Two and Three-Year-Olds

Limits Tested

What parent hasn't been warned about the terrible twos and threes? What causes the dread? By the time a child reaches the age of two or three, he is no longer completely dependent on his parents. Two and three-year-olds can efficiently move about. They can run, climb, and manipulate objects, but they haven't learned how to do any of these things safely. Two and three-year-olds can now express their desires, but they haven't learned tact. They now have a measure of independence, but they have no restraint.

Surely this is a trying time for parents. The once passive child now demands that things be done his way. The cereal must be served in the green bowl. When Dad gets home, junior wants him to play now, not later. Supper must be familiar items. I sometimes believe my children at this age could live off peanut butter and jelly three meals a day, seven days a week. Meanwhile, the poor parent is thinking, "What kind of monster have I brought into this world?" or "There must have been some mix up at the hospital, surely this can't be one of mine!" or "Where did I lose that sweet child of only a few months ago?"

Have you ever woke up at night in an unfamiliar, dark room? Moving about is difficult and sometimes painful. Most of us make timid, careful steps to the light switch. Once the lights are on and you can see the placement of the walls and furniture, movement becomes vastly easier. All people need to know where the limits are to be secure -- children are no exception. Have you ever noticed that young children will often cling to their parents, especially in unfamiliar surroundings? They will make brief forays away from their parents, but they will always run back for a little time with Mom. It can be annoying when you are trying to get supper on the table. However, the children need to know you are there and available when they need you.

We live our whole life with rules and restrictions. No one can avoid them. A child being raised in this world needs to be trained to respect authority and to follow the rules (Proverbs 22:6). Even adults have to learn to live with restrictions. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 6:12 that every lawful thing is not always helpful to a person. Later, in I Corinthians 10:23, Paul says that everything that exists doesn't necessarily build a person up. We learn the rules and live with the restrictions.

Two and three-year-olds will test your limits on their behavior. Where is the line? Is it firm? Does "no" really mean no? To survive this period, parents must have a firm idea about exactly what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It also means parents must be prepared to enforce the rules. Solomon said that rest and delight from a child only comes after a diligent effort to correct his behavior (Proverbs 29:17).

The Bible has much to say about disciplining children. Our love for our children requires that we discipline them (Proverbs 13:24). Our heavenly Father is our best example (Hebrews 12:3-11). Disciplining is not fun for the child or for the parent, but it is essential for the development of character. When a child is not disciplined, we are showing the world that we do not care about the welfare of the child. Discipline removes the foolishness or silliness from a child (Proverbs 22:15). Young children do not understand the need to limit their actions. They don't understand that standing on their toes on a rocking chair means their head is likely to contact the corner of the coffee table. Children need to be disciplined to learn they cannot do what they want when they want.

Some parents are afraid to spank their children. A lot of junk psychology exists that claims spanking is a form of child abuse. Abused children suffer psychological damage, so it is assumed that spanking causes damage to the child's personality. The Creator of all humans has a different opinion. Spanking a child, when properly done, will NOT harm a child (Proverbs 23:13-14). It is actually critical to a child's spiritual development. Spanking teaches wisdom to a child and prevents embarrassment in the future (Proverbs 29:15). If you don't believe me, think about those screaming kids in the stores and restaurants who are demanding things. Would you like to be in his mother's place? Yet, she brought it upon herself by not setting and enforcing limits on her child's behavior.

All these passages talk about the use of a "rod." A rod is a branch or scion, a slender stick or, in more modern terms, a switch. You can see this definition in passages such as Jeremiah 1:11 and Genesis 30:37. A proper switch is a slim, flexible branch off of a tree or a bush. A switch applied to the buttocks stings fiercely. It may leave red marks or bruises, but it causes no lasting damage. I have noticed that most men manage to get by spanking with their hands, but children don't seem to be affected by many women's hand spanking. A switch equalizes the application of discipline. However, even men should consider using a switch, even if they can effectively spank with their hands. To use a switch requires at least a small amount of consideration. You have to go and get a switch. The extra time can give you a chance to consider exactly why you are punishing the child and how much discipline needs to be given.

It is important to know when you need to discipline a child, especially with a two or three-year-old. First, make sure that the child is listening to you and understands what you are saying. Small children are easily distracted and they may not hear you, even if they are physically in your presence. Have the child look you in the eyes while you are talking to him and ask him to acknowledge that he heard you. Some families still insist their children say "Yes, ma'am" or "Yes, sir" when they are told something. This is not just old-fashion politeness. It is a way to ensure that you are not talking to a brick wall. Make sure that you phrase your rules in terms that a two or three-year-old can understand. You need to use simple words and concepts. "It's bedtime. Pick up your toys," is straight forward. "Honey, go out to the garage and get Daddy's Phillips-head screwdriver out of the toolbox on the second shelf," is woefully inadequate. Few two or three-year-olds can grasp more than one idea at a time. Avoid giving children at this age instructions that consist of a series of steps. Give them one step and when it is completed, instruct them in the next step.

Punish a two or three-year-old who willfully disobeys instruction or does not complete a request due to negligence. I am not talking about accidents. Few parents permit their children to dump a glass of milk on the carpet, but glasses turn over on the best of us. If a child is told not to reach across the table, but he does anyway and knocks over his milk in the process, then punishment should be administered. Often, you can see the willfulness in a child's eyes. Every parent of a two or three-year-old has seen the "I dare you" look in a child's eye. I have seen three-years-olds get their parent's attention before they proceed to break a rule. You may be thinking, "What is this child doing?" What he is doing is testing the limits. It is an outgrowth of that natural curiosity you saw when he was one. He wants to know where the limits are and are you always willing to enforce them.

Punishment should always be due to a child breaking a rule. Never punish a child because you had a bad day at the office or because Junior kept you up half the night with a cold. However, don't forego punishing an infraction because you had a bad day, either. The punishment should be consistent with the violation, not with the mood of the parent. Which leads to the question, "How much punishment is appropriate?"

Punishment is not punishment unless it hurts in some way. A spanking should be just severe enough to make the child to not want to repeat the wrongful behavior. The use of a switch on the bottom or back thighs will not cause permanent injuries (Proverbs 23:13-14). It may leave red marks or bruises, but they will heal, along with the spiritual problem (Proverbs 20:30). Solomon says that parents should chasten (literally "blows"), while there is a hope of turning your child from destruction (Proverbs 19:18). Too many parents put off training their children. The easiest time to train a child is when he is young. If you wait too long, the child may have gone too far down the path of destruction to rescue.

Do not misinterpret these passages to mean that God is advocating child abuse. When a child is two or three, start with a single swat with a switch. The startlement alone is sufficient punishment at the beginning. If the child quickly repeats the wrong action, then a single swat wasn't enough, so punish the second infraction with two blows. If he does it again, use four blows. It may take repeated application as the child presses to find out if "no" really means "no" all the time. Eventually, the child will give in. If you give in first, the child quickly learns that you have your limits. If they want something bad enough, all they have to do is endure a bit of pain for a while and they can get what they want. If you haven't been punishing your children, when you do start, you may be surprised how many wacks it takes to get a strong-willed child to mind. Remind yourself that you are making up for the lost time and that soon it won't take as many blows. Often, simply going to get the switch corrects the problem. However, in those cases, a wack or two should still be given or a child won't mind unless you have a switch in your hand. As a child grows older, you will have to increase the initial number of wacks. If you find the switching is not effective on an older child, apply them with their pants down. Fortunately, consistent punishment for wrongdoing leads to less spanking as a child grows older (Proverbs 22:6).

Keep the punishment between you and the child. Take him off to the side where his friends and siblings cannot gloat over his punishment. Punishing a child in front of other children just encourages the other children to tattle on the child to see him get in trouble. Never, ever, let another child deliver punishments for you. Every child should learn that punishment is the exclusive right of a parent.

When you are dealing with a two or three-year-old, you must punish wrongful action at the time of the infraction. A two-year-old will not associate a punishment "when Daddy gets home" with a misdeed that morning. Two and three-year-olds live in the now. They have yet to develop the concepts of past and future. This is why you often repeat yourself. Johnny learned last week that he could not have a cookie just before dinner, and here he is trying to sneak one again this week. They may remember last week's punishment but they don't associate it with this week's desire.

Be careful not to accidentally reward defiance. Do not give in to a child's desire just because little Johnny is more stubborn than you are. Also, don't give in just because it is not a convenient time -- such as being at a store or in a restaurant. If you permit misbehavior when others are around, then a child learns to wait until there is an audience to defy you. Unfortunately, in many areas, modern zealots will misinterpret your punishment of misbehavior as child abuse. It is important for you to be willing to obey God instead of living in fear of what men may do to you. Just be confident that God will care for you if you follow His directions.

There are many things that you can teach your two and three-year-olds about God. They can learn reverence for God and Jesus by learning to be quiet in worship and classes. They learn respect for authority by learning to obey Mom and Dad's rules. They learn about sharing when they can't always get the toy that they want. You can teach them the concept of prayer by allowing them to "say a prayer" after Dad gives thanks for the food. They can learn that certain actions are wrong, such as lying, stealing or disobeying.

Introduce the major characters of the Bible to the child by using simple themes. Talk about Adam and Eve to discuss the need to do what God said. The story of Cain and Abel can be used to discuss caring for others. Abraham is a great example of trusting God. Joseph, Moses, and Daniel can all be used to talk about God's protection. God's love is shown through Jesus. Children of this age can also learn some of the major events in the Bible, such as the Creation and the Flood.

Age Appropriate Tasks

Below are some suggested tasks that would be appropriate to begin introducing your child to doing. Every child will not be able all these tasks at this age. Some judgment is required on your part as to when your child is mature enough to handle these particular chores.

  • Dust the furniture (the big things, not the knick-knacks)
  • Wipe up a spill
  • Set silverware at the table (but not sharp knives)
  • Put away pajamas
  • Pick up toys
  • Undress
  • Dress in clothes picked out
  • Wash face and hands
  • Comb hair
  • Brush teeth
  • Straighten bedroom
  • Roughly make bed (at least pull up the sheets and blankets)

Your Questions


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