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Sympathy for the stubborn kid; why three-year-olds have to have their way

This morning, my son and I chirped goodbye to my husband, grabbed the lunchbox, spare pair of pants and undies, and scooted out the door on the way to preschool. Down the stairs we went, talking about who would be at school today, if bead-stringing would be preferable to painting, whether cement mixers sleep when the sun goes down. Typical day.

And then, tragedy struck. I walked down one step too many.

No mommy, you didn’t wait on your special staaaair! Go back up now!

My son has decided there is a designated waiting step – three from the bottom. My husband and I have to stop here on every trip down the stairs so he can blow by us on his own, sputtering airplane motor sounds, saliva flying everywhere, and be the fastest and first to the car.

I hovered for a second, slightly panicked that I couldn’t remember the proper stair protocol and that I wouldn’t get it right the second time. Part of me felt embarrassed that I was being bossed around by my preschooler. Another part of me just wanted to de-escalate the stair crisis and get to the car. So I backed up and took my spot. My son nodded in approval and started his engine.

That’s a typical interaction with my three-year-old these days. He’s a warm, adaptable, hysterically funny, easy little person – remarkably so – but when he has a plan in mind, do not mess with it. He wakes up with a mini-plan for what he’ll wear (blue shorts, corn and butterfly shirt) and if you say it’s too cold for shorts, he cries like you just told him his favorite cat died, or that Christmas isn’t coming this year.

Three-year-olds are particular little creatures, and I’ve written a lot about the joys and challenges of this stage of development. When I posted about it recently for Strollerderby, parents of three-year-olds wrote back with their own anecdotes like “My son will only wear red socks,” (mine prefers to sport Spiderman ones pulled to his knees), or “My daughter must carry her umbrella outside rain or shine.”

The founding psychologist Erik Erikson said that the main task of this age is to develop initiative. Three-year-olds have a newfound sense of purpose – one that’s fueled by imagination and the capacity for abstract thought. At three, little kids are no longer simply creatures of the moment; they think ahead, create plans, and see the future unfolding in a particular way.

In other words, they’re smart and they’ve got big ideas. But for all the booming consciousness and complex language, three-year-olds still don’t have much in the way of emotional control; the world can go from bright and sunny to near extinction with one misplaced block or thwarted airplane launch. In fact, I think this trips us up as parents because we overestimate their emotional maturity; our little preschoolers make such impressive cognitive leaps that it’s surprising when they revert to dramatic meltdowns. But the fact is that learning language, letters, and numbers comes way before the prefrontal cortex has ripened to manage and make sense of overwhelming feelings.

For me, it helps to intellectualize the whole thing just a bit. When my son unravels because we forgot the racecar he planned to bring with him on a car trip, I imagine neurons in the emotional command centers of his brain firing in zigzagging chaos – really working to make sense of things but falling just short.

If I’m really on my toes, though, I can smooth the path in front of us. Knowing his particular and goal-directed ways, anything I set up in advance has an infinitely better chance of flying than a sudden plot twist I spring on him at the last minute.

Muffin, tonight I’m putting the red cup in bed with you and you’re going to be in charge of your own water. Say it well before bed, maybe multiple times, and his little internal plan-maker adjusts its plot points and settles in. Say it on a whim after bedtime routine is already in motion? Good luck.

But in the end, one of the reasons I bend, backtrack to my assigned stair, or let him wear the practically-disintegrating blue shorts, is that I actually like that my son has plans and strong opinions. When I piece together my own personality at that age, I believe I was more of a pushover. I respect my son’s ideas and I feel a kind of admiration for the vision he has. He’ll plan and build elaborate, symmetrically-colored Lego spaceships with helicopter landing pads that get him so excited he runs from room to room shrieking for everyone to come see. And I secretly like that he’s got a stair-launching pad system in mind for the morning. He’s not just bumping along from thing to thing; he’s actively building and planning the world around him. I only want to nurture that.

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