When you're in the throes of the terrible twos, veteran moms love nothing more than to tell you that three is worse. This is not only wildly unhelpful; it's also not entirely true. As the current owner of a three-year-old (I said what I said), I can attest to this. Don’t get me wrong — the threes are objectively awful. It’s just that they’re also pretty terrific at the same time. The kid who kicks and screams on the floor because you peeled her banana too far is the same one who will tell you her baby brother is her best friend. Welcome to three.
Perhaps the most unwelcome part of three for me was the defiance. My two-year-old had always been fairly cooperative. It’s not that she didn’t say “no” — she just didn’t mean it the way she does now that she’s three. You see, a two-year-old will say “no” just for the fun of it, even when they mean “yes,” like when you ask if they want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But a three-year-old will turn resisting your requests into an art form, from brushing their teeth in the morning to going to bed at night and virtually everything in between. They will look you dead in the eye and do exactly whatever it is you told them to stop doing. The other day, I instructed my daughter to go to the table for lunch and she responded, “No, Mommy. I won’t.”
Thwarting you at every turn is just part of a three-year-old’s burgeoning independence. The cool part is that they’re at least a little more self-reliant. My daughter can go to the potty by herself, sit and “read” a book on her own, and use utensils to feed herself. That’s not to say she necessarily will do all those things at any given moment, but she’s reliable enough. It’s really nice, especially now that we have another baby. However, my older child’s need to do just about everything “myfels” can also be problematic. Namely, it means it takes us approximately two hours to get out of the house. By the time we do, her pants are on backwards and her shirt is covered with a mixture of paint, pasta sauce, and what I’m really hoping isn’t blood… but damned if she doesn’t buckle herself in.
The experts who claim that what parents perceive as manipulation is merely the child reacting to a need unmet clearly haven’t parented a threenager. I love my child beyond reason, but I’ve also been thoroughly “worked” by her. I once made the mistake of asking if she was scared, and now she uses it as a weapon against me, like the time I turned away from the kitchen sink and caught her standing on her booster seat. When I insisted she sit down, she said, “I too scared sit down. I need stand up.” This is the same child who attempted to weasel a snack out of me at bedtime by talking to me through her stuffed fox Coco, who was hungry — for goldfish crackers.
Most of the time, I can laugh about it afterwards. And that’s the thing about three-year-olds — they’re really funny. I’m not talking about the silly stuff that makes them giggle, like wearing underwear on their heads, jumping on Mom and Dad’s bed until they collapse, or nonsensical situations like babies driving cars. What cracks me up on a daily basis is all the ways my kid is unintentionally hilarious. One evening while setting the dinner table, I was singing, “I am a rock. I am an island!” and she piped up, “I a sandwich!” The same week, we were counting our male dog’s paws and when he rolled over, she excitedly pointed out another one. I laughed so hard I cried.
A lot of the humor comes from her developing language. Between the ages of three and four, a child’s verbal abilities grow by leaps and bounds. A typical three-year-old speaks mostly in sentences, tells stories, and sounds exactly like you when they pretend to talk on the phone. I’m raising my daughter bilingually, which has led to some pretty epic Spanglish. She once found a dead bug on the porch and wanted me to fix it. “Bug need him friends. Need fly in the sky in the nubes.” I explained that it was no longer alive, so the next time she discovered one, she announced, “Oh. This muerto.”
Unfortunately, her vocabulary hasn’t quite caught up with all her emotions, which means tantrums. Throwing fits tends to peak at the age of three, and that’s certainly the case for my little one. She gets upset so easily, from a single drop of milk on the edge of her cup to dropping her crayon. The meltdowns are the absolutely the worst, though, and the reason the threes get such a bad rap. My little angel is currently on a mommy-imposed 30-day Trolls detox, and I have endured wailing (“I want Poppy!”) and gnashing of teeth. At nine months pregnant, I had to carry her out of a playdate like a surfboard because I had the nerve to tell her it was time to go.
When a three-year-old isn’t throwing a bonafide fit, they’re often exercising a very active imagination. It’s objectively awesome to watch them act out everyday scenes with their Little People, play teacher with their stuffed animals, and talk to imaginary friends while riding their tricycle in circles on the back porch. That vivid inner life is great for solo play, but like most three-year-old characteristics, it’s a double-edged sword. Little ones who can imagine that they’re part of a narwhal’s pod can also dream up all manner of monsters. Now that my kid is three, she’s added “big wolf” to her list of things she’s afraid of (right before car washes and just after automatic hand dryers).
They may be easily frightened, but they also have — shall we say — excellent executive leadership potential. A threenager will straight up tell you to stop talking, singing, or whatever you’re doing that currently displeases them (in my house, it sounds like this: “Stop the music!” and “I don’t like kisses anymore. Kiss the baby.”). Once, she asked to hold her baby brother, and I happily obliged. I got her all settled in with pillows and stood close by in case she decided to press the eject button, but that’s not what she had planned. She leaned in and whispered to me, “Go pump.” There’s a reason her grandma calls her Bossy Bessie.
They may be demanding of parents, but they tend to do better with peers. I’m pleased to say that my daughter has real friends. Gone are the days of parallel play. She now plays games and even shares (I mean, not with me. I tried to get a Wheat Thin from her and she said, “You don’t like crackers,” which is patently untrue). I’ve been most surprised by her empathy. When a playmate gets hurt, she’ll come get me so I can find their mommy. I never expected so much patience with her baby brother, either. When he fusses, she gives him his pacifier, coos at him, and coaxes him to take deep breaths… and it works.
Being mom to a three-year-old is challenging and, as you can see, it’s full of the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I’m at my most frustrated, I try to remember that as hard as it is on me, it’s that much harder on the person who actually has to be three. The fourth year of life is a period of disequilibrium, a time of rapid growth and development in which a child is trying to bring their world back into balance. That helps me have compassion for her, and goodness knows I need it. After all, hell hath no fury like a 3 year-old who received the “wrong” number of M&Ms.