An Empirical Study in Parenting a Three Year Old

5 Feb

Banging your head against the wall is not an effective parenting tactic, as it turns out. Even if your walls are made of concrete and you do it repeatedly, your survival instincts appear to be too strong for it to put you out of your misery. It also does not make the children behave in the manner you’d like. It doesn’t make the baby sit still during diaper changes. It doesn’t make the three year old take her damn nap. Nothing. Sad but true, folks. Sad but true.

Screaming the f word at the top of your lungs is another tragically ineffective tactic. If you scream loud enough, it might scare them and make them pause for some miniscule amount of time. We’re talking a few seconds, here, though, not the 10 minutes or 3 days of break from the madness you were hoping for. In fact, it’s liable to make little ones cry, which means you’ve just made the problem worse. You’ve gotta soothe them and you now feel guilty on top of it. And the baby is heading straight back to the cat’s litter box meanwhile. Crapola.

Corporal punishment is an equally ineffectual technique for me. First of all, there’s that pesky little voice in my head that says, “we don’t hit people,” and damned if it’s not my own, real, non—psychotic voice saying that very thing to my kid. I spanked Lucia once in an instant of shock and rage over her purposely hitting the baby hard when he was itty bitty, and I’m pretty sure it was, indeed, worse for me than it was for her. Later that night she said, in this sad little voice, “Mommy, don’t hit me anymore,” like it’s this regular abuse I dish out to her, and that totally sealed the deal on keeping that out of my parenting repertoire.


I also can’t use corporal punishment because when she pushes my limits, I occasionally have the urge to shake some sense into her. Like when she refused to help me during clean up time, then proceeded to dump on the floor half the toys I’d just picked up, I had a brief moment of rage so strong that my reptilian brain encouraged me to fight back against this mutiny, to show that brat who’s boss! Immediately after that urge, I thought, “Whoa, who the hell are you, Julia, and did you know this is your tiny child who you love more than chocolate?” Alas. Violence is not an option for my parenting strategies.


The worst thing, though, is that my go-to parenting tactic for the 3 year old is totally the most insane: Reasoning. I try to implement things like rules and routines, positive and negative consequences, rational discussion. Have you ever tried to reason with a three year old? Have you even interacted with a three year old?? Reasoning can’t work, because the three year old mind is the antichrist! Errr, I mean, it’s antilogic! They are completely irrational savages! In case you’re not intimate with any 3 year olds these days, let me give you some examples. Let’s call this my little case study in treating your child like a small but reasonable human being, and you can see for yourself how effective it is.


This is known in our house as: “I’m really tired so I can’t go to sleep because I’m too tired”

Evidence #1: Rules, Schmules aka “You can’t see me because my eyes are closed.”


“No, Mommy,” my daughter scolded me. “I’m going to hide over here first, and then you go in the kitchen and count,” she said, explaining to me how hide and seek works in her world, showing me exactly where she was going to hide. Then when it was my turn to hide she indicated exactly where I was to hide. (In another instance of her incidental wittiness / rule-breaking, when her Papi told her to count to seventeen, she counted, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, teen.”)


It’s not limited to hide and seek, either. These monsters will snatch your Memory card right up when they see it goes with the one they had in their last turn. They stick whatever foot they want in the middle during the hokey pokey. They just don’t care about your rules.


Or you take the time and energy to set up rules and routines only to have them broken repeatedly. “Play time’s over now,” you remind the savage, for example. “This is clean up time.” But to them that means they can remember what they were doing with these toys a couple hours ago and start it up all over again. Shower time means time to clean the bathroom floor with Papi’s bath sponge. Nap time means they’re starving and need to finish the lunch you didn’t want 30 minutes ago. Need I go on, folks? There is no logic and no respect for the establishment!


Evidence #2: Panic Attacks aka “The sky is falling! Even if it’s only rain, it’s still the end of the world!”


Saying that a three year old can’t regulate their emotions is the understatement of the year. These people haven’t seen my kid have super freak-out/tantrum/panic attacks over things like cutting the wrong shape for her sandwich: “I wanted a rectangle, not a triangle!” or the baby touching something she thinks he shouldn’t: “The baby’s gonna get the apple! The baby’s gonna get the apple!” she shrieks, even when you tell her that it’s not a problem. Other dire moments for her include “The video’s on and nobody’s watching it!” and “But I can’t see with my eyes closed!”- her favorite freak-out during an attempted nap time. Getting food stuck in her teeth, me sitting in the blue chair instead of the white chair (or vice versa the next day), her forgetting to put the cereal bowl on her head before I put the cereal in- all of these things and so much more can bring on shrill screams, panting, crying, full-out thrashing attacks until the crisis is resolved.


Evidence #3: No Impulse Control aka “But I really wanted to color on the baby’s head”


Three year olds have a lot of ideas about right and wrong, which is good. But they can’t quite talk themselves into doing what’s right or not doing what’s wrong, consistently. Her impulse control is certainly better than when she’d say, “no milk floor” while pouring her milk on the floor, but she still has a lot of slip-ups. She has not yet learned to lie, so when I ask her, for example, how the baby’s head got marker on it, she tells me proudly, “I colored on it.” She proceeds to tell me that we only color on paper (aka yes I know I done wrong) but she just colored a little bit on his head because she really wanted to. Oh, well, okay then.


Repeat after me: “We only color on paper, we only color on paper” (this picture is from the internet, but you should see my nice sheets and this precise look on my 3 year olds face)

Evidence #4: Negative Consequences are the Best aka “I want to do it the hard way”


I try to set up logical consequences to convince her to follow the game plan, only to have her laugh in the face of consequences. For example, I tell her that if she showers with me right now when it’s time to shower (and not with 10 minutes of coaxing and nagging) then we’ll have time to read an extra book for bedtime. Usually her response is something like, “But I’m playing with my blocks. I just need to make this house.” Or, “But I’m taking care of Lucia (her kangaroo/big sister child). I have to put her to bed first.” Then at bedtime she still thinks she gets an extra book!

I can either coax and nag or break out the big guns- “Do you want to do it the hard way?” The hard way, of course, is not pleasant for anybody. It involves forceful lifting of the savage, lots of tears, some screaming, the whole dramatic routine. Sometimes the threat of the hard way (and the counting up to it: 1, 2, 2 and a half…) encourages her to get with the program, but sometimes she busts out her future-13-year-old defiance and yells: “I want to do it the hard way!” (Geez, she is so my child.) Then we do it the hard way, and she hates it and screams and yells about how she doesn’t want to do it the hard way. Three year old logic.


I try to explain to her about logical consequences. “You know that Dora DVD that doesn’t work anymore because we didn’t put it back in its case and now it’s all scratched up? Or that chicken puzzle that’s missing pieces?” I ask her, and she nods. “That’s why we need to take care of our things. That’s why we need to put our things back where they go when we’re finished.” I tell her, foolishly believing this will enlist her in clean up time. “But I’m playing. You do it.” She told me the other day. She even told me the other day I could give away all her toys to someone else, that she didn’t want them anyway, just to avoid cleaning them up. The other night I told her that if she didn’t help clean up I was going to put her toys out in the shed. She didn’t care until I told her that included her “Lucia” and the tent she was currently “living” in. “But we don’t put people away!” she insisted, explaining why her kangaroo doll (a person!) couldn’t possibly apply to this. And then she says, “Just put the tent where I can’t reach it. If you put it outside in the shed, the ants are going to eat it.” Once again, I wasted more time having this conversation than what it was worth to acheive the end result of her picking up approximately five blocks. Obviously, though, my three year old has lots of reasoning happening in her brain. It just doesn’t happen to be reasoning that helps me in any way.



Let’s review our parenting tactics and their effectiveness: head-banging and screaming curse words- counterproductive; spanking- personally incompatible; reasoning, discussion, consequences, routines, etc.- results variable, could be equally attributed to chance alone, or to children raised by wolves. More studies are needed. We are now nearing the baby’s first birthday, and it appears we’re keeping the three year old despite all evidence against her, so we’ll have plenty more opportunities for this important research. Please keep us informed about your own studies as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: