Are the “Terrible Two's” a Cultural Phenomenon?

Are the “Terrible Two’s” a cultural phenomenon?

A recent study by Mosier and Rogoff (2003) suggests that the “Terrible Two’s” may in fact be a product of our cultural beliefs and associated power-assertive parenting strategies. Mosier and Rogoff observed U.S. middle class mothers and Guatemalan Mayan mothers while their toddlers (14-20 months) and older siblings (3-5 years old) sought access to attractive objects.

The Mayan mothers were what we might call “indulgent” because they did not expect their toddlers to share or take turns with the older siblings. Toddlers hold a privileged status in Mayan society because they are seen as too young to be capable of misbehaving intentionally or willfully harming a person or object. The older Mayan siblings were expected to yield the attractive objects to their toddler siblings.

By contrast, the U.S. mothers expected the toddlers to share or take turns with the older siblings and they were forced to comply. Despite the disparity in age and maturity, U.S. toddlers and preschoolers were given equal treatment by their mothers.

Mosier and Rogoff argue that the Mayan approach of respecting the freedom and choices of toddlers results in more cooperative behavior when these children grow older. Indeed, they found that 68% of the interactions of U.S. toddlers and their older siblings involved competition over the attractive objects, whereas 61% of the interactions of Mayan children were cooperative.

The authors suggest that the adversarial approach to childrearing in the U.S., in which toddlers are expected to follow rules established by adults at an early age, may stem from Puritan practices to break a child’s will to overcome an inborn evil nature. Power-assertive behavior management techniques such as the use of rewards and punishments are used to induce toddlers to comply against their will. This adversarial approach to childrearing may result in behaviors we associate with the” Terrible Two’s.”

Support for Mosier and Rogoff’s claim can be found elsewhere in the developmental literature. For example, in two studies, Susan Crockenburg found that power-assertive techniques used by mothers in her U.S. samples were associated with anger, defiance, and non-compliance among toddlers (Crockenberg,1987; Crockenberg & Littman, 1990). Ironically, the very disciplinary strategies commonly used in the U.S. to enforce compliance, may actually result in the opposite of what is intended – angry defiance.

Crockenberg, S. (1987). Predictors and correlates of anger toward and punitive control of toddlers by adolescent mothers. Child Development, 58, 964-975.

Crockenberg, S., & Littman, C. Autonomy as competence in 2-year-olds: Maternal correlates of child defiance, compliance, and self-assertion. Developmental Psychology, 26, 1990.

Mosier, C., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Privileged treatment of toddlers: Cultural aspects of individual choice and responsibility. Developmental Psychology, 39, 1047-1060.