I have an awesome kid.
He’s bright, affectionate, funny, and communicative.
He’s also three.
Like any three year old he can at times be stubborn, unreasonable, and very hard to deal with. Some days my adorable little son turns into a tiny dictatorial life ruiner who seems hell bent on pushing back against everything in the entire world just because he can.
I’m the first to admit that I am also very stubborn, though without the excuse of being a pre-schooler and not knowing better. When we find ourselves facing off over which door of the car he should climb out of, or whether it’s reasonable to watch a seventh episode of Peg + Cat, my instinct is often to buckle down and become the rock to his immovable force. Unsurprisingly, this hardly ever leads to a positive resolution for either of us.
While I often want to scowl back into his grumpy face, poke out my tongue and declare that he’s not the boss of me, I have to stop, and remind myself that I’m the grown up.
And being the grown up means two things. Firstly, that it’s my responsibility to make sure this works out for both of us, and secondly, that I have pretty much all the power.
Working with such a massively unbalanced power dynamic puts a lot of pressure on a relationship, and I think it’s one of the main reasons toddlers and pre schoolers exhibit the kind of behaviour that we generally consider to be stubborn and unreasonable. They lack control, so they exert it in whatever ways they have available to them. I often notice an increase in random obstruction and uncooperativeness from Arty on days when he’s had to be dragged along on shopping trips and appointments, and had very little say in what’s been going on for him. He just gets fed up with it, and he has to exert his agency.
Unfortunately, those days are often the ones on which I feel most harried, and find it hardest to be patient and understanding. The ball is in the parental court when it comes to resetting things, but I’m focussed on all the other important stuff I have to do, and I just don’t have my eye on it.
On these days, I have to remember to do four things:
1. Get down to his level. I don’t mean this in the ‘stoop to toddler tactics to get your way’ sense, I mean physically get down to his level.
Trying to communicate with someone twice your size must be really daunting for little kids, our physical size can make us seem remote and unreachable to a small person trying to make themselves heard and understood.
When I feel like I’m getting nowhere in a conversation with Arty, one of the most useful things I can do is sit or crouch down so we’re at the same level. His response to this is almost always immediate – he reaches out for me and touches my arms squaring me up to himself, he looks into my face, and his voice becomes calmer. We are more able to read each other’s expressions and body language, so we immediately have more ways to read and understand each other.
This is a really productive first step in resetting a conversation.
2. Give him time to speak. Because I was so intimately involved in the process of helping Arty learn to communicate, I got into the habit of speaking for him. I was his interpreter when I was one of the only people who understood him, and I got so used to saying what he meant, that I sometimes forget to stop.
This isn’t helpful in a situation when we’re disagreeing, or he’s frustrated with me. He needs to have the opportunity to express what he’s thinking and feeling for himself. I need to realise that I don’t always know exactly what he wants or needs any more.
As we all know from personal experience, expressing what we mean can be really hard when we’re upset. The words we want don’t come, because we’re so full of frustration. I can only imagine how much this is compounded when you’re three and you don’t have the vocabulary or reasoning power to match the adult you’re talking to.
When Arty and I are disagreeing about something I have to make myself stop. Stop arguing, stop bossing him, stop exclaiming over how unreasonable he’s being, and just give him a chance to say his piece.
Feeling heard goes a long way to assuaging the intense frustration that comes from feeling powerless and small.
3. Allow decision making rights over age appropriate things. Three year olds are totally mature enough to decide some things for themselves. There are lots of little decisions in everyday life that I can hand over to Arty to give him some sense of control and agency.
For example, I don’t mind if he decides whether we go to the park or a cafe on a Thursday afternoon outing – the outcome of that decision doesn’t bother me, and it makes a big difference to him.
I don’t mind if he chooses to wear his ugg boots instead of his sneakers, or wants to paint a picture instead of reading a story with me.
To me, these these little things are not worth arguing about. They’re not worth wasting your big ‘no’s on.
In fact, some of these decisions are really important for him to make for himself, like making his own call about when he’s full and wants to stop eating, or knowing when he’s had enough of a physical game and needs his own space.
4. Be firm and consistent about things that aren’t negotiable. This is one that has a cumulative effect over time. On issues of safety and respect, we have hard and fast rules that are absolutely not negotiable. The more consistent I am about these things, the more he comes to realise that these things are important, and my word on them is final.
Yes, he has to hold my hand when we cross the road. No, it is absolutely not ok to use violence to express frustration. It’s not ok to play with the oven. ‘Pleases’ and ‘thank yous’ are always expected.
Three year olds are smart. They pick up on what matters pretty quickly.
I’m doing my best parenting when I remember these four things. Arty is calmer and happier. Our days run more smoothly. Like in any relationship, things are better when we’re communicating.