Tantrums, taunting, doody, defiance – that’s what my three-year-old is made of. Or so I thought. There’s no question, Rose is a challenge lately, and not the good kind, like a thousand-piece puzzle or an ice-cream-eating contest. She screams, she hits, she kicks, she steals, she lies, she mouths off at me and her father and she’s mean to her friends. She’s impossible. Everybody said that the theatrical threes made the terrible twos look like cotillion, but I had no idea it would be like this.
For almost a year, I’ve chalked up her horrible behavior to her age. It’s normal for a three-year-old to be a hellion, I thought. She’s just being three. I was hoping for this magical spell to envelop her on her fourth birthday and make her sweet, loveable and more importantly, manageable again. But this week changed my mind.
I was doing some research for a story about treating kids equally – a topic that I thought didn’t apply to me — and the childcare experts I interviewed made me realize that at least some of Rose’s behavior might be my fault. I stepped back to observe a bit and I learned that I wasn’t dealing with two kids very well. I realized that almost all of the attention Rose was getting was negative, and all the attention her one-year-old brother Christian was getting was positive. Rose brought on most of the negative attention with her behavior, but it finally clicked that she wanted more attention – of any kind. And that my husband and I were responsible for perpetuating her bad behavior –maybe not all, but some, definitely.
I also realized how unfair our parenting must seem to Rose. She’s “The Bad One” and Christian is “The Good One,” in her mind, and until now, in ours. It’s a miracle she hasn’t killed her brother yet. She used to be really rough with him – kicking, punching, shoving – but she’s gotten much better, especially after we told her the ways that she could play with him instead of just the ways she couldn’t.
Now they’ve started to play together. They’ll stand in front of the fan together, cracking up as the air blows their hair around, or she’ll let him flop on her belly and they’ll roll around, or she’ll insist that he stays in her room while I read her a book. During those times, I can tell she’s genuinely having fun with him, and my husband and I are both very happy to see it. But it’s not all grape juice and daisies. She still pushes him, yanks toys out of his hands and steals his pacifier in the middle of the night.
She should really hate her brother’s guts, but she doesn’t, as far as we can tell. (Who knows? At this very moment, she might be plotting her revenge.) Yesterday, she recorded “I love you and I won’t even kill you,” for him on his cell phone toy. Taking all of the inequity into consideration, she’s really acting better than she should. And now that I know that, I believe that we can get better behavior out of her. For one thing, we need to build up her praise bank. She does a lot of things well. She’s really articulate, smart and creative. We’ve kind of slacked off on the praise for that stuff. Not that we don’t praise the fruits of her brain, we’ve seen so much stuff come out of it that our praise became routine and hollow. We’ve go to find new ways to say “Atta girl!”
We have to stop blaming her for everything. She does cause a lot of trouble, but we’ve got to think about how she must feel. She’s three years old and everything bad that happens is her fault. That’s a lot for a little girl to carry. How does that make her feel about herself? It can’t be good. As an only child, I have firsthand experience with blame. No matter who did something actionable in our house, I’d get blamed. I was the kid. It made sense to the grownups. I know it made me feel bad about myself in grade school, so it must be a terrible burden for a preschooler. Through her behavior, she’s already shown us that she can’t handle it. The blame has to stop.
We’ve got to focus on how to do things right, instead of scolding her for doing things wrong. We’ve got to give her more time outs and fewer tongue lashings. We’ve got to be more patient with her. Toddlers can walk and talk and we give them a lot more intellectual credit that they’re due. When we tell them to stop doing something, we expect them to stop on our terms, but they don’t work that way. It takes them some time to process our request, then, if we just tell them to “Stop!” they don’t know what to do instead, so we have to tell them what to do, and that takes time to process too. They do not respond according to our expectations, but that doesn’t mean that they’re defiant. It’s our expectations that are misguided. We need to give them more time to follow our directions.
But man, how are we supposed to do all that? When she’s defiant or mouthy or pokey, it makes me so mad. I just want to scream and cry and beat my head on the wall. She knows exactly which buttons to push with me, and I guess that works for her because it gets her that negative attention she seeks — every time. I’ve got to learn to be calmer, more patient and more understanding. I’ve got to remember that I’m the grownup, and when she baits me into acting like a big toddler, I’ve got to resist. But I’m not perfect (obviously). This is going to take a while. I just hope she can recover from our bad parenting. I’m hoping we can recover too.