Everyone knows about the "terrible 2s"—that gruesome rite of passage parents endure with gritted teeth, all the while begging their tantruming tots, "Use your words!" But happily, this gives way to age 3, a calmer, more rational era when the child is at relative peace, having learned limits and acquired some language.
Not according to many parents and some child development experts. "A very quiet, sensitive child might settle down in the third year, but well over half don't," says T. Berry Brazelton, MD, founder of the Child Development Unit at Children's Hospital Boston and the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. "Three-year-olds are still working on the issues, 'Will I be independent? What can I do with my independence? Can I manipulate mommy and will she still be there? Will she get in there and help me with my decisions?'"
That can add up to a lot of testing and provocation. Three-year-olds do use their words but often in the form of whining and back-talk: "You're mean!" "You're not a good mommy." And by age 3, many kids can't be easily scooped up and forced to comply, especially by a mom who's pregnant with her next.
"There were many days when it took all morning to get in the car," recalls Robin Marshall, whose daughter just turned 4. "I feared the neighbors would call Social Services, hearing me: 'Just. Get. In. The. Car!!!!' What they missed was the dressing battle, the sock battle, the shoe battle, the snack battle, the drink battle, the what-to-take-with-us battle and the peepee battle."
Three may be "the new 2" in part because of a subtle shift in parenting practice. A generation of advice books has made parents experts at distracting and redirecting their 2-year-olds to avoid the dreaded melt-downs. Working parents may be especially prone to avoiding confrontation, wanting their limited hours with their child to be positive ones.
"Children come into the third year without having had much discipline at age 2," says Brazelton. "Parents are more aware now of the importance of negativism at age 2, and of the child's developing autonomy, and so they postpone discipline with humor and charm. So the child really doesn't get a chance to solidify what he or she wants to do in the second year. He's not pushed to the wall in a way that lets him know, 'I have influence on my environment.' Three-year-olds have to drive their parents to say, 'this is where you stop.'"
These behaviors are part of children's natural growth and development. Three-year-olds are more aware of their world than 2-year-olds, and less malleable. They've learned the rules; now they're breaking them on purpose, watching closely to see how you'll react. Seeing their power over mom and dad is intoxicating, but their actions are also driven by simple curiosity.
"I start counting to three and he just ignores me," says Kim Comatas, mother of 3-and-a-half-year-old Rocco, as well as a 5- and 7-year-old. "I follow through with consequences, but he couldn't care less. He laughs during time-outs."
And with increasing awareness comes increasing disdain for the tricks that used to work at age 2. Humor and distraction no longer cut it.
"The 3-year-old is trying to say, 'Quit it, don't treat me like a baby anymore, I'm not a baby," says Brazelton. "At that point, I'd turn it back to them: 'You really like to tell me what to do, don't you? But at some point, we've got to come to an agreement.'"
And that agreement is what discipline—which means teaching, not punishment—is all about. It may not seem that way, but 3-year-olds want your help in managing their impulses.
The main thing is to set up very clear and consistent limits, Brazelton says, and, if necessary, enforce them by calmly and consistently removing the child from the situation. But he has mixed feelings about time-outs, feeling they should be brief, and followed with an explanation: "You can see I had to stop you, and I have to stop you every time until you can stop yourself."
Brazelton is also skeptical about the ubiquitous sticker chart as a tool for motivating kids to behave, feeling no special props should be needed. "I think these are for parents, not the child," he says. "The main thing is for the child to feel, 'I stopped myself.' Or, 'I did it with mommy.' And then I'd reinforce him gently, but surely, for what he's just done. 'We really did pick up these toys together. And as you picked them up you began to have fun, and you began to feel good about what you were doing. Wasn't that great?'"
Limits are critical, but also give your 3-year-old some credit. She's struggling, too, and is bound to regress and fall apart at times. "Three-year-olds are giving up dependence, which has been so delicious, and to give it up is not an easy task," says Brazelton. "They're starting on a road toward independence that's going to peak in the next year or two. This is new and surprising and a little bit frightening."
The road abounds with new challenges, and 3-year-olds are aware of what they can and can't do in a way that 2-year-olds aren't. "They're looking at what they're doing, and feel so small and inadequate compared to their parents and siblings—the people they admire and want to be like," says Joshua Sparrow, MD, a child psychiatrist at Children's and co-author with Brazelton of Touchpoints Three to Six: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development.
Many 3-year-olds are starting preschool, often a time when they regress at home. Peer pressure is dawning—children begin comparing themselves with others and sustaining hurts like "You're not my best friend anymore." Many 3s are also losing their parents' attention to a new sibling—a loss that in earlier generations, when families were larger, was more apt to happen at 2 or younger. And some are finally forced to give up sleeping with their parents.
Finally, many 3-year-olds are still toilet training, and some have barely begun. Parenting books abound with advice that seems geared to younger, pre-verbal kids—such as taking the contents of a diaper and dumping them into the potty, to show a child where her BMs are supposed to go. Some books even use the term "toilet learning." But at 3, much more is at issue than understanding what a toilet is for. "Most kids know by age 3 what people want," says Brazelton. "They just don't know if they want to give up part of their body to the world."
Reliance vs. independence
Martine, a bright and sensitive 3-year-old, recently entered a new day-care center where most of her peers are potty trained. Eager to join the others in the bathroom, she wears underwear by day, with only occasional slips, and has even managed to change her elimination habits, going from several BMs a day to just one—in her underwear a half-hour or so after arriving home. But the weekends overflow with messy accidents, landing her in Pull-Ups once again.
"The fact that she saves it up for you after child care is quite an achievement," Brazelton reassures her perplexed mother. "If she needs you at the end of the day to feel safe with, and to do whatever she has to do, I'd commend her for that. If you can say, and really mean it, 'I've been too involved in whether you go to the toilet or not. I'm not going to do that anymore,' it won't be very long before she starts doing it."
While 3-year olds struggle toward independence, they're also learning to handle feelings of frustration, anger and aggressiveness. "A 2-year-old just has the feelings," says Sparrow. "By 3 or 4 they begin to have a sense of, 'I'm angry at mommy.' Then there's a sense of remorse: 'If I hate mommy, how can I love her?' Some of the falling apart we see in children is in moments when they're struggling with that."
The scary emotions often get subverted into nightmares and fears about monsters, witches or "bad men." Don't try to protect children from these fears, Sparrow advises. Instead, normalize the full range of emotions, both positive and negative. As you read stories together where characters are angry or jealous, make clear that everyone has these feelings. "Stories create a place for kids to put their range of feelings into words, without having to talk about them overtly," Sparrow says.
Despite the challenges of age 3, don't be too quick to get through it. There's a bright side worth celebrating—a budding intellect, a burning curiosity and an enhanced vocabulary that's a window into their minds. "Threes have humor, they're funny, they laugh and they say things that are really wonderful," says Brazelton. "Their speech is so exciting to them, and they can put things together that you just can't believe. They walk straighter, they know what they're doing, and they act grown up—or, they fall apart. But all of it is really strong and really exciting. It's just glorious."
For parents, age 3 is a golden opportunity to nourish a child's mind and "emotional intelligence" with plenty of reading, conversation and time on the floor just playing together. Building young children's language prepares them to build relationships, control their behavior and learn new concepts—skills that will help them long after they leave age 3 behind.