There are times I simply don’t like my three-year-old.
Fellow parents of three-year-olds may be gasping in mock surprise.
However, I really thought I could avoid this feeling. Child psychologists say that toddlers can tap into some of our deepest insecurities. Or as Chris jauntily sang to me the other day, “Toddlers are emotionally abusive.”
Somehow, I thought I’d magically will myself immune to it. I don’t have substantial body image issues or a history of family problems, which seemed to be the biggest emotional triggers. Instead, I imagined I’d have the patience and empathy to say, “He’s just a child. He doesn’t know any better.” After all, I was able to do that when he was a baby.
But now, there are times I simply respond in horror. These moments all share a single characteristic: when he seems to enjoy hurting other people. It may be hitting his brother on the head and laughing like a maniac. Or pulling my hair hard and grinning. No matter what form it comes in, this behavior shakes me to the core. It breaks the cardinal rule in our house, violates my core values, and is the one thing that makes me truly angry.
While I know he’s “just doing it to get a reaction,” it sets off so many emotional alarm bells. As a kid, I was bullied. While there are a lot of reasons someone may be a bully, wielding power over someone to purposely hurt them is paramount. Seeing my son hit his baby brother – not out of anger but just because he can – triggers those old feelings.
My concern goes beyond that that single moment. While I haven’t been bullied in a long time, that deep disgust with people who abuse power structures is embedded in my core values. So much of what is ugly and wrong in our society is built on a foundation of people feeling like they have the right to hurt others for their own gratification. I look at Brock Turner’s description of rape as “20 minutes of action” or Donald Trump’s writing off of sexual assault as “locker-room talk” and shudder. I know that they had parents that taught them those things.
But I also know that they absorbed it in part from the toxic stew of racism, classism and rape culture that is embedded in society. The same culture my boys will be exposed to. I want to inoculate them with the “right” values that push against what culture would teach them as white, upper-class young men. I know you can’t really do that, but I want to try.
So when Sprout violently violates someone’s autonomy, I wince. I feel like I’ve failed already, even if my mind knows better. I know he knows nothing of sexual assault, police violence, or other social issues; he just thinks hitting things is fun. But the fact I haven’t been able to teach him otherwise yet bothers me. It’s so hard to look ahead and have the confidence that he’ll learn in time.
The hardest part is that sometimes it feels like we’re moving backwards. As a young toddler, he was excellent at sharing and relatively gentle. We always thought of him as so very sweet. At first, it can seem like a change in personality.
What I’m realizing – with Chris’s help – is that this is just another part of his emotional growth. Before, he was obedient, but that’s not the same as being kind or empathetic. Now he’s pushing boundaries, learning not just what the rules are but where they start and end. It’s our job to teach him ethics, not just a list of dos and don’ts. In the future, he’ll not only know not to hit but why.
In the meantime, we’ll redirect him to smacking pillows, sending him to time-out when necessary, and repeating “We do not hurt people on purpose,” as long as we need to until it sets in.
Parenting is hard! It’s never been easy, but with a seven-month-old and a three-year-old, this fundamental truth has really been hitting home lately. Just a few of the struggles include getting through a wedding, handling the transition to a big boy bed, and finding the balance between the two brothers.