What The Parenting Books Don't Tell You: Three-Year-Olds Are Jerks

Three year olds don’t mean to be assholes; they just are.

May 15, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

A couple of months ago, I may or may not have alienated an entire Facebook parenting group.

I was invited to this Facebook group by a friend who has a two-year-old daughter. Most of the other parents in the group have similarly aged kids, and they all get together for playdates and whatnot. They seem like a really nice group of people.

One of them posted a heartfelt plea for advice after her oldest child acted like a monster at the playground -- throwing sand at other kids, hitting, pitching a fit. She was upset and embarrassed by her son’s behavior, and she didn’t know what to do. She thought her son had been acting out lately because he had a new baby sister who was getting all the attention, but she was unwilling to excuse his behavior anymore.

Everyone who commented on her post had really great advice about kids and jealousy over new siblings, and about dealing with a three-year-old who is acting out in public.

And then I swooped in with my only bit of advice: “Three-year-olds are assholes.”

It’s true: yes, even yours. Even mine. And we were all were jerks when we were three. Three year-olds don’t mean to be assholes; they just are. It’s a normal developmental stage -- some people call it the terrible twos (a misnomer because it really lasts from like 1 ½ to 4 years old) but I like to call it “the asshole years.” Let’s call it what it is, people.

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Oliver was about four here, so just past the asshole years.

There’s a reason toddlers are so fucking cute: Because they are monsters, and we would not be able to tolerate them otherwise.

The good news about three-year-olds being assholes is you should not feel like a terrible parent or be embarrassed because your three-year-old is acting like a three year old in public. Here’s what many three-year-olds do sometimes: they throw sand, they don’t share their toys, they scream if you tell them “no.”

My delightful human being of a son was, in fact, an asshole on occasion. I read a few books on dealing with the terrible twos, including one that suggested I pull my toddler aside and talk gently to him about consequences and choices. As if Oliver would somehow just stop being an asshole and go, “Oh yes, Mommy, you’re right. I was being totally unreasonable.”

This kind of reasonableness may work with some kids, but it didn’t work with mine. My failure to transform my three-year-old into a lovely human being made me feel like a terrible parent. With a little perspective, I can see now that I was not.

Like 95% of the time, I found that the parenting techniques I found in books or collected bits of advice from friends and relatives did not work with my kid. I had to find what worked for us.

What worked for me when dealing with Oliver during the asshole years was: leave. If he started throwing sand at another kid, or screamed in a restaurant, or had a meltdown at the grocery store, we just left the scene. After leaving, I’d explain over his vocal and shitty three-year-old attitude (and who knows if he even heard me) that we left because his behavior was unacceptable, but that I knew he could do better next time.

Leaving the scene of the crime had two effects: 1) It saved my sanity and probably also the sanity of other people nearby, and 2) Removing Oliver from the current environment was often enough to break what I call “the tantrum loop” -- that thing where your toddler starts melting down and the more you try to quell it, the more he melts down, until pretty soon he can’t stop crying and neither of you remember what set him off in the first place. The tantrum loop is a dark place, friends.

With that in mind, here is the most important piece of parenting advice I can ever give when it comes to dealing with your adorable little asshole: do whatever works for you. Hey, maybe some of those little assholes respond to negotiation and reason -- I mean, go for it. Whatever you need to do.

And remember, next time your three-year-old acts like a jerk -- it’s not you, it's him.

Somer is on Twitter: @somersherwood.