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The Triumphant Twos

"Look out, here come the terrible twos!" a friend warned after my daughter Page had plunged into her first wobbly steps. My baby had become a toddler. The phrase "terrible twos" (which refers to both the second and the third year of your child's life) has become one of those cliches of parenthood. Brace yourself, the phrase seems to say: If you thought the sleepless nights of babyhood were rough, wait till you get a taste of life with a willful, mercurial toddler! It's no wonder I used to be nervous about this stage. But Page is my fourth child. Now I know firsthand that "terrible" is a terrible word to lay on a toddler. Exasperating, yes. And time-consuming. Repetitious. Exhausting. But those aspects are balanced by the sweeter side of the story: Toddlerhood is also uniquely exciting, fun, funny, eye-opening, even magical. It means careening from thrills to spills, with every new advance bringing new challenges to manage. Call them the mixed blessings of toddlerdom.

The Joy: Seeing Him Discover The World
It's a big, wonderful planet  -- and your child wants to use all his senses to figure out what things are and what they do. That's why he continues to put everything in his mouth, why sounds delight and frighten him, and why he wants to touch any object he sees.

The boundless curiosity can be like a gift. "Toddlers make everything new for you again," says Jo Rome of Royal Oak, Michigan, whose youngest daughter, Jaya, is 2 1/2. "I can't tell you how many bugs I've looked at lately. But they're pretty interesting  -- and when else do you get the chance to stop and see things like that?"

The flip side: Toddlers are as impulsive as they are curious. And they lack any sense of which behaviors are safe and which are potentially dangerous, says Barbara Kay Polland, Ph.D., professor of child development at California State University-Northridge and author of Every Parent's Question and Answer Handbook. Try to see everyday objects as your little one does  -- turn in those tempting pot handles and lock away the colorful bottles of cleaning fluid. It's smart to get down to his level to check for hazards that he may find (electrical outlets, sharp table corners, and so on).

All that exploring also takes time  -- which parents don't always have. "If you're authentically rushed, your child has to comply with what you want to do," Polland says. "But sometimes we're just rushing out of habit. If you push your child to move along, you might wind up with a tantrum and spend more time getting him out of a bad mood than if you'd just stopped and watched the digger for a few minutes." Planning ahead to accommodate toddler-paced detours can also help.

The Joy: Receiving So Much Sweet Affection
I used to get tingly when Barney would begin to sing the closing song at the end of his show. No matter where my son, Henry, was when he heard that song, he'd run to find me and give me a great big hug.

Because all of their emotions are so raw and unchecked by the social conventions they'll learn later, toddlers are unmatched at spontaneous displays of affection. They're still more than happy to proffer a little hand to hold during a walk (when they're not running away, that is). And let's not forget that first "I love you" or those adoring turns of phrase that these keen observers offer up. (My favorite from Henry: "Your lips are so lovely today, Mommy.")

The flip side: I never thought I'd say there's such a thing as too much affection. But Henry's soft bear hugs would morph into steely koala clings when I'd try to leave the house without him.

Clinginess is perfectly normal at this stage, Polland says. But rather than avoiding the drama, help your child learn to weather it. If she's not in daycare, leaving her with a family member or a babysitter periodically can be good practice for partings.

Many children have trouble saying goodbye even when they're going to be with someone familiar in a place they love to be. Acknowledging hard feelings can help your child focus ahead: "I know you're sad and we'll miss each other. But after you play, have a snack, and take a nap, I'll see you and we can go to the park for a little while." You might also give her some small belonging of yours  -- a handkerchief or a photo  -- to keep in her pocket until you come back.

The Joy: Welcoming A Little Helper
Soon after his first birthday, your child will start to see himself as a person separate from you  -- with his own feelings, ideas, wants, needs, and, especially, his own will. Combined with improving dexterity and a gradually lengthening attention span, this means that your child can do more for himself. He can amuse himself for short stints with a favorite toy, for example, or feed himself a snack.

Beginning at 18 months, Julia Braden's daughter, Caroline, began to try to put on her own shoes. "She'd do them backward or on the wrong foot and it would take forever, but she was insistent. And she'd be so proud when she finished," says Braden, who lives in Hoboken, NJ  -- and who is now a huge fan of Velcro straps.

The flip side: Just weeks after I watched Page take those first steps, we had our first power struggle. While I was feeding her yogurt, she yanked away the spoon so she could do it herself. At first I resisted, wishing to avoid the inevitable huge mess  -- she had no idea which side of the utensil was up, and her aim was terrible. But as she insisted on navigating the spoon from the bowl to her mouth over and over, I realized she was ready to try, mess or not.

"Instead of seeing your child's independence in a negative framework, delight in it while setting limits," suggests Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit group that promotes the healthy development of infants and toddlers. In the case of Page, the trick was to let her try by herself while gently steering the spoon as much as she'd let me  -- and using a really big bib.

Your little one is also likely to have a meltdown when his ambitions exceed his abilities. But frustration isn't always a bad thing. "Eventually, when kids have to stretch for something, they're thrilled by the accomplishment," says Polland. Provide opportunities for reasonable challenges  -- ask your toddler to pull off his socks (ease them over his heels first). Just don't be so quick to smooth over snags, such as turning that stubborn puzzle piece in the right direction for him.

The Joy: Knowing She Understands Things Better
It may seem as if your child is "just playing," but her questions and actions are helping her make sense of the complex world around her. She's beginning to discover such sophisticated concepts as time (snack comes before nap), gender (I am a girl), cause and effect (if I step on a cracker, it smashes), and object permanence (if I put my bear in my bed, it will still be there when I come back).

She'll start to pretend, to try out roles or master new tasks. "My daughter notices everything I do," says Jessica Smith of Fairfield, OH, whose toddler, Autumn, is 26 months old. "When I clean up, she does the same thing; if there's a mess in the middle of the floor, she says, "Messy, messy!" and won't rest until it's picked up."

The flip side: For all the newfound knowledge they're absorbing, toddlers can be infuriatingly rigid. My daughter Margaret used to try to physically eject visitors from "Daddy's chair." Autumn Smith's obsession is her hourglass-shaped plastic cup. "I bought straight cups, but she won't drink out of them," reports her mom. "She gets upset and tells me to get the old cup. I end up washing out the hourglass one just so she'll take a drink."

Of course, you can't possibly insulate your toddler from every change. Nor do you want to. "Rather than rescuing her all the time, help your child adapt," suggests Lerner. If she cries when her cookie breaks, don't automatically hand her another one. Try saying, "Yes, you're sad your cookie isn't the same as before. But look, let's taste it. Does it taste the same?" After all, a broken cookie is just the beginning of life's disappointments.

The trick is to keep her exposed to new ideas and adventures  -- within a comforting framework. That's why weaving predictable rituals into your day, such as reading a book together after bathtime, will help make the world feel safer.

The Joy: Having A Conversation
It's like a curtain lifting. No more guessing what a particular cry or whine means. Now you actually know, whether your child is using simple words ("jus!") or full-fledged sentences ("I want apple juice"). Once children start talking  -- between 10 and 18 months  -- their vocabulary tends to explode, and they acquire as many as 600 new words by 24 months. Plus, the things they come up with can be hysterical. "Goodbye, poop and wee-wee. See you tomorrow," my daughter Eleanor once called cheerfully into the potty when she was 2.

The flip side: The thrill of hearing that once-unimaginable little voice can wear off sometimes. Unlike babyhood, when you could catch up on your reading while you breastfed, say, your child now expects your undivided attention. All that listening and responding requires energy  -- yet another reason parents of toddlers find themselves drained by day's end.

Don't feel guilty about planning some quiet time during your day. Offer your child diversions, such as a book to look at while you listen to music. Or let him chatter to a favorite toy instead. "Tell him, 'You have so much to say, Sammy! So many great ideas to share! Why don't you tell me two more things and then you can tell Marvin the Moose a story,'" says Lerner.

The Joy: Watching Her Personality Blossom
Well before her first birthday, you've got a pretty good idea as to whether you've got a baby with a jolly countenance or a more sensitive, easily rattled soul. But it isn't until your child walks and talks that she's able to express the many nuances of her interests, preferences, and ways of interacting that add up to her unique personality.

For her second birthday, I gave Eleanor a doll, which she tended to as constantly and lovingly as if it were a real newborn. In contrast, Margaret tossed aside her second-birthday baby in a blink, but give her a dot-to-dot workbook and she won't look up until she has finished the whole thing. I can't wait to find out what Page will be like.

The flip side: With her own opinions inevitably come clashes with your own. The adorable shirt you just bought is declared "too itchy." The new book you were sure she'd love goes ignored because she prefers her old favorites.

"It's one of parenting's biggest challenges: the ability to separate our own needs and desires from our child's, and to honor and value her for who she is," Lerner says. Carol Coughlin of Leicester, MA, had to learn to respect her 2-year-old son Andrew's extreme shyness. "I'm patient and don't try to force any situation, because it only makes it worse," she says.

The silver lining of getting through things like power struggles and differences in temperament: It's good practice. The terrific twos will be over in a flash. But the process of letting go of your wonderful child will take years to master.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of three books, including The Parenting Guide to Your Toddler.