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The Specialness of the Three-year-old-Why preschool age is precious

This morning, with a sinking heart, I had to peel the sticky fingers of my three-year-old from my leg. It was time for me to leave her at preschool, sitting quietly at a table as raucous children merrily gambolled around her. I felt helplessly sad. Rachael, you are failing your child, intoned a little voice inside my head. Oh, for cripes’ sake, get over yourself, another voice chimed in. It’s a suburban preschool, not a nineteenth-century cotton factory.

Ivy is three, and both she and I are finding the going tough. Beside my bed is a book. It’s been well-thumbed recently by my sweaty, desperate fingers and its title is Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy? Most days, Ivy alternates between the two, with more mood swings than a Hollywood starlet in court-ordered rehab. According to my book, there’s a developmental disequilibrium at age three and a half. During this phase, life is hard for a child to manage. They rail against their mothers, they are often frustrated and confused, and they are easily overwhelmed by emotions they cannot yet process or understand.

I know the feeling; I’m torn too. Trying to navigate the contemporary mores of child-rearing is confusing. Can I be a free-range parent who helicopters around just a little bit? Can I take on some of the warm, fluffy bits of attachment theory but keep my bed to myself? Is that little three-year-old brain really as pliable and squishy as a marshmallow – so much so that my controlled crying attempts have created permanent neuronal links of anxiety that will affect her future relationships? Can I raise my daughter to question authority, rage against the machine, stand up to the man, and lead a future feminist revolution and yet have lovely, old-fashioned manners? On and on goes the argument inside my head. The voice of reason battles with the voice of research, while the voice of my father scoffs at them both.

This year, Ivy has started preschool (otherwise known in our house as Lord of the Tiny Flies). A few weeks ago, she came home with the tearful report: “Julie said, ‘You’re not my best friend.'” My heart sank. Days of discussion, dodgy puppet theatre re-enactment with stuffed animals, and emotional meltdown followed. Preschool days began and ended with anxious, naughty tantrums and difficult conversations in which I tried to help Ivy make sense of her feelings, and she answered me in unconnected, surreal non-sequiturs. Did you know that when you take off your shirt your arms can talk to each other? Can you drive me to October? Why is my foot not a finger?

It’s not easy exploring emotional terrain with a preschooler. Often it’s like dealing with a brain in which lucid thoughts float like dumplings in broth, looking to connect to a logical neuron and usually failing. The notions floating around Ivy’s little monkey mind seem to filter and marinate for a day or two and then pop out randomly from the back seat or the breakfast table like conversational bombs I must suddenly catch and defuse.

Three is tough. It’s often the age of transition into an outside world, and the new systems and regulations are confusing for a child used to indulging her every oddball urge.

At home, Ivy is in a safe bubble with a clearly defined set of rules. She can jump on the couch but she must take her shoes off. She can talk in the nonsense language she calls Bing Gang but she can’t stand on her brothers legs, no matter how much she likes to. She can pack gravel carefully into a sock to take on honeymoon, keep the scarf she calls Eepy in the freezer, and lie inside a Styrofoam box and pretend she’s a boy called Smarty. No problem.

Preschool, on the other hand, doesn’t cater so easily to Ivy’s whim of iron. Her struggle to adjust to the social politics of the preschool playground doesn’t come as a complete surprise. But her process right now – painful as it is – is part of her growth into the wider world. As she rubs up against new people and structures, her coping skills must refine and mature, and her eccentric “Ivy-ness” will start to change.

Noooooooo!” cries my inner 21st-century mother, with her organic spinach lollipops, her chemical-free chemicals, and her urge to allow Ivy total, absolute expressive freedom. But “yes, yes, yes!” counters that other voice, the one that wants to raise a child with strength of character, with an internal moral compass – a kid who’s weathered some slings and arrows.

When Ivy first came home with reports of the friendship wars, my husband, Keith, and I looked at each other and shouted “Homeschool! Homeschool!” But I tell myself (and I think the Buddha even mentioned it once or twice) that life is suffering, and suffering is growth. It breeds resilience – and compassion, and self-awareness. Ivy’s passionate, theatrical, and stubborn personality will reap her many rewards, I’m sure, but it also might make life tough to travel sometimes.

And so the lessons begin – for both of us. As my dramatic, hilarious daughter grows up, I do too. Three years on Earth for Ivy equal three years in the glorious, testing world of parenthood for me, as I learn where my role as a mother and Ivy’s path as an individual intersect. My job, as I see it, is to help her build internal beliefs in her worth and value. To teach her that ‘Ivy-ness’ is incredible and special and to help her manage the pain that ‘Ivy-ness’ will sometimes bring. I’ll teach her about life, and she’ll teach me, and together we’ll grow up.

As an age, three is beautiful. It’s intense and raw and magical, and it has called us, as parents, to step up to our child’s greater needs: more discipline, more attention, more love, more mindfulness. Like the metamorphosis from baby to toddler, this phase has been like the birthing of one child from a mother’s body.

But four is approaching, and I can feel a shift. I think four might be able to recognize these critical links between the sad feelings, the incidents that preceded them and the behaviours that helped them subside. I am sensing that our interactions will begin to follow a more predictable pattern of turn-taking and subject evolution. The nonsensical, surreal conversational leaps will cease, and the hopeless, confused emotional puddles will lessen as reason and logic begin to enter Ivy’s world. In the end, I think I will miss the oddball charm of three. But then, I tell myself, if I do become nostalgic for the intense emotional casserole of our current life, I’ve got fourteen to look forward to.

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