3 year olds are jerks

Image Credit: © Amy Kellogg | Tantrum (photo cropped and color edited) | CC by 2.0

I have to say I have grown quite smitten with our new parenting contributor, Jessica. (It was the poop post that did it.) Her relatable (and somewhat sarcastic) wit is right up my alley and I’m pretty sure we’d be fast friends if we lived in the same city.

Today she’s tackling the misnomer that is “the terrible twos”. Asserting that it is, in fact, threes that deserve such a moniker.

What do you think? For our son it was 2 1/2 – 3 1/2, our daughter 3 1/2 – 4 1/2.

And while I can see the writing on the wall and definitely agree that baby M is probably going to be a whole lot sassier than his siblings ever were, thanks to their role modeling, I’m not so sure I agree with Jessica that girls are easier to reason with than boys.

No matter what age was the worst for you – or if you have girls, boys, or both – I guarantee this post will make you laugh, and shake your head, and roll your eyes in commissary!

The terrible twos were a breeze in our house. Seriously, is it just the perfect alliteration that makes it a saying? And can we blame the same genius who dreamed up the term “morning sickness,” when any woman who’s ever been sick for nine months straight can tell you otherwise?

In my experience, the trouble really started when our kids all turned three. Things that were cute and forgivable at age two lose their charm fast during the third year, which we’re currently living all over again. Our third kiddo is smack-dab in the middle of his terrible threes, and so far, he’s the most terrible of them all.

If you had asked me seven or eight months ago where exceptionally naughty children learn their bad behavior, I would have waxed on about parental modeling and treating your kids as you want them to treat others.

I probably would have mentioned tone – being careful about your own so it’s not thrown right back in your face with major attitude when you least expect it – and nipping bad behavior in the bud so it doesn’t escalate and become totally out of control.

Lolololooool (sob).

Our son turned three six months ago and guess what, I have no idea what I’m talking about. For all our good-behavior-modeling and (mostly) respectful tones and (usually) swift approach to correcting bad behavior, this child is naughty.

Not all the time, but there’s enough sass and disobedience mixed up in this adorable and disarming little boy that we’re dealing with major attitude. Every. Single. Day.

Me: “No, Ben, no chocolate for breakfast. Sorry, kiddo.”
Him: Ear-splitting, unintelligible screaming followed by “You’re stupid!” as he runs away sobbing.

Me: “Cereal bars are not a good dinner. Eat what’s on your plate, bud.”
Him: “Oh yeah? I don’t care! I’m putting it in the gawbage!” as he marches to the trash can.

Me: “Benny, no bikes in the house, remember?”
Him: Dragging his tricycle in from the garage and muttering, “Oh my, you awe the biggest bwat. Why do I haff to do evwyfing.”

Me (talking to other moms at school): “Just a sec, Ben.”
Him: Yanks on my shirt and yells about the swings before slapping me on the thigh.

Me: “Ben! Stop shaking Emme’s jumper!”
Him: Shakes it harder and stares straight at me.

So, yeah, he’s a little charmer. He also says dammit all the time (gulp) and he’s not averse to threats, even though he really doesn’t get how those work – like threatening to pull the puppy’s tail if I don’t go play in his kitchen? Poor Marley!

He was the epicenter of a truly spectacular Target meltdown – my very first. I’ve been through two rounds of terrible threes before, but I was still totally defenseless when he freaked out over a $50 Minnie Mouse vacuum that I refused to buy.

I thought fast, mind racing through all the HuffPo parenting articles I’d ever read about quickly and easily neutralizing tantrums. I tried whispering – obviously that was stupid, there was no way he could hear me over his own howls. I tried kneeling down to hug him in an effort to show him I appreciated his feelings – he backed away, clutching his precious pink vacuum and screaming even louder.

I told him I was leaving, and that he needed to put the vacuum down and come with me. He totally called my bluff, planting his feet in grim determination. So I started walking away, slowly, down what turned out to the longest freaking aisle in the entire store, making “whose kid is that?” eyes at staring strangers and wondering what the hell I was going to do when I came to the end of the aisle.

Eventually, I ended up leaving my cart full of whatever, marching back to my screaming child, prying the vacuum away, stuffing him under one arm and hightailing it out of there a hot, sweaty mess. Character-building stuff.

I can appreciate that at three, his life experience is pretty limited. He doesn’t have the capacity to deal with disappointment right now – I get it. And he’s kind of trying.

Like he knows he’s supposed to say please, so now we have to work on his delivery. Call me picky, but screaming it at me like it’s an order – “Pweeease! Pwease! Pwease! Mom! I said pwease, now give me chocolate!” – isn’t quite right.

Maybe I’m just blocking it all out, but I can’t remember our other two acting like this. I know I traded stories about the terrible threes with friends, but it was nothing like this. And that makes sense, actually.

Our oldest son had no competition and two parents who had all the time in the world to be patient and defuse tantrums before they really got going. Our oldest daughter, being a girl, responded well to reasoning, so we relied heavily on that.

And then along comes Ben, into a life and a home with two older siblings, where sharing is basically mandatory. Turns out, he is modeling behavior – and it’s not just his parents’.

Nope, he learned to call me stupid because he’s heard his sister use that lovely term before. And he picked up “I don’t care” from his worldly almost-eight year old brother. It’s been a lesson for the both of them, actually, when their belligerent little brother dishes out the attitude and they look to us for a response.

Half the time, my husband and I are staring at each other, big-eyed at this pint-sized display of naughtiness and hiding our laughter and our hysterical whispers to each other –“I can’t even… he is so bad” – because the whole performance is so outrageous.

But we do hide it, because I want to avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of Benny knowing he’s the naughty one and living up to it.

So we do what we’ve always done – treat him as we want to be treated. Mind our tone of voice. Call him out when he acts like a jerk. And even though it’s probably a waste of time at this point, we still take the time to explain why his behavior is inappropriate.

Is this the right approach? I have no idea. Like I said, I have no idea what I’m doing. But I do know that he won’t be three forever. And one day, he’ll be equal parts abashed and amused when I tell him what a little punk he used to be.

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As a writer, editor, redhead and mom of four (without a redhead in the bunch), Jessica is a decade deep in the insane, sleep-deprived world of work-from-home mamas. Even when she has to hide in the bathroom for a client call, she wouldn’t change a thing.

Latest posts by Jessica Timmons (see all)

  • Parenting Styles: Should I Stop My Kid’s Weird Habit? – July 18
  • When You’re the Last One Standing – Part Two – June 4
  • Parenting Styles: When You’re the Last One Standing – May 7


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  • …And How to Keep Him/Her Like That

    OK, let’s go with the idea – that one that has been popping up all over your Facebook and Twitter feed – the idea that three-year-olds are as… umm… hmmm… assertive. It is kind of a rough call to make about a three-year-old, don’t ya think?

    But I do see where parents and grown-ups might be coming from. Three-year-olds are an interesting anomaly. Here are a few reasons why folks might feel a bit hostile about the preschooler:

    Ahhh, the three-year-old. She has mastered it all. She walks. She talks. She can do everything (she thinks) on her own, and if she could only reach the food on the top shelf of the fridge, or even just open the door, she would move out. She doesn’t need you. She has it all figured out and while you think that you have too, you are wrong. Very wrong. Wronger than anything never in the whole wide world wrong! She doesn’t understand why you can’t just see things her way – the right way. All that being said, you are not doomed for the next year. There are ways to communicate and, for lack of a better word, deal, with your three-year-old.

    Stop Negotiating.

    One constant that I see in articles and blogs about these preschoolers is that they are hard to negotiate with. No kidding – we’re talking three! And while we’re at it, why are you negotiating? Please let your child have a voice, but negotiating is not something that you should be doing with a three-year-old – or most people in your personal life.

    Be clear about your requests, listen to what your child thinks, but, for the most part, stay your course.

    • “You asked for toast for breakfast so I made it. Now you want pancakes. I hear you, but the toast is made. You can eat it or not eat it. That is up to you, but you were clear and I heard your words.”
    • “I know that you want your green shirt, but it is in the wash. You can choose another shirt or I will choose one for you. We are leaving in 10 minutes with a shirt you choose or one that I do.”

    Stay calm and end the conversation quickly. Ideas and requests can be discussed at times, but no negotiating.

    Do not fear the tantrum.

    They are loud and messy and three-year-olds have nailed them, but they are not to be feared or avoided. Take a step back, let them happen, find your happy place, and even admire it. Yes, watch it like theater. Some tantrums are just fantastic. I am not saying tease or make fun of your kids, but for your own sanity, find the beauty where it looks like a beast.

    I have a small friend who, while tantruming, will throw herself dramatically on couches and carpets, kneel and lay her head on a chair. It is a sight to see. Tantrums happen, and the less that you try to yell, punish, or control them away, the faster they tend to vanish. Do not get pulled into tantrums or fits or arguments with your three-year-old. Let him feel what he needs to feel and you just drift off to your happy place (beach, quiet, fruity drink, trashy book…)

    Be clear about consequences and be sure to follow through quickly.

    One reason that three-year-olds do things is because they can. They throw a fit about wanting the pink cup and not the red one, and they get the pink cup. They throw a toy at the dog and they get a warning, or yelled at, but no real consequence befalls them. They still have the toy and they again will throw it at the dog. They keep refusing the food that you offer, so you keep making more and more and more in the hopes that you will placate them. Many grown ups of three-year-olds (and even children at various ages) kowtow to their children out of fear of a fight or tantrum (revisit #2).

    They live anxiously, not wanting to upset the wee rulers of the tiny kingdom that you call home. This is no way to live. Parents don’t want this and honestly, neither do your kids, but it is up to you to break the cycle. Your kids can’t and won’t. If you want a behavior to stop, then stop it.

    Your child pushes at the playground? Let him know that if you see that again you are going home because he are not being safe. You see it again? Go home! You want him to stop watching TV, turn it off, and if a tantrum ensues, no TV for the rest of the day since it is too hard to stop. Clarity and follow through will end a lot of the drama.

    I want to make one thing very clear. My favorite ages of kids are 3 and 4. I love their excitement for everything and how they explore their world and test it. I also love a challenge. I love watching a child go from a combative, controlling, and tantruming 3-year-old, to one who can express herself and her feelings in more clear and productive ways. The 3s do not have to be a time of trauma. With a little work and clarity, you will be enjoying your tiny, intelligent, eloquent, adorable, and self-assured 3-year-old again!

    And when you can’t, head to your happy place (beach, quiet, fruity drink, trashy book…)

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    Brandi Davis, ACC, is a professional Parenting Coach, Parent Educator, and Author of O.K. I’m A Parent Now What? She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and be sure to catch her parenting podcasts on iTunes. The goal of Brandi’s practice is to bring respect, calm communication, teamwork, and FUN into the home or classroom. To discover all that Child and Family Coaching can bring to your family stop by www.childandfamilycoaching.com.

    The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

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    • Three-year-olds are assholes. No, really, hear me out. I have had two of them, which means I have experienced more than my fair share of the “asshole behavior” that becomes par for the course once you turn the corner on those oh-so-terrible-two’s.

      Imagine this scenario: my three-year-old daughter, whom I love dearly, asks me to make her macaroni and cheese. “Lunch is ready,” I cheerfully announce soon after to my spirited child, who is now attempting to draw on our white walls with my $20 mascara. She stops her art project, takes one look at her lunch and proclaims, “I don’t want mac and cheese. I want spaghetti!” She then grabs the mac and cheese and throws it on the kitchen floor.

      This kind of behavior obviously would not be acceptable if repeated in the adult world. If, for example, your good friend Mary angrily dumped out her cup of coffee on your carpet after learning you’d run out of milk, you would be more than horrified. In fact, you would be forgiven for assuming Mary was quite unpleasant.

      As parents, it’s hard not to constantly make these types of easy, if inaccurate, comparisons. We try to be the best parents we can to our curious toddlers, but sometimes, after a day of them intentionally ignoring everything we do, we just have to go into the bathroom and cry a little.

      Sarah Fader

      My daughter is the inspiration for a book I wrote on these types of challenges, a bit of a primer to help parents and non-parents alike understand why exactly the tiny human in front of you is acting like such a terrible person.

      Sometimes, we parents just have to go into the bathroom and cry a little.

      Through the book’s main character Samantha, the reader is offered a glimpse into the inner workings of the three-year-old mind. Three is an age where children are realizing that they are separate from their parents and are actively seeking independence by exploring the world around them. To be clear: this is a natural phase in child development. Unfortunately, in order to achieve that separation from mom and dad, many three-year-olds need to feel as if they have control over their surroundings.

      Three-year-olds are also adventurous. In conjunction with an imaginative spirit comes a highly emotional being. At this age, children have little control over how they regulate their emotions. Of course, the fact that a three-year-old is acting in a generally developmentally appropriate manner is little consolation when said child is hurling markers at your face.

      I wrote Three-Year-Olds Are A**holes, the book, for two reasons. First, I wanted to try to humanize parenting. There is no perfect parent and there is no ideal child. Parents are humans and we make mistakes—lots of them—and it’s important that we be able to forgive ourselves for those blunders.

      The second purpose of the book is to make parents laugh. Too often, we are swept up in the stressful day-to-day activities of parenting. We forget that the outrageous things that our children do are objectively pretty hilarious. Laughter is essential in parenting because frankly, if you don’t laugh, you will likely end more days crying in the shower. That is, if your children allow you an opportunity to shower.

      Remember parents, ultimately you are not alone—men and women all over the world are dealing with similar challenges and frustrations and emotions. The best thing we can do is have a sense of humor about it. And know that, with any luck, our little assholes may one day grow up to be well-adjusted adults. Hopefully.

      felixmizioznikov / iStock

      At a birthday party over the weekend, I witnessed a girl of maybe 5 or 6 trample a little boy who was still trying to master walking, pushing him out of the way so she could go first on the slide. The mother of the older girl said only, “Oops! Careful with the little ones!” Meanwhile, the toddler wailed in agony over a crushed finger, and the little girl ran off without so much as an apology. I’m not even sure she heard her mother. The toddler’s mom and I made eye contact, and I know we were thinking the same thing: Dafuq?

      This is not an isolated incident. I see it all the time, parents letting their kids behave like complete dicks without an iota of recrimination. Articles I read online encourage this laissez-faire attitude, leaning more and more every day toward “hands-off” parenting, with the consensus being that we should just “let kids figure things out on their own.” Everyone’s so terrified of looking like a helicopter parent that they’ll let their kid stab someone’s eye out with a stick before intervening. Hovering is a cardinal sin.

      Can we get a little balance, maybe?

      To be clear, I’m all for letting kids figure stuff out on their own. Anyone who knows me as a parent would say I’m far from a helicopter mom, that I fall somewhere closer to the free-range end of the parenting spectrum. I often joke that my 9- and 5-year-old are as independent as they are as a result of my benign neglect. They know how to make their own breakfast because I really like sleeping in on Saturdays. I swear, I really am not a hoverer.

      But when it comes to more complicated social issues like repentance, contrition, generosity, personal space, bullying and physical violence, I think we parents need to be more present. If ever there was a situation necessitating helicopter parenting, a display of assholiness is one.

      Sure, a young child who acts like a jerk all the time and has no regard for anyone else’s comfort or personal space might eventually learn from his peers that this behavior is not socially acceptable. Maybe he’ll get ostracized enough that he’ll feel compelled to do some personal introspection and thus magically realize the error of his ways. But at what cost? How many kids does he have to hurt in the meantime? How many potential playmates have to curl their lip and abandon him before he finally gets the lesson? And what if he never gets it? How did “figuring it out on his own” work out for him?

      The thing is, kids can be dicks. They’re born that way. Ever hung out with a baby? Total dick, right? Babies are selfish and needy and 100% oblivious to anyone else’s discomfort. They scream in your face and pinch your nipples and yank your hair with absolutely no remorse, and they continue to do those things until you say, “Ow. Stop that.”

      It is our job to parent the dickishness out of our kids. We can do a lot by simply modeling kindness and respect, but we also have to physically step in when our child has harmed someone else. We have to get down to eye level and say, “Hey, Junior, I know you didn’t mean to, but you stepped on Sally’s fingers. See how she’s crying? Doesn’t she look sad? It might make her feel better if you say sorry and offer her a hug.”

      This kind of lesson in empathy is not inherent. Every child will not just figure it out. And so it goes for any incident in which our children have caused harm to another, be it physical or emotional. We must get involved and play the role of helicopter parent, if only for a few minutes. Let us do that much for each other and, more importantly, for our kids.

      If we don’t, we’re going to raise a generation of assholes.