From Our Blog: How Much Does A Two-Year-Old Understand?

how much does a toddler understand

I was working from home when my daughter was sick with the stomach bug. Usually when she’s out sick, she’s her usual energetic and playful self, which makes it difficult to get a lot of work done; but not this time. This time she was clearly feeling under the weather, and only wanted to snuggle up on my lap under a blanket. I loved every minute of it (when I wasn’t worried about catching the stomach bug from her)! I also decided to take the opportunity to get some work done and brought out my laptop.

After some progress though, she reached out and closed my laptop. “All done, mama.” She knew she wasn’t getting my full attention and wanted to just sit and snuggle, sans mommy’s laptop or phone. It was then that I realized just how much she was impacted by every single one of her dad and I’s actions, even when we thought we had the green light to sneak in a little work or to check in on social media.

My husband and I agreed that we would try to make a very conscious effort to model good behaviors in front of our daughter. Now don’t get me wrong, we’re just figuring this day by day and it is certainly a continuous work in progress. In fact, we call each other out all the time when we start to raise our voices, get sucked into work or social media on our cell phones, use bad language, or simply forget our manners. But so far, it seems to have made a pretty positive impact on our two year old. She only needs to be reminded to say “please” and “thank you” some of the time, says, “bless you” when she hears a sneeze, “shooz me” when she needs to get by, and even comes running over to pat me on the back and asks, “are you okay?” when she hears me cough. (Thank months of a nasty cough I had last winter for that one!)

I also have to give tons of credit to our family, friends, and especially to her teachers with whom she spends a lot of her time. We made it clear with our family and friends that we were making this effort and asked them to watch their language, tone, and manners in front of her. Sure, we all slip sometimes, but for the most part, everyone’s been very supportive of this and you can tell they’re putting in a good effort. Her teachers model some of the best behaviors she sees. They have a level of patience I couldn’t dream of (see: Thank You Toddler Teachers Everywhere), and I’m sure these behaviors she’s been displaying are highly reinforced by her teachers, not to mention her friends in her class!

So what does a two-year-old understand, really?

They comprehend far more than most of us give them credit for. We’ve found ourselves having to spell words out all the time now because she’s picking up on every conversation we have in her presence! She knows when my husband and I are distracted by work, but she may not always be able to signal or verbalize exactly what’s going on as she did when she gently closed my laptop and said, “All done, mama.” So more often than not, the message comes across in a screaming tantrum or a defiant toddler throwing her toys across the floor. When this happens, we make a point to first ask ourselves why she might be behaving this way. And to our surprise, when we do this little act of self-reflection, we sometimes find we’re the ones to blame for her behavior. Were we engrossed in our cell phones when she was trying to get our attention? Did we raise our voices in frustration at something completely unrelated to her? More than likely we found the answer was yes.

Recently, we were all in the car and my husband and I were talking when our daughter said, “Stop guys!” We were totally caught off guard by the interruption, but stopped and realized what seemed like a normal conversation to us sounded like an argument to her. She was asking us to stop yelling. We took the opportunity to explain that we were not arguing, but happened to be passionate about whatever it was we were talking about. I’m glad though that she was able to tell us to stop rather than internalize whatever she thought was going on in the front of the car.

For all I know, all of her manners and positive behaviors go down the drain tomorrow, or when she becomes a “three-nager”, but I’m glad we’re making this effort to provide her with a solid foundation of manners and self-awareness. Raising a polite toddler is not an easy feat, but the best method in my house seems to be through modelling behaviors. And the act of self-reflection has proven to make us think a little more holistically about our interactions, rather than attributing every tantrum to the “terrible twos.” How about you - have you had moments when you realized your toddler is picking up on more of your behavior than what you thought?

I’m a first-time mom, employee of Bright Horizons and a foodie who loves to cook, travel and laugh. In my free time, I like to pretend I know how to use my DSLR like a pro and do basically all things creative (major DIY-er here). I’m excited to share some of the ups-and-downs of parenthood as my husband, two dogs and our newest addition explore life as a family of five!

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Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands
how much does a toddler understand