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Q: We have 2½ -year-old twins, and they have been wonderfully rambunctious since they started to walk. They’re fun and loving, but where our eldest daughter listened to us in public or in potentially dangerous situations (e.g., crossing the street), our twins delight in doing their own thing, such as running in different directions on the sidewalk just out of my reach or raising a ruckus at public places such as a carryout restaurant or grocery store. I’ve accepted that this was par for the course for this age and family dynamic, but I’ve noticed that their peers don’t seem to consistently exhibit such lawlessness with their parents. A trusted friend at their day care suggested that I be sterner with them. (When I pick them up, they immediately sense freedom and start running up the halls to play or into staff members’ offices, expertly avoiding my control.) I really don’t know how I would execute that — it’s not as if I’m permitting them to act like pinballs or even ignoring their behavior — I’m just at a loss. They laugh in the face of my “serious” voice, and I’m not going to resort to shouting or ridicule. Any advice?

A: First of all, I want to let you know that most parents feel this sense of “Wait, are my children the only ones like this?” When my youngest was in nursery school, she refused to wear anything but pajamas. I struggled and struggled, sometimes sending her to school in nothing but a raincoat. (I soon learned to just let her wear the darn pajamas.) I would look around at the other parents, and no one else seemed to be having any trouble. No one else seemed to fight with their children every morning. I felt pretty dejected most days.

So my first message to you is that every other parent seems to be doing a better job.

You are programmed to look around and see how you are measuring up, and you will almost always come up short. All the other 2-year-olds are sweeter and calmer and more obedient. And the parents of extremely shy children will look at your children and think, “Look at those kids jumping right in. What is wrong with my child?” It’s a lose-lose. So stop comparing yourself. (I laughed while I typed that because I know you still will. Just be aware of it.)

We also have to get into how difficult it is to raise twin 2-year-olds. I don’t have twins, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that one 2-year-old is exhausting, so two? Wow.

The average 2-year-old is pure impulse, pure moment-to-moment living, pure emotion. The past is over, and the future doesn’t exist as an important construct. And the 2-year-old body loves to move. Their fine and gross motor skills are exploding, but their language is still lacking — which means that frustration and tantrums abound. Two-year-olds want what they want when they want it. Until they don’t. Pleasing a
2-year-old can be an elusive goal.

This means that although your “trusted friend” can simply scoop up her wild 2-year-old, you are left with one child running south while the other runs north. I mean, you have real physical issues. Lecturing 2-year-olds doesn’t work (they cannot retain the information in their immature brains), threatening them doesn’t work (their impulses will override their desire to be good for you), and although bribing them may work, you are creating a slippery slope to parenting hell that will end with you offering them full candy bars every day within the month.

Am I suggesting that your twins can run wild because it’s hard to herd them? No.

Here are some other ideas:

1. Unless it is an emergency, stop taking them to grocery stores and other such places. This will not be forever, but they are just too little to handle an hour-long shopping trip without it turning into a disaster. When you do have to take them, get the distractions ready. I used to bring toys and lollipops when I dragged all three of my kids to the store.

2. Get your expectations in check. Know that going to the grocery store will be boring and that your children will run. Know that the next couple of years are going to be hard. Your children will vacillate between being sick, exhausted and hungry, and your own exhaustion will reach its depths. (Hasn’t it already?) You will experience wild joy in watching them play together and mature and enjoy life. And then one will smack the other and everything will go to pot. Wake up and begin again.

3. Don’t respond to them laughing in your face with punishment. Remember, you are outmanned, and you will only invite more misbehavior if you double down on the power struggles. Yes, you are being challenged, but you need to react with action, not more speech.

4. You need to have routine rule your life. There are running places (parks, playgrounds, back yards, etc.), and there are walking places (day-care hallways, church, parking lots, restaurants, etc.). Your children won’t care about these rules; these are for you to keep and enforce. When you pick up your children from day care, don’t make small talk and don’t stand around and talk to the kids. Take each child firmly by the hand, give them string cheese and leave. If they squirm, hold them tight. Just get out the door to a place where they can run safely. You know that they have excess energy that needs to be burned off, so quickly and kindly get them to that place. And when you find yourself in a parking lot, say, “This is a hand-holding area.” Don’t talk to them about cars running them over or lecture them about safety. Just keep and enforce the rule. And if one of them throws himself on the ground, you all sit on the ground and wait it out, but don’t let go. Why? Poof, goodbye boundary. The child will run, it is not safe, and the only way to make sure your rule stands is by waiting the child out. You will panic and say, “No, Meghan, you don’t get it. We will never go anywhere.” Yes, you will.

Remember, your goal isn’t actually getting to the store; it is upholding a boundary so that your twins can learn that you mean business and that they will follow your rules in the future. The pain will lead to ease. I wish I could convince everyone of this, but you are on your parenting journey.

Good luck and keep your boundaries.