Being Three

Three year olds...

Not quite big kids...yet not really babies any more.

All sorts of new words...yet not knowing how and when to use them.

Want to make many of their own choices....yet lack the thought capacity to think things through.

Often know what they want...yet can't figure out how to make it happen.

Bundles of energy...yet also bundles of emotions.

Over the course of my professional life (which seems so long ago now, even though it hasn't really been THAT long) I have worked with somewhere in the realm of hundreds of preschoolers. During that time I made many observations and came to many non textbook conclusions about the nature of the three year old, particularly the three and a half year old. I remember one year realizing that it seemed like I always had 1-2 kids who were absolutely unreachable. I said up, they went down. I gave them choices, but not the right options. They lacked skills to play with each other and seriously lacked attention span. One child was so "out there" that I honestly thought there was something wrong with him. Previously endearing children all seemed to make me want to tear my own hair out by the end of the day.

As the year went on and these children reached some point in an unforseen, unpredicted continuam and they were suddenly cured. Like someone flipped a switch and they came to school like nothing had ever been wrong. Now the first few times this happened, I patted myself on the back for my expert teaching skills and was sure that I had in fact influenced this change. After the first two or three times, however, I noticed that as soon as one child moved into the joyful ways of good behavior, another seemed to step into their place. Usually a child who had previously existed succesfully within the classroom setting.

I began watching more closely and realized that for most children the troubled period began between 3 and 3.5 and ended near the 4th birthday. I eventually learned to let these children go to the extent that they were not overly disruptive to the classroom environment or other children and trust they would return to earth (in a manner of speaking) eventually. That teaching technique seemed to serve me well and without exception, all of my students eventually turned that corner and became ready to learn in the classroom setting again. The magic switch appeared to be hard wired. Trying to speed it up, only led to repeated burnt out bulbs (and teachers).

I will note that while this method led to fewer classroom disruptions by three year olds who weren't ready to do what they were asked, it did not particularly endear me to the administration who wanted me to be teaching them how to read. Yes, you read that correctly. I was supposed to be teaching them to read because I was working for a "high achievement" program that felt all three year and four year olds can and should learn to read.

Fast forward to my experiences with my own three year olds. In talking with many parents, since myself becoming a parent, my three year old observations are really nothing new. I have heard MANY of my friends tout 3 as a more challenging year than 2. As challenging as this age was in the classroom for me, I am finding it dramatically more challenging as a parent. Both boys were well potty trained during the two-year old year, only to start having somewhat regular accidents again during the three-year old year. I have honestly never had to remove a fussy baby or toddler from church (although I have used the nursery on occassion for those overly physical stages), but I have removed both boys from church during their three year old year.

I've learned that my let-them-be-until-they-are-ready approach in the classroom doesn't work well at home. It is disruptive to the entire family to let the three year old drive the schedule and mood of the household. Particularly when the three year old is probably going to melt down no matter what we have for lunch. If he approves of the menu, he will likely melt down because he wants snack, not lunch. If you tell him that we can call it snack, then all of a sudden a new problem will arise because the previously agreed upon menu is not snack appropriate. There is a line somewhere between respecting the child's need for independence and a voice and being walked on as a parent. I'm fairly certain I haven't exactly mastered the balance, but I'm working on it.

So what does work? First of all, recognizing the extreme physical transition still going on. Growth may have slowed down, but it has certainly not stopped. My three year old really does need to eat almost every hour, definitely every two. Not a meal, not even a huge snack, but he is hungrier than would seem humanly possible for such a small guy. In addition to meals, sleep is tough for many three year olds. A gave up naps before three, but during the three year old year still needed a solid period of rest each afternoon. I"ll be honest, TV became somewhat of a crutch that I used to get him to sit still and rest. I still fall back on that at times, although I have been doing much better since we started homeschooling. I'm not sure the connection, but its there. For C, napping isn't the issue as much (although he doesn't), but getting to bed early. One night every week or two where he is up past 7:00 is ok, but any more then that and the overtired monster comes to live in the three year old monster. They are not good roommates.

In addition to trying to make extra sure that all physical needs are met, I work really hard not to inturrept my three year old. This is sometimes hard for my older kiddo to understand, but if we are having family clean up time and C chooses to sit on the couch quietly reading a book and not get in the way then I let it be. When he is done reading I will help him find a job to do (since there's always SOME job that can be done). C needs longer periods of uninterrupted time than the other kiddos and when his physical needs are met I find that he can accomplish some amazing works and is very receptive to learning. A day rushing about doing errands and full of transitions is far harder on C than either A or K. I remember A at the same age, also struggling with transitions.

I am starting to see three as the year the grey explodes into the world. Prior to three the world was black and white, as long as the child's needs are met they can live in relative contentment. Now all of a sudden, at three, the world has all these grey areas that a child suddenly notices. Parents appropriately give more responsibilities to go with the expanding capabilities that a three year old has. I think three is about a child adjusting to life in the grey world we live in. As a parent, I have decided it is about softening the grey as much as possible, but not holding them in black and white for too long. This phase, like so many others is short lived in the relative terms of childhood.

Aidan really did eventually flip that switch I observed not many years ago in my students. In fact, he did it right before his 4th birthday and the chaos that swept into his life at that point. We are still waiting and watching for Caleb to go through this transition. Although it requires much patience at times, I am trying to remember the Montessori credo to observe the child so I can help guide him through this sensitive period in his life to becoming a contributing member of our family. Knowing when to interced and when to let it go is a constant challenge. Three year olds have many amazing stories to tell and much love to give, that make them an absolute joy to be around....even when they make you want to tear your own hair out!

What have you noticed about 3 year olds? What do you love? What drives you absolutely crazy?


Meredith said...

YES!! It is so good to hear other, more experienced people voice these things about 3 year olds! A friend told me as Isaac turned three not to be surprised if things didn't get "better" than two. Oh boy, what a year. I am hopeful that we're exiting the worst of three as four just started... and then we'll have another there in a year. What an adventure! What a relief to have passed three with my first child and now to know what may be awaiting me with the other kids.

Definately a lot of wonderful things about 3-year-olds, though, what with the emerging independence, most beautifully manifested through learning to zip zippers, put on own shoes, run errands for me in the house when I can't (or don't want to) get up! And I love the increasing vocabulary and conversational skills.

Thanks, Heidi, for this post!

Jen said...

I cant wait for her 4th birthday LOL I love her imagination and how much she strives to learn, but hate the wishy washy and the whining! I still have Jack who is just turning two, so I have another round of the interesting, fun and challenging age 3! Good post Heidi!