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Family Almanac

Navigating Some Very Terrible Threes

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page C08

Q. We wanted to have three or four children before my daughter arrived, but now I think we may be done. My son, almost 5, is an angel, but I'm ready to trade in our 3-year-old.

As a pediatrician, I frequently tell frustrated parents how to raise their children. But I want to run and hide when I am with my daughter in public.

I'm afraid they will see what a terrible job I do.

I don't know if my daughter has a genetic problem, ADHD or just some mother-daughter issues, but this is how she's acted lately:

• She threw a fit when I wouldn't buy her something at the grocery store, so I gave her a timeout. She immediately took off her pants and underwear.

• She had another fit when her preschool teacher asked her to sit down. First she threw a pillow at her, then hit her and kicked her stomach -- and the teacher is seven months pregnant.

• She couldn't reach the crayons at a Sunday brunch, so she ran through the restaurant until I caught her and put her in timeout.

• She uses half a bottle of soap to wash her hands and then smears soap all over the bathroom counter.

• She hides from me in department stores because she thinks it is a game, and she runs away when I pick her up from preschool, even though I call, yell, scold, use timeout or even spank her.

• She says "No!" and "Stop it!" to me all the time, instead of "Yes, ma'am."

I know these behaviors are typical for a 3-year-old and are often due to inconsistent caregivers or to a lack of discipline at home, but my husband and I are her only caregivers unless she's at preschool. Also we use three-minute timeouts to discipline her and we reward good behavior, too.

Even the advice of my fellow pediatricians has failed me.

A.If a certain antibiotic isn't working for a patient, you prescribe a new one.

And if your discipline isn't working, you need to try some new discipline. The wrong kind can make any child act up, especially a feisty one.

Your son has an easygoing temperament, so he responded well to your rules and your timeouts, but each child is different. If you want your little girl to obey, you have to accept this difference and change your techniques.

A timeout has its uses, but you shouldn't order it more than four or five times a week. If you give too many, your daughter won't even notice them.

You should also give timeouts for the right reason. Whether a child spends them standing in the corner or sitting in a certain chair, they're meant to calm her down, not punish her. And when it's over, give your daughter a hug and ask her why she acted that way and how she will handle that problem the next time. This will help her learn to think before she acts.

Your discipline will also improve if you invent preventive ways to block trouble before it starts.

Any child obeys better if you whisper your requests sometimes and if you weave humor into your directions.

Ask the preschool teacher to place your daughter's hand into yours when you arrive to pick her up -- so she won't run away -- then ask your daughter to hop, walk backward, skip and jump with you to reach the parking lot. Silly games often make a child behave better than anything else.

Body language can also be effective. A raised eyebrow or a stern or disappointed look can discourage poor behavior just as a wink, a big smile or an overheard compliment can encourage good behavior. Just don't humiliate your child, shame her, use sarcasm or demean her in any way, because you might abuse your power as a parent. And please, don't expect more of your little girl than she can deliver.

Most young children behave fairly well around their second and third birthdays but fall apart at 2½ or 3½, but some are wretched at 2 and 3 and just fine at the half-year mark. In either case, very few 2- and 3-year-olds can wash their hands alone without smearing soap everywhere. Some temptations are too hard to resist.

Several books describe disciplinary techniques very well, including "Discipline the Brazelton Way" by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua D. Sparrow (Perseus, $9.95); "Getting Your Child From No to Yes" by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara C. Unell (Meadowbrook, $10); "How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!" by Sal Severe (Penguin, $14); and that great classic, "Without Spanking or Spoiling" by Elizabeth Crary (Parenting Press, $14.95).

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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