Turning Four: Looking Back on Parenting a Three-Year-Old

Turning Four: Looking Back on Parenting a Three-Year-Old; From the emotional outbursts of threenagers to the joys of independence, three is a tough but awesome age for kids and parents alike. (Photo: Boy riding away on a balance bike on a sidewalk.)

A few Saturdays ago, Sprout accompanied me on my community bike ride, acting as an enthusiastic second and playing readily with other kids on the playground. The next day, he broke down screaming three separate times when we were celebrating an early Fathers’ Day brunch with my parents and in-laws. I actually picked him up and left the restaurant so he could calm down, something I almost never have to do. This past year with a three-year-old has been full of contradictions: happy/sad, stable/falling apart, independent/clingy. With him on the cusp between being a toddler and school-aged kid, we felt the full-brunt of the threenager phase. With his birthday just past, I’m looking back at the ups and downs of living with a three-year-old.

Big Changes and More Independence

Before this year, Sprout spent no significant time away from both Chris and I simultaneously. But this year, he started preschool. While it was only a half-day, three days a week, it was still a huge leap from his previous one-hour, once-a-week music and art classes.

In addition to being away from Chris, preschool was way more face time and interaction with other kids than he was used to. As he seems like a bit of an introvert, that amount of socialization took a lot of adjustment. At first, he was hesitant. He hardly participated, just sitting and watching. I’d ask him who his friends in preschool were and he’d say his teacher. But by the end of the year, he regularly jumped into activities and considered his classmates friends. He even made friends with a new kid in class, even though he was initially nervous about meeting him. (Putting a plug in here for The Bird and the Bear, a book my son loves that helped him with this situation. Full disclosure – the author is a good family friend who is a childhood psychologist.)

Besides preschool, Sprout also spent his first night away from both Chris and I this year. He stayed at my parent’s new house overnight. Of course, he was spoiled silly, but it still could have been a negative experience.

Big Emotions: For Good and Bad

Sprout used to be a pretty impassive baby. I would wonder if he was barely tolerating things. He wouldn’t cry or smile, such watch with those huge blue eyes. You often had to coax a reaction out of him.

Those days are long, long gone. This was a year of Very Big Emotions.

He takes joy in so much: biking, hiking, reading books, hugging us, digging holes in the dirt, poking his brother in the head (sigh). He smiles big, laughs loudly, and sings even louder. He gives bouncy, squeezing hugs. Genuine concern crosses his face when someone is hurt.

But he also screams like a banchee when he’s upset. And then gets more upset when you can’t understand him or try to calm him down. Slamming doors has become a regular occurrence in our household. Most of the time this reaction happens when we dare ask him to do something horribly difficult like going to the bathroom, washing his hands, or taking a bath. Respecting his emotions while teaching him to express them appropriately (namely, not screaming) is an ongoing project.

Growing into His Role as a Big Brother

Sprout had been a big brother for a mere three months at his last birthday. He didn’t know what to make of this new little person. Especially because said new, little person did little besides eat, sleep and poop.

Since then, Little Bird has gained a lot of personality and Sprout has grown into his big brother role. Sprout still can’t give his brother a hug without inexplicably putting his hands around his brother’s head, but understands how to be gentle. He’s getting more patient with Little Bird touching his stuff. (Also realizing he can avoid it altogether by closing the door to his room.) He’s even shared his beloved trains – as long as Little Bird doesn’t mess with what he’s building. Singing to his brother, even making up songs about how much he loves him, is always on the agenda.

Leaps in Inquisitiveness and Creativity

I had my eye on the toddler “But Why?” shirt on ThinkGeek for years before Sprout ever asked that question. But once he got started, he really got started. Now I field at least 10 to 15 “Why?” questions on a weekday, when I’m only with him for a couple of hours. And that’s drastically down from its peak. I’ve said “I don’t know” more times in the last year than I ever have in the 33 years prior. When he’s not asking questions, he’s telling stories. He creates elaborate worlds, full of hiking trails, talking bunnies, and hatching birds. From Cubbie the Bear to Pup the Dog, he’s play-acting some type of animal half the time.

Becoming a Three-Year-Old Wiseass

With his developing verbal skills and tendency to question has come a strong streak of wiseass. Admittedly, it runs in the family. But it’s startled even me how well Sprout’s debating and smart-aleck skills have developed. While two-year-olds get mad because they don’t have the right words yet, three-year-olds learn to weaponize language.

Most of the “tricks” parenting blogs recommend, like offering choices, don’t work on him. In preschool, his teacher was trying to get him to clean up while Chris was helping in the classroom. So she asked Sprout, “Who do you think could pick the toys up faster, you or Daddy?” Without missing a beat, he said, “Probably Daddy.” Touché, child, touché. He’s also become the class clown. He has kept up the informal class “song” “La la la la poo poo” far longer than anyone else. I’m sure his preschool teacher was thrilled.

I know Sprout turning four isn’t anything magical. He won’t suddenly lose all of the characteristics that drove me bonkers about three while still keeping all of the lovely ones. But I do know that as he matures, we’ll have fewer extremes and more consistency. In this coming year, I look forward to watching him continue to figure out who he is as a person as we continue to figure out who we are as his parents. Happy birthday to my awesome four-year-old.

Each year, I write a post near my children’s birthdays looking back on the past year. For Sprout, check out To My Son on Turning Three and “How Old Are You? Two!” If you liked this, be sure to follow us on Facebook!

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