Three is such an interesting age.
The three-year-old is developing his sense of self, expressing his own opinions, exercising his will, and pushing for the things he wants. The easy compliance of the 1.5-2.5 year-old child, who occasionally tests boundaries but in general finds happiness in doing the will of the parents with whom he’s deeply attached, fades away. And the (sometimes difficult) thing to remember is that this separation of the child’s self from the parent’s self, as expressed by defiance, disobedience, or a different of opinion, is a good and healthy thing: a necessary part of growing up and becoming an individual. It is good for a child to begin to ask why a certain behavior is prohibited while another is encouraged, so they can develop a conceptual of morality and ethics instead of thinking of right and wrong as no more than a list of arbitrary rules. It is good for a preschooler to begin to process and understand his own emotions and desires, as distinct from his parents’ emotions and desires, as a first step for perceiving and responding to the emotions and desires of other people.
(As a note on that last point, the 3-4 year old child does not yet have a true sense of empathy; they just haven’t learned to observe other people’s feelings and mirror those feelings back in a compassionate way. Neither the brain development nor the social maturity is there yet! This is the time to begin overtly teaching the principles of empathy, however, building on the foundation of emotional connection and unconditional love that we have hopefully laid during the first few years of life. Learning this information consoled me greatly after I observed Rondel and another little boy at church engaged in an angry shoving and spitting match…)
But while all this development is going on under the surface, it tends to manifest itself in a huge variety of behaviors. Pretend/imaginative play soars to a new dimension: Rondel, always a storyteller, has now taken to creating whole worlds in his play, with characters who persist from day to day and whose relationships and interactions mirror what he himself is learning about friendship and kindness (as well as whatever frustrations he may be feeling…). On the flip side, controlling behaviors can also escalate, as the child finally has definite opinions of his own about what is the correct way to play with a certain toy, for example, and lacks the empathy to understand that different people may enjoy different ways of playing with the toy in question. As their emotional perception grows, they see and understand when others are upset but usually can’t guess why, and aren’t sure how to respond to the emotions that may scare or confuse them. Rondel tends to lose his cool completely when Limerick starts crying about something, screaming at his brother to stop crying and please be happy again! The intensity of the emotion, coupled with his own inability to understand it or do anything about it, overwhelms him. But when he’s simply presented with sadness, minus the raw intensity, he genuinely wants to help and will come over to give hugs and kisses to the person identified as sad.
It’s difficult to deal with at times, because the three-year-old is changing so fast in so many ways, and acting out in response to those changes, but at the same time fascinating and exciting to watch that development take place! I also like to think it is giving me some practice for adolescence 😉