Locking horns with a 3 year old: Are there winners?

A wild Hawk captured.

 I remember growing up and hearing about "the terrible twos," this mysterious time of defiance and confusion for parents and their toddlers where nothing made sense and rules were thrown out.  As I closed the gap to adulthood the story shifted to, "It's not The Twos, it's The Threes you should dread!" Once a parent this new idea was pretty much confirmed by everything I read and heard.

The Threes are an interesting time for everyone.  Our children can speak to us in English (or whatever language it is they've learned), they understand rules, expectations, and relationships.  Their emotional development can at once leap ahead to tenderhearted concern then recede to vicious tyrannical tantrums (and I use those loaded terms "leap" and "recede" deliberately - you'll see why in a minute).  And despite their supposed understanding of things they continue to defy, push, taunt, and sneer in our faces as often as they caress, kiss, fondle and massage our hearts.

So.  What the fuck do we do??  How do we handle these tiny mercurial beings in a way that keeps our values in line with our own hearts, goals, and ideals?

Here's what I've learned:

First, you're gonna feel like shit.  Some days you'll actually get dragged into a knock down drag out with your tiny dictator and be left reeling.  Did you really drag him into his room and lob him onto his bed, then oh so maturely slam the door behind you?  Yep.  You really just did do that.

And you know what??  It can't be helped.  The most important thing I've learned throughout this process is that I am only human.  I can only be taunted, defied, kicked, hit, screamed at, and generally dismissed so much, especially when it concerns a rule regarding a non-negotiable, such as safety.  Picking up spilled food is another matter; I'll be pushed around to a much great degree before I start feeling that prick in the back of my mind that this bullshit ain't flyin'.  But safety in the kitchen?  Not following the rules when there's raw chicken and knives laying around??  Forget it.  Mama's puttin' the kibosh on that shit, and fast.

So, there we were.  Hawk screaming on the floor, refusing to leave the kitchen, me firmly explaining the rules and why he'd been banned - repeatedly - and then he starts jumping in the kitchen just a foot, then another foot, and at that point I had to physically remove him.  Tantrums ensued, kicking, punching, yelling.  Then I told him he needed to cool off in his room, but he wouldn't go of his own accord, hence the dragging by the wrists (as gently as I could, naturally).

I was angry, but I didn't feel my reactions were angry towards him.  I disconnected as best I could, though I still yelled back.  I'd just reached my limit.  I'm just a woman, not a saint.

Second, he's going to forgive you.  I never leave Hawk alone too long after a spell such as this.  I don't want a pattern to develop where he acts perfectly normally for a 3 yo and then I unduly punish him for it.  I just want a period of separation to get my own cool, mostly.

This particular time I went back in and straightened up his room.  He said he was cooling down and he felt much better.  I said, "Good, Mama's not quite there yet, but I will be."  He says while sucking on his paci and clutching his blankie, "Ok, Mommy.  I do love you."

And when we talk I remind him of the rules and that when he defies me like that it frustrates me because I'm trying to keep him safe; that it's ok for him to be mad and frustrated with me, but he may not strike me in any way.  He solemnly nods his head and we hug fiercely and tell each other we love one another.

Third, perfection is a myth.  Sometimes you react badly to a situation.  It's human nature.  No one is above reproach, but every situation is a launching pad to learn something new about yourself, your limits, those of your child, etc.  What you may judge yourself on is settling; settling for the status quo, for what worked for your mother even though it doesn't feel right to you, for not educating yourself about the development of this tyrant at your knees, for giving up hope that you can do what feels right the next time it happens - because, oh lord, it will happen again.

It's easy to think they're forging ahead in development whenever they're soft and pliant and kind, and taking steps back when they're bullheaded and unreasonable, but really it's all a push forward in development.   That's right.  It's a movement of growth, truly.

When a young child defies his caregiver it's as integral to his development as following the rules.  You can't draw a chair without the negative space after all.  They have to discover the depths of the emotional spectrum as well as the highs; no one is all or nothing and certainly not children.  They're incapable of such emotional blandness.  They're programmed to feel all of it and it's our job as parents to help them navigate it, fights and all. 

Lastly, when you're in the middle of it try to remember how much power you have.  It's a trick that always seems to help me keep my cool for a ridiculously long time, if not entirely.  You are these kids' everything: their sun, moon, and stars.  Tread as lightly as you can in the scare-/mean-factor to get your point across.  It's all too easy to loom and boom and knock them around to drive home your point, but finesse - even loud finesse - works, too.

So, yeah, I fought with a 3 year old and technically won, but really I felt like I'd lost.  Then, later, I felt like we'd all won.  Funny how that works, but that's parenting in a nutshell: two steps forward, one step back, and another half-step forward.


  1. I say good for you. It really is important for kids to learn that there is a time to listen (safety, etc) and a time to respect what you are saying. I know my kids don't always want to hear it.

    And just wait until he is four.

  2. It really, really does get better. My 6-year-old is almost reasonable most of the time. She can even be genuinely helpful, which rocks.

    It just takes WAY too flipping long to get there.

  3. Thank you for this post; my boy is half a year away from three, but what you describe here could describe some of his behavior at times already.

    This: "It's easy to think they're forging ahead in development whenever they're soft and pliant and kind, and taking steps back when they're bullheaded and unreasonable, but really it's all a push forward in development. That's right. It's a movement of growth, truly." Yes. I think I have a new mantra for the difficult times: "It's all a push forward."

  4. Yep, right there in this. I was surprising sane (but wanted to totally lose it) today when I noticed that my child had taken the plug protectors out with slightly wet hands... "Just stop" is the thought that comes out so often these days. "Just stop trying to kill yourself!"

  5. Not that I'm a parent, but based on my experience as a nanny, preschool teacher, and doting aunt of 5, I call the 3's, "The Castro Years". You're amazing and an inspiration!

  6. This parenting gig is HARD. Mine's two, and already a tiny dictator. And three is worse? Great.

    Hang in there. You're doing a beautiful job.

  7. I didn't want to believe those warnings I'd heard about the Threes, because two for us was so relatively soothing — he was communicating finally, and peeing in a toilet, and had such a fun personality — and I wanted it all to continue as it was. Alas, they were right.

    Thank you for being honest, for describing your own humanness and Hawk's, and how it is all good, even if it seems in the moment like one or both of you are losing. I want to extend such grace to myself, and learn from your wisdom in your reconnection with him.

  8. Sigh.

    My five year old has perfected a noise that drives me bat-shit in about 6 seconds. If it doesn't drive me bat-shit, she repeats it until it does. What I don't get, is why does she want me to go bat-shit?

    My two-and-three-quarters year old is just getting warmed up. I can tell three is going to be something special with him.

    And my one-year old -- oh man it's been a long day. I should go take a hot bath.

  9. Wow, thanks for sharing. As the mother of a 5 month old, I'm trying my best to prepare myself to survive the coming "storm", and this is something I know will help bring me back down to earth.