Terrible Twos? No, The Autonomy Phase!

Close to children’s second birthday, they experience some changes. They go from taking what you say for granted and following relatively compliantly, to insisting upon their will. This isn’t “The Terrible Twos” it is in fact “The Autonomy Phase”. Children are led by primitive instincts that transform them from being babies, dependent lap-dwellers, to autonomous, experienced and able human beings.

Their will is their motivation, it leads them toward learning opportunities, allows them to want to be independent and is so strong, it simply cannot be ignored. Curiosity and the need to explore their world are what drive them.

Two year olds are often seen as tiresome, mischievous terrors, but when we take a closer look at their behavior, we observe their curiosity and exploration resembles a scientist’s. They examine usage, texture, mass, mashability, smashability and response. They have an idea or come across an unknown object and examine it…they experiment. Then they test it to see if the results are identical to the first effort; and then they try something different to see how the things they are investigating behave with another component. They go about testing cause and effect by trial and error. What happens when I throw my food? Are the results the same if I do it again? What happens when I do that? And if I do it again? They examine basic laws of physics, of human interaction and social conduct.


Impulse control hasn’t yet developed; our teachings aren’t internalized rationally. Two year olds haven’t the mental capacity to stop in their tracks and think, “Mummy said I shouldn’t tip my drink onto the floor; perhaps I shouldn’t” There isn’t a thought, no doubt; only the urge, the impulse. The reactions and responses we express are yet another field of scientific research. They don’t simply amuse our children (though sometimes of course they do); they ignite further curiosity about their causation and influence. Two year olds love learning about how they are able to impact their world and the people surrounding them.


Our children suffer the internal conflicts of walking the line between ‘the comforting and safe’ and ‘the new and unknown’. On the one hand they require our assistance and physical closeness and on the other they want to do and decide everything by themselves. Having the drive to be autonomous doesn’t equip them with the skills to be so, and the learning path they are committed to can be a frustrating one.


The “tantrums” they experience are often due to the frustration of wanting something, but not being quite able to accomplish it yet. They rarely want our help or seek our solutions in these moments (that’s our adult thinking!), they need our validation that this is hard and our comfort while they cry it out in our laps. (Read more on tantrums here.)


Autonomy is what brings children to stand on their feet and learn to walk; what motivates their learning; what enables them to say “No!” Two year olds’ will is not something that should be tamed or manipulated; they must experience it in order to know how to use it. Every human being holds power and this power needs to be asserted in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the community. This phase gives children this understanding; they want to learn the consequences of their actions, however these consequences must never be thought-up and implemented as punishments. (Read Peaceful Parenting 101: How to approach “bad” behavior and why don’t we punish?)


These naturally occurring consequences often still children’s curiosity and answer their queries: when I tip out my water, the floor gets wet. If I climb up really high I have trouble getting down and feel scared. When I pull the cat’s tail she scratches. When I don’t climb into bed next to Mummy for a nap I get really tired.


These life-lessons have more impact than our word ever could and once they are experienced, children adjust their attention to other topics and questions, rather than stagnating on one. Furthermore these experiences bring about a vital component in their development: Self-regulation. (Read about Scarcity and Self-Regulation)


Two year olds are so close to these primitive, wild instincts, it is hard for us as adults to connect with them sometimes; after all, we are barely in touch with this aspect of our humanness. We communicate with words, where they use actions; we weigh up risks of our actions, where they focus on the experience itself; we wish to achieve, where they strive to play; we want to stay safe, while they need to be daring.


This phase and the push for autonomy can be very trying as a family. A small child’s autonomy is often disrespected out of fear of harm or a belief that parents must steer and teach children, leading them to behave a certain way. A willful child is widely considered to be bad, obstinate and stubborn in our society, however this thinking is slowly becoming outdated. (Read Oh no, then they’ll do as they please: A child’s will)


When children aren’t allowed to govern their will and follow their drive to explore, but are constantly and consistently shut down, redirected and punished, they do not learn to behave; they learn to be devious, fearful of authority and to make a U-turn around us in order to get what they need. When we are facilitators, they trust us and come to us, making life more peaceful, bringing connection instead of opposition and enabling us to keep them safe if matters become dangerous. If we do not have their trust, they must become defiant and mischievous to obtain autonomy. For example, a child who trusts their parent to assist them in their will will ask for our hand when wanting to examine a lake, rather than hurtle towards it, anticipating us grabbing and reprimanding them.


Autonomy is a birthright; it isn’t something children give up on without a fight. Where there is opposition and the misuse of a parent’s natural authority, there will be power-struggles.


Overbearing parents, who do not allow children to be autonomous, keep them from learning important things about themselves, such as finding their personal comfort-zone, sticking to a personal boundary and developing self-regulation.


Bodily autonomy must be granted to every human being. When children in the Autonomy Phase aren’t willing to change their diaper/brush their teeth/cut their nails/be strapped in a car-seat, we must respect their boundaries. And, as with all things, they will internalize the behavior we show and treat others as they are treated. There is always a need underlying behavior, and where there is an unmet need, there is a need for us to meet. Perhaps the child doesn’t wish to undergo these things we name necessities because she is engrossed in play; hungry or otherwise unsatisfied; maybe she is scared for some reason; perhaps she hasn’t experienced herself as autonomous that day and is claiming this autonomy by opposing our will.


Children want to play; when we are playful in our interaction instead of attempting to force them into compliance, they will gladly consent to having these things be done. It’s all about the autonomous choice.


Two year olds are helpers, all the learning and experimenting serves a purpose: becoming a person who is part of the community. Being strong-willed certainly doesn’t mean young children aren’t cooperative; the question is: are we? Two year olds enjoy assisting us with chores, love being asked for their help and revel in being directed, as long as their autonomy and free-will aren’t threatened. They are finding their identity and thus identify with the things they do: Max helper! Max clean good! Max fixer! Max do alone! If we declare Max to be lazy, nasty, not helpful or ever up to no good, we give him reason to identify with these things.


Our little Homo-sapiens’ are well cared for; they have instincts that help us keep them safe. They go from being hungry caterpillars, consuming most things we put in their hands and eating more calories I deem possible or even necessary, to being picky eaters. Green or red vegetables are mostly a no-go. Anything mildly bitter is bah! They stick to what they know, what they trust, what is sweet and high in calories or simply whatever is on our plate. And if we dare move it to their plate it quickly becomes bah!


This instinct has a very powerful purpose: Children in the Autonomy Phase explore their surroundings and get to know them by putting things in their mouths. This instinct is like an internal alarm system, stopping them before they come to the idea to eat a poisonous mushroom, poisonous leaves or poisonous berries.


Furthermore two year old children, who seemingly never tire, may not walk to a destination, wanting to be carried in arms. This instinct stems from our ancestors being nomads and children needing to be carried on journeys, securing their safety. When we arrive at a playground or a supermarket for instance, they resume their autonomous endeavors, trusting we deem the surroundings as safe. Understandably, they are still younglings in need of being carried until they become walk-lings at about 4 years of age.


Of course every person is different and unique; an instinct may be predominant in one person and barely noticeable in another. Our environment and influences of fellow human beings, important role models, play a great and formative role.


When we consider their instincts we recognize how right our children are. They are competent, wise and unwavering in their knowledge. When we acknowledge this, it becomes easy to connect with them. Once again our role as parents is outlined; it is not a teaching, correcting or creating role, no. We are companions, guiders, facilitators and protectors!



I invite you to take your liberty and join the revolution!



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