Most of us are familiar with the "terrible twos," a difficult period in the development of a child that is marked by defiance, temper tantrums, and the like. Most parents in the United States come to terms with the terrible twos, accepting it as a frustrating but necessary transitional step in early childhood. The toddler's behavior is seen as an expression of autonomy and a foundation for building self-reliance later in life.
American parents might be less resigned to the trials and tribulations of two-year-olds if they knew about the experiences of families in other parts of the world. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the "terrible twos" phenomenon is not universal. In fact, it is far less dramatic—even completely absent—in some cultures. Among the Aka of central Africa, for example, infants make a smooth transition from being held and doted on by mother and father to playing alone or hanging out with siblings, peers, and others in the village. Exploratory behaviors, like playing with machetes and spears, are tolerated and even encouraged. For Aka toddlers, the earliest expressions of autonomy come without the emotional fireworks and bad behavior that so many parents in the U.S. have come to expect.
Psychologists Barbara Rogoff and Christine Mosier have argued that culturally-prescribed childrearing practices influence the onset and intensity of the terrible twos. In a 2003 study, they observed the interactions of 32 mothers, their toddlers (14-20 months), and the toddlers' older siblings (3-5 years). Half of the participants were Mayans in San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala, and half were European-Americans in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The children were allowed to play with a novel and attractive object like a pencil case or an embroidery hoop. In Utah, toddlers and older siblings typically fought over the object, and mothers usually demanded that the toddler share or take turns with the older sibling. At the end of the observational period, toddlers had the desirable object a bit more than half the time. In Guatemala, however, both mothers and older siblings routinely let the toddler have the object—and older children often asked their younger sibling for permission to play with the object. If the mother got involved, she gave the object to the toddler 97 percent of the time, without insisting on sharing or turn-taking. In the rare case when a mother had to intervene, she explained that the toddler "didn't understand."
Guatemalan mothers may seem overly indulgent by U.S. standards, but they are clearly doing something right because the "terrible twos" are nowhere to be found in these families. Parents in San Pedro la Laguna do not report a sudden onset of negative or contrary behavior. Instead, their children make the transition from grabby toddler to cooperative child without a hitch.
If we accept that parenting style plays a role in the terrible twos, we are still left wondering how to explain the different parenting styles. A potential clue is provided by German psychologist Heidi Keller, who writes that parenting is "an intergenerational link for the transmission of cultural values."
The parenting style observed among the mothers in Utah is fairly typical in the West. A toddler is taught that he or she fits into the family structure as one of many individuals and will be held to the same standards as siblings. With its emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, this approach to parenting reflects the more general Western emphasis on autonomy and independence.
Guatemalan mothers, however, expect an older sibling to defer to the toddler for the sake of harmony and good relations. Their parenting style can be understood as a reflection of broader cultural values related to collectivism and interdependence. Indeed, an international study of cultural values supports this contention. Using a 100-point scale, the renowned Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede has assigned an individualism score of 91 to the U.S., whereas Guatemala has a comparatively minuscule score of six.
It is likely that cultural values-as transmitted by well-meaning parents-are partly responsible for the hordes of misbehaving two-year-olds in the United States. With this knowledge, savvy parents of toddlers can make their lives easier by being a little more aware of their cultural context and tweaking their parenting approach accordingly. Yet one more reason to remain culture conscious.
Hewlett, B.S. (1992). The parent-infant relationship and social-emotional development among Aka Pygmies. In J.L. Roopnarine & D.B. Carter (Eds.), Parent-child socialization in diverse cultures (pp. 223-244). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Hofstede, G. (n.d.) Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions. Retrieved November 6, 2011, from http://www.geert-hofstede.com/
Keller, H. (2002). Culture and development: Developmental pathways to individualism and interrelatedness. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from http:// http://www.wwu.edu/culture/keller.htm
Rogoff, B., & Mosier, C.E. (2003). Privileged treatment of toddlers: Cultural aspects of individual choice and responsibility. Developmental Psychology, 39(6), 1047-1060.