37

We have two daughters, 2 and 3 years old, 13 months apart.

Our oldest has over the past several months taken to the "I'd rather do precisely the opposite of what you just asked me to do" mindset. Some examples of this are requests as simple as please come here, stop jumping on the couch, etc. There are (more often than not) occasions where we ask her to please just come to us (think, if we're trying to leave the house), and she deliberately runs away to do something else.

I want to believe this is just her 3-year-old way of saying,

I'd rather not do whatever you're wanting me to come there to do, so I'm going to run to play with my toys instead, regardless of you repeatedly calling for me.

My primary concern here is for her safety. I've noticed the same sort of behavior when I pick her up for daycare. I get that she's super excited to go home, but the daycare has automatic doors when leaving the lobby; I often have to run and grab her arm to stop her from potentially running outside into the driveway, where parents park to walk in and pickup their children.

I'm more concerned now that her younger sister has picked up on this behaviour, and has started exhibiting the same sort of responses to us wanting them to just come here, or hold my hand.

The only option we have sometimes is to hold their hand tight enough that they can't let go, for their own safety.

I honestly just want to hear someone say:

Yeah buddy, this is 100% normal.

But if it's not, then I need to know so we can work out how to correct it.

  • 52
    "Yeah buddy, this is 100% normal." Welcome to parenthood. – afrazier Sep 17 '15 at 20:02
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    Seriously, this is really, 100% normal. That doesn't mean, however, that there's nothing you can do about it. It just means she's not being spiteful, just normal. – anongoodnurse Sep 17 '15 at 20:06
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    Totally and completely normal. – A E Sep 17 '15 at 20:22
  • 16
    We've all heard the expression "terrible twos"... I recently learned the term "threenager". – Lindsey D Sep 17 '15 at 23:37
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    Quite normal. You can have a bit of harmless fun telling her "do not tidy your room!" "leave your greens on the plate!". Mine also had a "no" phase, cured by "Please eat up" NO! "Please tidy your plate away" NO! "Do you want ice-cream?" NO! – RedSonja Sep 18 '15 at 11:21
41

If you research "toddler noncompliance" (meaning disobedience), there is a wealth of information. Part of the reason so much information exists is because it is a common concern of parents, and so there's a need/desire to understand it.

One of the factors that influences the child's seemingly sudden increase in disobedience in toddlerhood is the change in the parents' approach to reprimanding or disciplining the child:

Developmental analyses of maternal control strategies indicated a shift from the physical to the verbal modalities with age. Maternal explanations, bargaining, and reprimands increased with age and distraction decreased with age. Developmental changes in children's responses to control were consistent with a social skill perspective on children's noncompliance. Passive noncompliance and direct defiance decreased with age, whereas negotiation, the relatively more sophisticated form of resistance, increased with age. Mothers' use of reasoning and suggestion were associated with the children's use of negotiation as a form of resistance, whereas relatively direct maternal strategies were associated with the children's defiant responses.1

There have also been some interesting studies on other negative behavior seen in children, such as lying about breaking a rule.

In Study 1, 3- and 5-year-olds were asked not to touch a toy in the experimenter's absence. Just over half of the children touched the toy, and of those children, the majority denied having done so. Of control children who were given permission to touch the toy, all touched it and admitted having done so. In Study 2, 3- and 5-year-olds were asked not to look in a box to identify its contents. Almost all children looked, most denied having looked, and a minority consistently feigned ignorance of the contents. False-belief understanding was linked to denial of looking but not to feigning ignorance. Of control children who were given permission to look, all acknowledged looking, and they almost always revealed their knowledge of the contents. The studies confirm that preschoolers deceive in the context of a minor misdemeanor but are less effective at feigning ignorance.2

To me, this suggests that the behavior isn't completely due to the change in the parents' methods, but a sign that a child is acquiring a simplistic moral framework. They're aware of right and wrong in a limited enough sense to deny when they've done wrong, but are not yet advanced enough to know that lying is wrong. (Or, that adults can easily tell when such a lie has occurred.)

So, yes, the disobedience is quite normal in toddlers, and doesn't seem to be constrained to any given country. It's so normal that this stage of life has a well-known name:

The Terrible Twos (or Threes)

“Research shows that age three is the peak of defiant behavior,” says Kazdin. You're more controlling (you have to be—he's a force of nature now!), but he wants autonomy desperately, which makes life a series of battles. And your child is up for it: That improved reasoning lets him enter into high-level negotiations (“I'll put on my pajamas now if you give me a piece of chocolate”).


  1. A developmental interpretation of young children's noncompliance. Kuczynski, Leon; Kochanska, Grazyna; Radke-Yarrow, Marian; Girnius-Brown, Ona Developmental Psychology, Vol 23(6), Nov 1987, 799-806. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.23.6.799
  2. Deception by young children following noncompliance. Polak, Alan; Harris, Paul L. Developmental Psychology, Vol 35(2), Mar 1999, 561-568. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.35.2.561
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    +1 Nice references! I would add that for some kids, 4-5 is very emotional (don't have reference handy) and can express itself as defiance worse than 2-3s. . – Ida Sep 18 '15 at 20:31
29

In my somewhat limited experience with children this age, they aren't disobeying maliciously. They are at a point in their lives where they are trying to assert their own desires and their independence. They want to get what they want and sometimes that is just being, at the very least, somewhat in control of their world. And saying "no" is the tried and true method they all discover to do that. Even if they would dearly love to go the park, that is a bit to far removed time-wise to effectively dissuade them from the thrill of being in control now. (Toddlers live mostly in the here and now, not the future, no matter how small of a jump into the future it may be.)

On top of that, they are also pushing their boundaries. And they will push and push until you push back. Consistent consequences for actions help teach them where the boundaries are and that mommy and daddy mean what they say. It will be a fight. It probably won't be a short one. But after a while you will see improvement in one area. Then your toddler will start pushing a different boundary. And you start over with their new fascination. But over time they do learn that you mean business and the fights over boundaries get shorter and shorter.

TL/DR: welcome to what many parents have labeled "the terrible twos"*.


*Note: the terrible twos are not limited to the time between your child's 2nd and 3rd birthdays.

  • 1
    "no matter how small of a jump into the future it may be" - So true. I think its at this age where toddlers begin to learn to look forwards, but it's a tough transition. – Michael Sep 18 '15 at 9:12
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    I once read of an experiment wherein a sample of young children (who definitely did have a grasp of the concept of monetary value and thus understood the difference) were offered the choice between being given a nickel now, or a dime in fifteen minutes. They all choose the nickel. – Dan Henderson Sep 18 '15 at 12:24
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    @DanHenderson that's like the Marshmallow experiment about delayed gratification. – the_lotus Sep 18 '15 at 13:37
17

I have always pictured it as though they discovered a lightswitch inside their head that does something they've never felt before, with the ability to make the physical world around them conform with the mental world they are building within (of course, they don't necessarily realize they're only getting away with it because you're trying to help them grow, not just control them). When they find that first light switch, its binary -- on or off, yes or no, capitulate or rebel. Only as they grow will they discover that lightswitch was actually just one key on a piano they can use to play beautiful music with subtlety and nuance. For now, its just the G♭ above middle-C that they are banging because its the only one they've found so far.

Just wait until they learn how to do what you ask, to the letter, but disobey the spirit. That's when they learn to play that {bleep}ing diminished fifth that grates on your soul! (But it's okay, the diminished fifth is an essential part of developing the feel of playing Jazz music!)

  • 4
    I like your style. – MrDuk Sep 17 '15 at 21:27
  • For those of you not familiar with a diminished fifth, here is a recording of one on Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Classic_diminished_fifth_on_C.mid Also note that it is simetimes referred to as 'the devil in music', and is a dissonant chord. – Dan Sep 17 '15 at 23:14
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    @Dan To me it sounds like part of a D7. So how can we get a 3-year-old to resolve it to a G major? – Damian Yerrick Sep 18 '15 at 2:34
  • For those who don't know, his first kid was born in 2016... – iAdjunct Jul 16 '18 at 19:36
  • @iAdjunct I like to think of this as a note from my optimistic past to my present self. I'm quite happy with my advice, though there were some things I didn't know. Like how some of her toys can be made to play that *{bleep}*ing chord on your soul and don't have off switches. Curse the toy manufacturer who thought toys could make noise without off switches! – Cort Ammon Jul 16 '18 at 19:40
5

Yes, it is normal. It is also necessary and healthy. A 100% obedient child would be creepy. I'd be afraid they are sociopaths (because they are using their excellent self-control to manipulate you).

By contrast, when a child is disobedient it is (often, at that age) authentic.

I would like to emphasize that for moral and practical reasons this warrants an authentic response. In particular, try not to get into power fights where it is not necessary. Pretending that obedience is important when it isn't would be in-authentic. With our child (sample size of 1...) it seemed to work well to focus on the important issues.

Safety, obviously. We got really serious when he put himself in danger. Eye-contact, attention, talking-to with a good explanation why he could die when he does that again. (Or whatever.) I thought that limiting these serious moments to serious issues made it easier for our child to obey then. We would not get that serious for the disobedience as such, but rather for the underlying issue. After all, the child should be prodded towards autonomy and self-control.

My own or others' discomfort. Like when he was loud in a fine restaurant, or badly disrupted a nice dinner at home. Same thing. Make sure he understands it. I would point out how he annoyed me: "Listen to my voice. Did you notice how impatient it sounded? If you continue doing that, I'll become angry." He may still be disobedient but then he will face consequences like disgruntled parents, aborted dinners, physical removal from places after a warning. We are stronger, for a reason.

In other situations (doesn't stop jumping on the sofa which annoys me) I simply left the room if and when he continued. There are other rooms. (But I would throw him out of the office. That's my room.) I also made sure that I didn't hide that I was annoyed and mentioned it again later. If he wanted a favour later he'd be reminded why I didn't feel like it, right now.

I very much like Louis CK's take on his 4 year old who doesn't want to put her shoes on (and other issues). He sure has a talent to say aloud what we don't even admit we are thinking. I hope that makes you feel more normal :-).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOaIFgse4Hw (note: clip includes profanity)

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    +1 for "A 100% obedient child would be creepy" ! Our second daughter was so compliant, especially compared with our first, that it freaked us out. :-) – Peter K. Sep 18 '15 at 17:17
0

As far as any toddler running out a door or into any dangerous situation, it is up to the parent to physically control the child before they do this by restraining them in a stroller if the parent cannot carry the child. If the child screams or throws a tantrum about being controlled, all you can do is assure them calmly that everything is okay, but don't let them simply run out a door and get hurt or killed. They don't know any better and are depending on you to protect them.

My sister and I are 15 months apart so I can relate to that age difference. I will add that it is very important for those two siblings to relate well to each other too. It is a closeness that can be related to twins and hard to explain. I don't understand how my sister is able to never care about relating, sharing, or talking to me since she was a teenager, but I know how our elders in life made it very difficult for us to build a solid relationship that harmed our natural closeness forever. It seems to hurt me, more than her, as far as I know.

With all that said, please make sure to help those siblings relate, trust, and build a solid relationship with each other.

-1

A child will often test the boundaries of your authority or attempt to manipulate you in various ways.

The way to prevent this is to set concrete boundaries between the child being able to do as it chooses and what it must do. The key is to never issue an order which you are not prepared to instantly enforce. If a child can disobey you even once, that is the seed of defiance.

Parents who experience chronic "disobedience" have that problem because they issue a stream of orders which they are unable to enforce. Naturally, the child will soon determine which orders are unenforceable.

For example, "eat your beans" is a bad order, because it is not possible to enforce that order.

On the other hand, "put on your bathing suit" is a good order because you can enforce it immediately, should there being any hesitation.

By confining your orders to that which is enforceable, you will not experience any defiance.

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