People warn you about the terrible twos. I tell them two is nothing...wait until you get to three. Maybe it is a case of each child being different or maybe it is a result of how we parent our children. But for me, at age two, a diaper, a breast, a baby carrier, redirection, toys, snacks and cuddles still resolved most problems. Don't get me wrong, two year olds are selfish. But their selfish needs are fairly easy to meet in my experience.
Then comes three.
Both of my kids at three, it seems, reached the age of defiance with a smirk. Not only are they completely selfish, but they also seem to take joy in preventing others from meeting their needs and have little sense of potential danger or discomfort for themselves. Refusing to go the bathroom before we leave the house and taking joy in the fact that her brother and I are frustrated that we can't leave the house until she changes her mind (even though she also wants to go where we want to go). Having the ability to open closed doors to return to the scene of a previous crime and attempt a destructive and dangerous feat once again (e.g. swinging from the curtains in a borrowed apartment). Running in front of your feet with begs to be carried one moment (and getting tripped over in the process) and running off wild in the wrong direction or pausing to pick up dirty cigarette butts the next. Refusing to leave a playground or store when her brother has to go to the bathroom. Throwing toys or books across the room when they don't do what she wants them to do. Asking for a specific food and then refusing to eat any of it. I could go on.
There are several battles taking place on this battlefield:
- Her battle to assert her independence: She wants to make her own decisions about her body, about her food intake, about her clothing, about her activities.
- My battle to teach her empathy: I want her to assert herself, but also understand the impact that has on others. I want her to think about others feelings, needs, physical limitations and personal space.
- Her battle to have mommy all the time: I'm usually a work out of home mom and now I'm here all the time. She's making up for lost time by wanting mommy all of the time. Whether she wants to cuddle, to play with me, or to have me do something for her, she wants me in some capacity all of the time.
- My battle to divide my time and get things done: She doesn't care if I need to shower, make lunch, do laundry, help her brother with something, etc. She wants mommy. I want to do things with/for her and with/for her brother and myself. I want a few minutes here and there where I don't have a three year old crawling on me or demanding something from me.
- Her battle to test her limits: She wants to throw things, climb on things, do somersaults, balance, and more. We do those things at the park on a daily basis, but she wants to do it at home too in a rented apartment full of things that are not our own and that are not meant for climbing or throwing.
- My battle to stay away from the hospital: Kids hurt themselves. That's normal. Emma has legs full of bruises to prove it. But I'd really like to avoid any major hospital visits, especially ones that also involve the destruction of the place we're living in.
Some of the time she is just impatient. Some of the time she is asserting herself. Some of the time she is purposely making things difficult or purposely doing things she knows are destructive or hurtful and doing so with a smirk.
I've read a lot about gentle discipline. I have a general idea of the tools and techniques that I think are appropriate. When I'm confronted with discipline situations dispersed over the course of a day, generally listening, teaching, modeling, and giving choices works quite well. I believe in giving children the good sense to act appropriately in the real world, rather than handing down arbitrary punishments like spankings and time outs that attempt to force compliance but teach nothing. But when one situation piles on top of another constantly over the course of the day with little to no downtime from one to the next, I'm not as patient as I would like to be. My lack of patience and my bad discipline choices (citing consequences I wish I hadn't, offering rewards, yelling) make things worse, not better.
A lot of people say "you're the parent - you need to lay down the law." To borrow from a really old tweet from my friend Arwyn from Raising My Boychick, being the parent doesn't mean that I need to forcibly put my child into a car seat when I decide it is time to go somewhere. Being the parent means that I do not move the vehicle until she is buckled into her car seat. It is a fine line sometimes and a wide gap other times between being the responsible parent and being disrespectful towards her. I believe that I am responsible for her well-being and safety, but it doesn't mean that I have the right to trample on all of her personal desires and feelings. I believe that she needs to learn how to treat others with respect and consider their feelings, but I don't think that disrespecting her and dismissing her feelings is the way to do that.
I believe that these battles are a phase, based partly on her age (developmental stuff) and partly on our move to Berlin. It is a phase we will come through. We did with her brother, with whom I still have battles sometimes but who generally has some concept of logic and of other people's needs now. He is great with his sister and extremely patient with her, but I also notice the toll that her issues have on him some days. He gets less time with me than he deserves. He has to put up with being kicked and slapped by his sister and accept that he can't kick or slap her back. He has to be patient when we are trying to leave the house for a fun activity and she refuses to get ready. He is great at trying to make her happy, trying to reason with her, trying to help and entertain her. But his patience is limited too.
I want to discover new levels of patience or magic that were previously uncovered. I want to find things to say that will help her to understand. I want to enjoy every, or at least most, moments that we have together.
Is she four yet?