- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

(Editor’s note: John Rosemond is on vacation. The following column first appeared in 1986.)

If it were possible to record and decode the burst of activity that occurs in the brain of a newborn child at the moment he first opens his eyes to the mysteries of the universe, the likelihood is the message would read, “Wow — look what I did.”

The newborn, lacking any other frame of reference, relates early experience to himself and himself alone. The world came into being when he opened his eyes; therefore, he must have created it. He reigns over all things, which exist for him and because of him.

“Egocentric” was the label Swiss development psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980 ) used in describing the infant’s sense of omnipotent self-centeredness. This belief, that he is the source and center of all creation, is the child’s first construction of reality.

For the first 18 months or so of his life, his parents and other significant adults respond to him as if that belief were, in fact, true. When he’s hungry, he signals to be fed, and they feed him; when he’s tired of walking, he signals to be carried, and they carry him.

On and on it goes. Whether he’s uncomfortable, frustrated or just plain bored, he pulls the strings, and his parents, of necessity, cooperate. In the process, his sense of security comes to depend upon continued reinforcement and validation of that egocentric premise.

Then, sometime during his second year of life, his parents begin the process of socialization. They refuse to cater to his every whim; they demand that he begin doing certain things for himself; they describe and enforce limits to his freedom; they make him wait for things he wants. Essentially, they change the name of the game from “You’re in charge” to “We’re in charge,” which effectively yanks the rug of security out from under him, lands him on his butt and infuriates him.

Ta da — introducing that most terrible of holy terrors, that most furious of furies, the one, the only (or so he thinks) 2-year-old. Well, actually, he’s not quite 2, but we round up to the next highest number just to play a trick on parents who mistakenly think they have another six months or so of peace of mind.

The terrible twos, which last from around 18 months to 36 months, are perhaps the most important time in the child’s life and certainly the most important time in the parent-child relationship. It is during this crucial period that the foundations of parental authority are set. (At least, the rest of the world hopes they are set.)

To establish that it is the parents, and not the child, who run the show, it is necessary for the child’s egocentricity — the first basis of his security — to be dismantled slowly but surely. In its place, the parents erect a fortress of authority that protects and provides for the child in every necessary way. The cornerstone of that fortress becomes the cornerstone of a new sense of security, one based upon the premise that the child’s parents are the most powerful, capable people in the known world. In effect, the parents’ task is to convince the child that he was mistaken — the “ring of power” belongs not to him, but to them.

The irony of all this is that in order to establish a sense of security that is based on the way things really are, the child’s parents first must make him insecure. No child worth his mettle is going to take this lying down. This is revolution. This means war. And war it is as the child fights to hold on to the only security he’s ever known while his parents slowly pry his fingers from the prize.

If the process turns out the way it should, by around age 3, the child has all but replaced egocentricity with parent-centricity. He believes in his parents’ omnipotence, their ability to control a world he now realizes he cannot control on his own. It follows that if the young child needs to perceive his parents as powerful, his parents have a responsibility to act powerfully in his life. Their power secures his existence and, in so doing, enables the growth of independence, creativity and a sense of personal competence.

That’s why the “terrible twos” are actually pretty terrific.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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