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Forget Terrible Twos: Welcome To The Nightmare That Is Raising A 3-Year-Old

OK, seriously who came up with “terrible twos”? My guess is the parent who coined the term did so with their first child. Fair enough—when you’re on your first kid, age 2 does seem pretty terrible—at least compared to age 1 when kids are more like plants than walking, talking people.

But, if that parent had just waited a year, they would have come to find out the real fun begins at 3. Because, if 2-year-olds are terrible, then 3-year-olds are straight-up maniacs. All aboard the circus train!

Here’s the thing, at 2, children are still cute. They have baby fat. Their voices sound like raspy cartoon characters. They say things like “pweeese.” They still love you. They still want to be carried. They need you—like really, really need you.

Three-year-olds are basically little one-person demolition crews. They see a calm peaceful setting—like, say, a pew at church, an aisle at Target, a doctor’s office waiting room—and they want to blow it up. Their stick of dynamite? A tantrum. It’s similar to the 2-year-old tantrum, but worse because it’s bigger and louder and squirrell-ier. Remember when you could just remove your child when they were 2 and little? Well, now they’re too big to carry without a struggle because they are kicking and flailing and impossibly thrashing their bodies in every direction. With my oldest I adopted a Heisman trophy hold, giving it the old side arm to remove my little monster.

The thing that makes three the most crazy is that because they can talk—and every once in awhile they seem like sane, rational little people—you are fooled into thinking that reason and logic will make sense to them. But, don’t be fooled—3 is the age that irrational emotions meet a fine-tuned vocabulary.

You will try to reason with them, and bribe them—but guess what else makes them terrible? They don’t care. Three-year-olds are immune to bribery. Oh, they’ll still eat your ice cream and take your lollipop, but you will pay a price. The price? Your dignity and self-respect.

By age 3 kids have an opinion—about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. What they wear. What they don’t wear. What they eat. What they don’t eat (which apparently now is almost everything because at 3 evidently they also get taste buds). How they brush their hair. How they brush their teeth. How they get in the car seat. How they get out of the car seat. That pink is blue. That up is down.

The only thing stronger than their opinion is their ability to change that opinion at the drop of a hat. I can remember asking my daughter simple, seemingly straightforward questions like, “What flavor ice cream do you want?” And, her reply would be so self-assured and decisive, “Chocolate chip.” But, I’d find myself asking repeated follow-up questions because I knew, I just knew, “Are you sure? Absolutely sure?” “Yes, mom,” she’d say. Man scoops ice cream and hands it to my darling little girl with a big smile. She throws herself and the cone on the ground, “I wanted strawberry!!!!”

Raising a 3-year-old is not for the weak. You will want to curse. You will need to drink wine. You will be on the brink. But do not let them knock you down. Keep your cool, because they are watching you. They are taking notes.

At this point in their short little lives they’ve picked up on all the best and worst versions of you, and will find ways to throw that worst version right back at you. I can’t tell you how many times my kids have said, “Are you serious right now?” In my same shameful, exasperated tone.

Bottom line, 3-year-olds are awesome. They are awesomely good and awesomely rotten. Their capacity to manipulate is unmatched, but so is their capacity to love. Be warned, be ready—as with most parenting challenges, knowing is half the battle. And, when all else fails, take a deep breath and just repeat after me, “I am the grown-up.”

Related: Here are 7 things your kids should know how to do by the time they’re 13:

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