How to help a child in the terrible threes.

January 29
Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post
Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post

Q.  Our 3½-year-old son is full of energy and a real sweet kid, so I thought that we had missed the terrible twos. Apparently I should have been worried about the terrible threes. My son now screams or growls or walks out of the room and pouts when we correct him, tell him that he can’t do something, or chastise him if he accidentally hurts someone. But I don’t yell at him, so why should he yell at me? How do I get my son to react to my corrections calmly and to understand that we don’t correct him because he’s bad but because he can’t always do what he wants to do? In short, how do I teach him to accept constructive criticism? Or is he just too young for that?

 

A.  Your little boy is probably quite self-centered — children usually are at his age — which means that he is acting a lot like a young teenager. The more you tell him what to do and the more you second-guess his choices, the more he screams and growls and pouts. That’s why you need to follow the same rules with him as you’ll have to follow when he’s 13, 14 and 15: Prevent as much as you can. Ignore as much as you can.

This doesn’t mean that you should be permissive or indulgent or run a child-centered household, of course, but you do have to let your child be a bit independent, test himself and set his own limits as much as you can, for he is his own best teacher. Moreover, he knows himself better than you do, even if he can’t tell you why he does the things he does and why some of them turn out so badly. If you can consider the situation objectively, the results may improve quite a bit.

If your son gets into many squabbles, introduce a new activity before things get wild, not afterward. If he causes too many accidents, have him play with children who are about his weight and height. Although he’s too young to know it, a big, strong child can make a smaller one fall over just by leaning in her direction.

And if he and his friends often break things or write on the walls, put your valuables away and swap his markers for a box of colored chalk. It’s easier to wipe chalk marks off the wall than to wipe marker stains off the upholstery.

There are bound to be some calamities anyway, but when they occur, you should ask yourself, “What will it matter in 100 years?” And that is the crux of it: Most things don’t matter in a hundred years. The way you treat your child does matter, however, so tuck an index card and a pencil in your pocket when you get up in the morning and draw a little line on it every time you say no to your child. You’ll be amazed to see how many “no’s” you’ve given by the end of the day — and to realize how many of them didn’t pass the 100-year test. This should make you correct your son much less.

You also should try to be as lighthearted as possible when you have to correct him, because laughter and goofiness discipline children better than anything else.

If your boy won’t share a toy, then follow the advice of one wise Almanac reader who gives a timeout to the toy, rather than the child. Or lift the sofa cushion and look under the rug when he misbehaves and then ask your son whether he knows where your good little boy has gone. Or ask him to go to the next room, shut his eyes, turn around three times and bring him back to you.

These kind of tricks will let your son save face, which is so important to young children. He doesn’t know many grown-ups and or have many friends at this age, so your opinion of him is extremely important. Every look you give him and everything you do or say to him matters more than you will ever know, and this gives you great power. But power is easy to abuse. When you do abuse it (and we all do), you should apologize to your son, and if you still feel bad about it, you should apologize all over again. You’ll sleep better and so will he.

Questions about parenting? Send E-mail to advice@margueritekelly.com. Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at http://www.washingtonpost.com/advice where you can also find past Family Almanac columns. Her next Q&A will be Feb. 20.

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