is fairly typical in the West. A toddler is taught that he or she fits into the family structure as one of many individuals and will be held to the same standards as siblings. With its emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, this approach to parenting reflects the more general Western emphasis on autonomy and independence.

Guatemalan mothers, however, expect an older sibling to defer to the toddler for the sake of harmony and good relations. Their parenting style can be understood as a reflection of broader cultural values related to collectivism and interdependence. Indeed, an international study of cultural values supports this contention. Using a 100-point scale, the renowned Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede has assigned an individualism score of 91 to the U.S., whereas Guatemala has a comparatively minuscule score of six. 

The article concludes that, “It is likely that cultural values – as transmitted by well-meaning parents – are partly responsible for the hordes of misbehaving two-year-olds in the United States.” Just as the twos do not have to be terrible, so the teen years do not have to be rebellious. Kathy Frost, a professor of adolescent psychology who works with mimetic theory, wrote in an email to me, “Anna Freud’s assertion – that adolescents have to go through a ‘storm and stress’ period that’s vital to ‘individuation’ (as if we wouldn’t become our own person if we didn’t experience a serious rebellion) is not supported by research. Current research shows that the teens years are largely not rebellious. There is ‘bickering’ for sure, but most teen-parent relationships are largely loving and supportive.”

Imitate This!

So what’s a parent to do? The most effective way to avoid tantrums and rebellion is to remember that what looks like disobedience is actually imitation. Parents tend to focus on our spoken commands, but children are focused on our unspoken desires and they obey them to the letter! Please do not punish children for imitating your desire to be obeyed without question. The more you punish them the more you reinforce their intuition that being the boss of others is the key to being an adult. Remember that children disobey us to prove their independence precisely because independence is the thing we value the most.

If we want our children to submit to parental authority – and we do! – then we must not respond to their “disobedience” with wounded pride. As a family, follow the example of the Guatemalan mothers who practice letting go, generosity, and sharing desirable objects with their children. Rather than force young children to share, lead by example. Whether your child is two or fourteen, demonstrate by your actions that generosity is more important to you than independence. Give them an authority figure worth imitating.

For more on how forcing young children can have unintended negative consequences, see my article, The Montessori Remedy to the Plague of Sexual Harassment.

 

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  1. Steve McKenna
    Steve McKenna says:

    Eye-opening, thought-provoking article, Suzanne! Had I only understood this when mine were little…

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