Q. "We are the typical older couple who waited until 'later' to have our first child and now exult in the pleasures of parenting a 2-year-old.
"He is, and has been, a splendid child and we dote on him. This is the root of the problem.
"Our jobs allow us a lot of time at home, so we have been able to arrange our schedules with him without any child care except for the usual evening baby sitters. He likes them very much and during the past year, he was in a nearby nursery school two mornings a week and seemed to thrive on it. Despite his close attachment to us, he adjusted quickly to this new environment.
"From an early age he has received our attention and enthusiasm for nearly all of his activities. As a result, he wants to be with us almost every waking hour. Unless one of us is visibly preoccupied with housecleaning or meal preparation, he simply thinks of us as his source of entertainment.
"He is a happy child; it's not as if he's clinging or complaining. It's simply that his toys don't interest his as much as his parents. When we realize that we are doing something that ultimately might not be in his (or our) best interests, we try gently to guide him into more independent play, for he has plenty of toys and books and an ample play area outside with toys there too.
"I want to find a good way out of this situation, without making all of us miserable and hurting his trust in us. I would hate to destroy something precious in our relationship. I guess it's a question of showing a child his limits, but I don't know how.
"He is a senistive child; in fact, he has recently developed a few fears, such as thunder, rain, wind. Are we overprotecting him in our solicitiousness?"
A. This is the sort of letter that must make other parents gnash their teeth: a 2-year-old who doesn't cling, doesn't complain, doesn't mind sitters and fills his parents with exultation. So much for the Terrible Twos.
It sounds as if you're doing a lot of things right. And so is your child.
A child is supposed to find people more interesting than toys or books especially people who think he's so splendid. You are, however, at a juncture, when you either must decide to broaden his horizons, which he needs, or give him more and more attention, which you would he, for it would take away his self-sufficiency.
If a child is going to grow up strong, he needs to do for himself, to have friends of his own and a world that is increasingly separate from yours. Even now.
It would be good for him to have a couple of firends over twice a week -- one child at a time -- in an arrangement that lets him visit them each week too. And if the children would interfere with your work schedule, you can hire a sitter to take them to a park, to the library to get books, to the pet store.
Your child would profit by more time with sitters too, and without any guilt about it on your part. Parents shouldn't be expected to provide all of a child's entertainment. A pre-teen can take him for a walk every day or play with him outdoors. Eleven and 12-year-olds make great sitters for a child his age. The world of sitting is as exciting to them as the great big world is to your child.
He still needs toys -- not his, but yours. He can use a real hammer, if it's small, to break up hard clumps of dirt in the yard and a trowel to dig them. And he can wear his bathing suit and play with the hose, watering the plants, his hair and probably watering you too, which is why you don't turn up the spiggot very much. He also will like to paint the house: A big paint brush and a bucket of water work fine.
As long as his jobs are treated seriously, he'll like what he does, but don't expect anything to last much more than 10 minutes except possibly washing the silverware in the sink. Lay newspapers on the floor, hide the soap after the first squeeze and let him get to work.
The more productive he can feel, the less he will look to you for companionship, although no 2-year-old wants his parents out of sight for more than 5 or 10 minutes. And if he does -- watch out.
As for the fears -- they're normal too.
According to Dr. Stanley Greenspan, head of the Mental Health Study Center at NIMH, small fears are another sign that a child begins to combine the experiences he's known -- the things he's seen and smelled and heard and felt and tasted -- and puts them together in new ways. These are the basis for the games of pretend, but the tea parties and talking bears have a dark side too. The same young mind that can invent games can, and usually will, invent a few fears too.
It's time to worry if the fears become excessive or interfere with his everyday life or if he thinks his natural aggression can only be expressed through bad dreams. Any or all of this may happen if a child thinks he is only accepted if he is good.
"As long as a child feels his parents can handle his aggressive side, as well as his loving side, he'll figure he can handle it too." says Greenspan. Otherwise, he gets afraid of the unknown and his fears get overblown.
The only real fears in your house seem to be your own -- that your dear child needs his parents to give him more time than they can. He'll be delighted with less, but he needs better alternatives than books and puzzles.