Don’t Expect an Easy “Threes”

Where did this damaging misinformation come from? So many parents have come to expect that sandwiched between the “terrible” twos and “beyond terrible” fours will be the breezy threes–a twelve-month respite during which a child is suddenly rational enough not to bang his head on the sidewalk because you won’t allow him to drive the Camaro and blase enough not to care if he doesn’t get to do everything first. Don’t believe it. Every age and stage of childhood has its charms and its challenges and three is no different. Yes, some children do become more agreeable around their third birthday. But some become newly “terrible.” The irony is that parents have been so forewarned about the terrible twos that they await with dread the transformation of their darling infant into an impossible toddler. But sometimes the twos are delightful, which leaves the parents thinking they’ are home free. And then, around the third birthday, the tantrums, the orneriness, the penchant for throwing food finally arrive.

The worst of it is that compared with a two-year-old, a three-year-old has far more endurance and lung power, as well as better aim. There are some textbook differences between your standard two-year-old and three-year-old. At three a child is better able to separate from his mother. He is more aware of-and more interested in-the world outside his home. But sometimes this ability to separate gets exaggerated in parents’ minds. Many experts claim that “three” is the perfect age for becoming an older sibling, since you’re mature enough not to need your mommy constantly like a baby does, but young enough to grow up feeling a connection with your new brother or sister. But countless parents who spaced their children ”by the book” will tell you that their three-year-old wasn’t as ready as they had hoped to handle big sisterhood. Sometimes, having kids three years apart is a recipe for the most intense sibling rivalry.

I’m not making categorical recommendations for the spacing of children, but simply forewarning you not to expect too much from three-year-olds. They may indeed be potty-trained and able to form multi-word sentences. Some can happily wave good-bye to Mommy or Daddy at daycare without feeling unbearably homesick. But they are very new at being preschoolers. Subject them to stress and more often they react like toddlers, not like the bigger kids they are growing into bit by bit. So accept their limitations. Base your expectations on what your child can handle, not on what some textbook says she should be ready for.