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From the terrible 2s to the traumatic 3s, generations of parents have something in common
This 3-year-old was proud that he found a new place to play, instead of nap, all by himself. - photo by Amy Choate-Nielsen
It has been my experience that the toddler 2s arent really so terrible.

Theyre a little troublesome, a little taxing and a little tiring, but terrible? With those chubby cheeks and dimpled hands and skin that is still so soft, its not that bad. Whatever mischief 2-year-olds create is offset by their ready smiles, their belly laughs and their wet kisses all over my face.

Its the 3s that are really traumatic.

And, in my family, the 3s start about four months before theyre actually 3, and they continue until a couple of months before their fifth birthday. Its a long, hard, stubborn, terrible haul, that stage of 3s. There are fewer kisses and cuddles, and many more tantrums and tiffs. Washing hands and brushing teeth become monumental efforts. They start to lose their hearing or their desire to make Mommy happy and they are reluctant I mean reticent to mind.

My son, who turns 3 in May, likes to take the opportunity to flail and kick me in the shins when I am trying to change his poopy diapers. Its not like I love changing poopy diapers anyway, but the fact that he punishes me for doing this basic thing for him is a bitter irony I dont enjoy. Hes ready for battle at any given moment. Im flying the white flag.

Thats age-old information, I know. But theres a reason Im writing this. Two reasons, actually.

First, I know Im not the first person to ever struggle with a toddler, but somehow, there are still moments when I feel like Im doing it all wrong. Saturday, my three kids were all screaming about something, the boys were wrestling and making each other cry, the girl was screaming about the boys touching her things, and they wouldnt stop screaming, wouldnt listen, until somebody else screamed louder than them and told them to knock it off.

What are we doing wrong? my husband said to me with exasperation.

Lots of things, probably. I read parenting books, I read parenting articles, I try different things, I follow through, I take away, I put kids in timeout, I sometimes yell, I take kids out of timeout, I hug, I kiss, I try to talk quietly, I let them watch TV, I sometimes dont, I have a sticker chart, I sometimes forget about it. There are ups and downs. I usually focus on the downs.

Last week, my almost 3-year-old learned how to escape from his crib and scale his closet. When he doesnt nap, he gets very grumpy and his diaper-changing kicks get even harder and more precise, so I am highly motivated to have him take a nap. Of course, he is highly motivated not to take a nap. And when I went to check on my sleeping cherub, I found him sitting on the shelf next to a box of toys that he was systematically pitching one at a time to the far corners of his room.

I didnt know how to respond. So I left him there, shut the door, went into my own room and hid.

Thats not the kind of stuff that usually gets passed down in family history stories. Somehow, I think back on my grandmothers efforts and I see that their children grew up to be smart, respectful, loving and productive people. Surely my parents, aunts and uncles never kicked their mother while she tried to wipe their bottoms. Surely they never defied anyone as hard as my toddler defies me. Surely my grandmothers knew how to handle their kids in such a way as to circumvent these behaviors. Because they knew what they were doing.

And I dont.

Or at least thats the picture I have in my head. Thats the picture you get when you only hear good things about your ancestors. They were perfect, you are not.

Except they werent perfect.

So thats the No. 1 reason Im writing this down. For my posterity in many years to come and for my children in fewer years to come, I make no efforts to hide my ineptitude. I love them wholeheartedly, and I hope they love me too, but I make no claims to perfection. Im setting the bar low so they can aim higher.

Which brings me to reason No. 2.

My uncle Bill, son of my grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, was a rambunctious little tyke. He tried to shave his face with my grandfathers straight-edged razor, he was known to speak his mind, and he couldnt stand still. My grandmothers response was to put a harness on him when they went out in public so he wouldnt run away. To this day, he tells that story with a laugh.

Thats the kind of thing I would do, and second-guess, and feel guilty about, thinking I was doing something my grandmothers never would have done.

So this is a universal thing. Good stories or not, our experiences undoubtedly share a quadrant or two in the Venn diagram of parenthood. Maybe Fleeta was exasperated, maybe she did a thing or two she wished she hadnt, but still, she was loved.

And, looking back, those moments of kicking and skipping naps arent actually that terrible. Theyre a reason to laugh.
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