Terrible Two’s: The Case of the Copy-Cat Toddler

How to Deal With Your Toddler’s Unbecoming Behavior

by Barbara Rowly

Six months ago, our toddler, Anna, startled us by first sitting down, then lifting one leg, toppling over her head, and picking herself up to try it all over again. Sitting across from her on the floor, my husband, Taylor, and I couldn’t figure it out–until we looked at ourselves. She was trying to cross her legs, just like us.

Potty Training

Life with our copycat had begun. During all those months when we thought she was staring at her mobile or scrutinizing the details on her rattle, she was actually spying on us, making mental notes of just about everything we did and said. Then, when Anna was about one and a half, she began playing it back to us, with crude–and unnerving–accuracy.

Suddenly I was watching a little me, rushing to pick up her play phone and yammering into it before flinging it down, running to the next room, and then dashing back to repeat the whole process. This is your life, Barbara Rowley, Anna seemed to be telling me. And it is every bit as hectic as you feared. It made me nervous. Was this how I wanted Anna to remember her mother? Was this how I wanted Anna to be?

A live-in spy

There are several ways a parent can deal with a miniature live-in behavior auditor. The most obvious is simply to hide your bad behavior. It’s problematic–I mean, all five of us knew my mom was smoking in the bathroom–but it does allow you to continue doing what you want in a somewhat guilt-free state. Or, you might take the more guilt-free approach–baldly doing what you’ve always done. The downside, of course, is the extreme embarrassment you’ll suffer when your child proceeds to imitate you in front of others. You could just declare a double standard, exempting yourself from the rules. But I suspect that this is one good way to produce nasty, boorish people.

Looking over my options, I had no trouble deciding that I didn’t want to hide from Anna, nor did I want to worry about my own failings played out in public by my daughter. Then one night, as I watched Anna wrapped up in another frenetic phone conversation, it dawned on me that there was a fourth option–to see the situation as an opportunity. I would finally have a good reason to follow through on the self-improvement goals, large and small, that I’ve either jotted down or muttered to myself over the years. Then and there, while untangling Anna from the lengthy phone line, I resolved to change my life for the better.

Like every well-intentioned New Year’s Eve celebrant, I got a little carried away. It started off simply enough. I’ve never been glad about the time I’ve wasted in front of the television, siting there only because I didn’t feel like doing anything else. So when I saw Anna pick up the remote control when she was around 16 months old and point it at the blank screen, I didn’t note the event in her baby book. Instead, I told myself I’d give up TV. The list grew from there. I’d give up television and candy. I’d wear sunscreen every day and wash my hands before every meal. I had plans for the family, too; we’d all do sit-ups together in the morning. We’d learn a foreign language. We’d eat more fruit and fewer cookies. Taylor and I would become better people. We gave it a shot.

Calling your bluff

Six months into our grand makeover plan, I remembered why it had been so hard to follow through on past resolutions. Making even tiny sacrifices, like giving up my cookie after dinner, has tested my commitment to the no-double-standards rule. I kept grabbing a cookie with one hand while producing a pear for Anna with the other, until I couldn’t get away with it anymore. (We’ve compromised: we eat a pear together and then get the cookie.)

And a little fact all new parents eventually discover: it turns out that our copycat does have a mind of her own. Just because Mommy is wearing a sun hat doesn’t mean that Baby is going to wear one, too. In fact, when I recently tried to drum this point home–Mommy has on a hat, now let’s put on Anna’s nice hat–my daughter had a ready solution. She took off Mommy’s hat.

I haven’t given up. Teaching Anna by example remains a goal in our home, and she is learning. When I grab for my toothbrush, she reaches for hers. I slather sunscreen on my face, she does her best to cover hers. But my husband and I have come to realize that the real challenge may not involve sunscreen, bike helmets, and seat belts. Developing better hygiene and health habits is something we knew we needed to do, so we’ve done it-for Anna’s sake as well as our own. What’s been harder is discovering all the changes we never knew we’d need to make.

Like most people, we’ve always carried pictures in our minds of who we are and what kind of life we lead. Without someone around to call your bluff and relay what’s really going on, it’s easy to continue believing in your own fantasy. But Anna’s arrival has been a kind of wake-up call, a chance to look at ourselves from an outside vantage point. And I must say that while the view is interesting, it’s not always pretty.

I’m not always as patient I’d like to be, for instance; Taylor isn’t as open-minded. We’re both very goal-oriented and can occasionally get so caught up in the rapid pursuit of our own projects that Anna now commands us to “sit,” patting the ground or chair in the same way we call to our dog.

I can also see that the independence I’ve always admired in our marriage now seems disturbingly like two adults unwilling to play on the same team. Determined to be true to ourselves, my husband and I often ignore the perfectly reasonable demands we make of each other. When we’re biking, for example, and Taylor warns me to slow down because there’s a rough patch ahead, my fingers automatically release the brakes. When I tell him that dinner’s ready, he insists on lingering a little longer than I’d like until he’s determined that he’s ready.

Before Anna was born, I didn’t find our stubbornness troubling. But now I wonder how, given the kind of example we’re setting, we can possibly hope to raise a respectful daughter. If we don’t mind each other, why would Anna ever think to mind us?

The inspiration to be better

Being more flexible with each other is no guarantee we’ll have a cooperative daughter, of course. One look around and you can see that being good parents doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll raise good kids. But if we don’t set a good example, what choice will Anna have?

Even more surprising to me, though, is that most times I’m not even certain what it is I want to communicate to my daughter: Do we want to encourage leadership or cooperation? Do we want to demonstrate the importance of work outside the home or dedicate ourselves to teaching Anna the value of family? And finally, is it good or bad for our young child to see the two of us argue?

These are the kind of concerns I didn’t think about all that carefully when I was setting up the nursery and taking my daily prenatal vitamin. And sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the challenge of trying to be conscious of my behavior–let alone trying to change it.

But just as often, I find myself grateful to have been given such a good reason to ponder and improve on my own life. For me, there is probably no greater responsibility than to have a little person toddling in my footsteps. Then again, there may be no greater opportunity.

Barbara Rowly is a writer living in Big Sky, MT. This essay first appeared in FamilyFun Magazine.

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