THE BLOG
04/03/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Dear Family Whisperer: Help Me Cope!

Dear Family Whisperer,

I have a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old. The 3-year-old is a very bright little boy and will be attending a gifted and talented school next year. He needs a lot of stimulation and has to constantly be learning. My younger boy hit his terrible twos early. He throws lots of short tantrums, gets in to everything, climbs everything, is testing and being defiant right now and is extremely stubborn. My question for you is how can I find activities stimulating for both of them? I can't look in another direction while the youngest is awake so it is hard to give either even a minute of undivided attention. It's even hard to read books because they are on completely different developmental levels so the youngest will take the book from us and scream or the oldest gets frustrated with the youngest turning pages to early. Please, I would appreciate any advice.
-Trapped Mom

Dear Trapped Mom,

In family math, 1 + 1 equals more than 2. Navigating the everyday needs of a 3-year-old and an 18-month-old would be challenging under any circumstances. And yours are "like chalk and cheese," as Tracy Hogg might have put it. But what makes your situation even more stressful (and common) is that you, like so many modern moms, spend time worrying about "stimulating" your children.

Your little guys are already "constantly learning." Young children are "little scientists" who love to experiment and explore. Whether they engage with a tree stump, a plastic mixing bowl or a piece of string, the world is a wonder to them. They learn without anyone explicitly teaching them. Let them spend some time playing alone. Let them decide when they need you.

If you join in, be a participant, not the director. The books and the brainy stuff are great. But kids also learn from banging, jumping, and throwing. Play dance music. Sing silly songs. Create an "obstacle course" by giving a series of directions ("Crawl under that chair. Run around the table. Climb up on the couch"). Suggest that they play "basketball" by tossing dirty laundry into the washer or that they run outside and collect leaves in the fall and sticks in the spring. If you have a garden, show them how to turn the soil with tablespoons.

Try not to typecast your boys. View them through a family lens: Your firstborn had you and his dad all to himself for more than half his life. Your second child came home to an already-formed household. His parents had never cared for a "stubborn" baby and his precocious older brother had little desire to share the spotlight. No surprise, then, that he is "defiant," good at "testing," and prefers rough-and-tumble play while his older brother is calm and enjoys books.

Children know they matter when their parents value them for who they are. By making room in your household (and your heart) for quiet and pandemonium, you'll give both boys what they need. You might set up a table for puzzles and building projects. Designate a cozy corner as "our reading space." It's okay -- and understandable -- if your younger one doesn't want to spend much time there. Instead, let him pile up pillows or sit inside a large cardboard box filled with random household items. Some days, you also might have to postpone book reading 'til your partner comes home.

Get what you need, too. Nap whenever you can. Ask for help. Spend time with people who'll cheer you on. Keep repeating this axiom of baby whispering: Just when you get it, everything changes.

Caring for very young children is hard -- mind-numbing at times -- but it will get better. In the not too distant future, these dog days of early parenting will probably seem sweet and innocent by comparison! In the meantime, to give yourself perspective, take two minutes to watch Gretchen Rubin's deservedly popular video,"The Years Are Short."

Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email us at DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured here and on the Huffington Post! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and and children are welcome. These columns are brief. You'll find more in FAMILY WHISPERING, co-authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.