This site has thousands of pages, and one of the most popular ones day in, year out is about typical behavior for a 3 year old child. I believe this is because modern parents do Google searches to find out if their 3 year old is normal, or whether they should offer up the child to the highest eBay bidder.
3 year olds are a trip. I have no idea why the”Terrible Twos” get so much publicity, because 3 year olds are much more challenging in my opinion. 3 year olds are the reason someone invented preschool. A 2 year old is still very cute, baby-ish and cuddly. They are still distractible and can be redirected pretty easily. A 3 year old doesn’t fall for those tricks anymore and is alternately amusing and infuriating.
Ruby, my current 3 year old child, is driving everyone in the household nutso. I’ve had to dig deep into my parenting memory and repertoire to remember exactly how I managed to raise and survive my other 3 year olds. And this is what I came up with:
5 Things I’ve Learned About 3-Year-Olds
3 Year Olds Need Lots of Exercise
Of course, all kids need physical activity. But for a 3 year old, getting enough outdoor exercise is the difference between a good day and a bad day that has you sucking your thumb in the corner, your mouth smeared with chocolate and dribbles of wine down your shirt, looking like Gollum when your husband comes home from work.
If you can’t let your 3 year old play safely outside in the yard off and on all day, then go to the park – daily if you need to. In fact, going to the park every day is an excellent way to work on certain discipline problems. For instance, if your child is having trouble leaving places without tantrums. If they know that pitching a fit today means absolutely no park tomorrow, they’ll nip this in the bud, fast. 3 year olds hate to be left behind, and if you have a trustworthy teen to leave the tot with at home, do it.
3 Year Olds Need Lots of Mental Stimulation
3 year olds are very intelligent. That’s the good news. The bad news is, they use their smarts against you to engage in what we call down South “back-talk” or “sass”. Ruby is a smarty. While all my kids are smart, they’re smart in different ways. Ruby is very “book-smart”. She has been obsessed with books since she was tiny, and would spend hours looking at them, turning the pages ever-so-carefully. By 2 she knew her numbers, letters (upper and lower case, even), and colors, cold. I’m quite sure she’ll learn to read this year. (My mom claims I read at 3 – I almost believe her. I say almost because her memory is fuzzy and apparently I was the perfect child.)
I don’t believe in formal education before age 7, but there does need to be lots of hands-on, playful learning at this age. Ruby loves doing her “schoolwork”. Cutting, pre-writing exercises, playing with paper letters, matching, pouring water and rice, play dough, coloring, drawing with chalk, painting, you name it. I keep a huge stack of preschool printables handy (people create these all the time, check your favorite frugal blogger or Google it) for her to devour.
Any money you spend on artsy-fartsy-craftsy supplies will pay off in spades of a little more household peace. Stock up when you see crafts supplies on clearance. And just a tip: Do not allow the 3 year old access to these supplies unless under your direct supervision, and remove them to a high shelf out of sight as soon as she’s done. Trust me on this.
A 3 Year Old Needs To Feel Important
A 3 year old needs chores to build their self-esteem and sense of usefulness. For the baby, it’s enough just existing. We take care of them because of their neediness. But an older kid needs to contribute, and a 3 year old is smart enough to internalize this. Here is a list of things 3 year olds can do to help out:
- Putting own toys away after use/at the end of the day
- Dressing themselves/washing hands after using potty/supervised toothbrushing (with mom or dad doing a final brushing)
- Fetching diapers or wipes when you change the baby
- Taking dishes to kitchen after meals
- Picking up trash from the hard-to-reach corners of the back row of your SUV (ahem)
A 3 year old who is handed a cleaning cloth and a spray bottle of water or very dilute non-toxic cleaner is a happy camper and can actually do a decent job removing spots off the floor. It’s very important that the big people in the 3 year old’s life acknowledge the good in her too. Ruby will come to me and say, “You’re happy at me” when she knows I’m pleased with her.
The other day we were playing outside, and she had had a couple of very bad days. I turned my head for a second and Victoria decided to toddle-run straight towards our backyard steps. She would probably have fallen, but when I saw what was happening I yelled for Ruby to grab her. She did, and averted disaster. I talked that incident up for two days and made a huge deal about it. She positively glowed whenever I told the story.
The bottom line for the above points is that 3 year olds must be kept busy, otherwise they will do any of the following, sometimes in the same day: cut their hair or their big sister’s doll’s hair, write on the walls/their clothing/bodies/schoolbooks, tear up books and more books, push the baby around, pour water on the bathroom floor until it floods the basement, you name it.
A 3 Year Old Is Confused – Do I Want to be a Baby or Big Kid?
I believe this is the crux of the developmental disequilibrium at this stage. A 3 year old is no longer baby with the accompanying perks, but not yet ready to take that leap into the benefits of kid-dom. And so they wobble back and forth between being totally independent and totally needy. My 3 year old will gladly leave me for a couple of days at Grandma’s, but then demand to be rocked and nursed. (She’s still taking the occasional sip, but I require nursing manners, so if she is being difficult and manipulative the answer is no.)
A 3 Year Old Still Needs a Nap
The trouble is she probably won’t take one, or if she does it will be so late it will interfere with bedtime and make her groggy and miserable. Replace naptime with Quiet Time. Enforce this for an hour or so a day, and require that she remain relatively still and quiet with soft toys or books in a somnolent environment (the couch if the other kids are in their rooms, your bedroom with dark blinds, or her own room).
If she falls asleep, great. If not, that hour is almost as restorative as sleep and you both need the break from one another.
What tips do you have for surviving a 3 year old?