“Three” is the New “Two” – Guest Post by Dionna of Code Name: Mama

April 4, 2011 · 55 comments

I first came across Dionna’s Code Name: Mama blog after someone shared this post with a clip of breastfeeding on Sesame Street. I snooped around her site and was taken by her descriptions of gentle interactions with her son and smart commentary on social issues that affect natural parents. When she co-founded Natural Parents Network soon after, I jumped at the chance to volunteer as an editor. I’m thrilled to have her guest post here. You will know why she is one of my mothering mentors. Thank you so much, Dionna!

Growing up is optional

Growing up is optional

I have a confession to make to my fellow gentle parents. I find the “three-year-old” age much harder than the “two-year-old” age.

Holy. Night. Dear readers, I have been at my wit’s end this past week – what with the smoke damage to our house, the resulting stress from the clean-up, the hotel, the not having a kitchen (a.k.a. the crap food) for over a week now, the Carnival of Natural Parenting, other deadlines and activities that fell right in the middle of the mess, and the fact that our three-year-old son, Kieran, has been just as stressed about everything as I have been. Suffice to say that I have had several parenting moments that I would not want televised.

And it’s not just the stress and the lack of routine (although those two have played a large part in the past week’s frustrations), it’s the very three-ness of Kieran.

Do any of these sound familiar to other parents of three year olds?

  • The not listening.
  • The stubbornness and the agenda that just happens to be the exact opposite of whatever I wanted to do.
  • The nothing-pleases-me-ness. For example, if I change my mind to go along with Kieran’s plans? He suddenly changes his mind to want something else.
  • The constant whining and crying. Oh for the love of everything holy, the whining!!
  • The attempts to control everything in his environment. “Don’t look like that!” “Don’t hold my hand!” “Sit over there!” etc. etc. etc.

For a few days there, I thought that perhaps we had everything about this gentle parenting gig wrong. That there was something fundamentally wrong with my child. That maybe if I yelled at him or slapped him around a little, he’d get in line and the rest of this third year would be easy. (Ok, I didn’t think that – but doesn’t it sound silly when you say it out loud?!)

But here’s the thing – I had simply forgotten that three is a pretty . . . difficult . . . age.

And then today, my dear friend Acacia (of Fingerpaint & Superheroes) loaned me Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. I read the first chapter, and then I excitedly texted my mom, sister, and husband – all of whom have been on the receiving end of my Kieran rants this week – and I said, “I’m reading a book about three year olds, and it sounds like she wrote it while standing in a room with Kieran!

In other words, my child is not a brat. He’s not being ruined by gentle parenting.

He’s three.[1]

It feels so good to read that Kieran’s behavior, that my frustration – they are typical.

And it was a nice reminder that part of gentle parenting is being gentle with myself – to recognize when I need breaks (particularly amidst stress!), to not feel guilty when I need someone to take Kieran for a few hours so we can both decompress, to find new ways to connect to my three year old, ways that are sometimes vastly different from how I connected to my two year old. And most of all to remind myself that this too shall pass; this three-ness, this newness.

So . . . four year olds are easier . . . right?

Photo credit: author’s own


Dionna Ford writes at Code Name:Mama where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting, consensual living, eclectic learning, and compassionate advocacy.

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  1. [1] Well, according to Your Three-Year-Old, the really frustrating behaviors are those of a “three and a half year old,” who is in a state of “disequilibrium.” By the way, as with any parenting book, take what works for you and leave the rest. Bates includes some discipline techniques that will likely not resonate with every gentle parenting or consensual living family.
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{ 53 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Isil April 4, 2011

My daughter is 4 year old now and I can sympathise. Don’t worry though, it will get better. At 2 years old,you can still distract them but at 3 they are very opionated and willful. At least DD was like that. Add this mix a new sibling and moving between countries, it was not very difficult for us at times. But it did get better around 3.5 years. So just hang in there and try to remember the book Playful Parenting :)
As for the 4 year olds. At the moment my daughter thinks she knows everything and I mean everything and will be very stubborn at times. But generally she is fine and gentle towards baby brother. Oh and I should not forget, 4 year olds are very chatty :)


2 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

Oh wow – that is a lot of stress for any age to handle all at once! I bet you had your hands full with everything going on in your life. We love Playful Parenting at our house, turning something challenging into a playful moment almost always works!


3 Casey April 4, 2011

My first is not your typical child in mot ways, so I can’t say if four is easier or not. :-) Five has been though. Maybe five is the new four for us?

Also, I think it really depends on your child. My oldest son was very intense and difficult for me to parent when he was 2, 3, and 4. My middle son has been much easier to parent (and to parent gently). I guess that just like with everything else each kid is different and personality matters.


4 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

Oh I’m sure – and this post was slightly tongue in cheek b/c I just got out of the two year old year (which everyone refers to as the “terrible twos,” and that always rubbed me the wrong way). I know every child is different, but it was refreshing to read “Your 3 Year Old” and know that I was experiencing something in the range of normal!


5 Amanda April 4, 2011

Hahaha, All I can do is laugh because I thought I was losing my mind with my 3yr old son. I was starting to think what the heck happened 2 was a breeze, he had me thinking this was going to be a cake walk ;) And then 3 hit! He will be 4 in August so I am hoping that 4 will be a better year for us! I loved this it was like you had been living in my house. Thanks!


6 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

Thanks Amanda – it’s always nice to connect with people over the challenges of parenting. So often we read (and write) about the great things, or ways to handle the challenges – but we don’t talk much about the challenges themselves. It is funny to read back on that now, since we’ve been having a MUCH better week ;)


7 Bethany Ingraham April 4, 2011

Oh, great. My 20 month old son is already showing these signs.

(save me…)


8 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

lol If it makes you feel any better, I agree with the author of the book – the stages ebb and flow, so it gets better and worse.


9 radmama April 4, 2011

I made a huge mistake with my first 3-year-old- I didn’t read the book until almost 4. While the books are dated – especially on discipline and gender/family structure- they are bang on for development. It’s such a relief to know they aren’t “ruined”, they are “normal”.


10 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

That is *exactly* how I felt! I’m glad I found the book when I did!


11 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama April 4, 2011

I’m sorry things have been so stressful, Dionna! Very glad to hear you found that book. I also appreciate the reminder that we need to be gentle with ourselves as part of gentle parenting too!


12 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 4, 2011

It’s so easy to forget that, isn’t it?! Quick to anger should be one of my first signs that I need some downtime.


13 teresa April 4, 2011

We’re just a few months ahead of you so I can tell you that it gets better. We found that book just in time too. Just a bit too late, actually. Like you, we were at wits end trying to figure out what kind of therapy she needed and where we were going wrong.
I think it’s harder when our kids have been bright and happy, pretty content, etc.. I think Kieran and my daughter are similar. It was shocking and horrifying.
But now (just past 3 3/4) she’s so much better all around. These developmental leaps are just stressful for them and this was a big one. They have so much more ability to understand how big the world is but not enough control over it.
Deep breaths. He’ll come out on the other side soon.


14 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

Thank you so much for the words of reassurance, Teresa. It is such a personality change at times, isn’t it?!


15 Suchada @ Mama Eve April 4, 2011

Dionna, I’ve read so many sweet stories of you and Kieran that I have such a difficult time imagining you not handling tantrums well (even though I tell myself we all have our moments. Those stressful times just seem to pile everything on at once . . . I’m so glad you’re back to normalcy!


16 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

I really must put up some more stories of how often I “fail” as a gentle parent. I don’t want anyone to think I’m some model to look up to – I just write about my own goals ;)


17 Crystal April 4, 2011

My child was this bundle of cutey, sweet love at two and I thought “Terrible twos? Terrible schmerrible…this is great.” And then he turned three. Aghhh!!! I will say it’s getting better as he gets closer to four, but we still have many frustrating days. I do think learning to connect in new ways is very helpful!


18 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

I’m happy to report that this week has been much better (read: easier for everyone). It is so helpful to step back sometimes and consciously recognize the ebbs and flows.


19 Acacia @ Fingerpaint & Superheroes April 4, 2011

You are a riot! You definitely sound like me 6-8 months ago. I’m sooo glad the book has helped. Indeed, it’s not the most up-to date for discipline but I needed someone to tell me that I’m not going to be able to be his everything (anymore) and that it’s okay to pass him on to someone else for a while! That was some of the hardest for me emotionally- coming to grips with not being his *everything* anymore.
Can’t say 4 is easier all around, for us, but it’s a different challenge. In many ways, it is easier because of his independence. And in many ways it’s harder because of his independence!


20 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

Yeah I am still looking for a mother’s helper. Kieran isn’t at a place where he could do away-from-home preschool, but I am ALL OVER having someone come to is ;)


21 Patty April 4, 2011

Glad Im not the only one!!! HOLY COW!!! The whining alone could drive you insane. We are rounding to the 3.5yrs now…hasn’t gotten any easier yet, but I’ll let you know.


22 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

Patty I am hoping and praying that this IS the 3.5yr leap, and he’s just early (he will be 3.5 in June)!


23 sarah April 4, 2011

I must say that 3 was the worst age, I also doubted my AP-ness and wondered is I was ruining her. My sweet 2 year old turned into a THREE year old. She is now four and I can say that she has grown out of most of it. I can also say that a month or two ago I flashed back to a year ago and actually shivered, remembering what 3 was like. Why doesn’t anyone tell us about 3?!
You have my sympathies. This too shall pass. But let’s hope it passes quickly! :)
I’ve also got a 19 month old, I’m hoping he will skip 3 and go straight to four. Think it can happen? LOL


24 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

Three does seem like this big hush hush secret, doesn’t it?! ;)
This too shall pass is one of my favorite phrases – so helpful!


25 Hybrid Rasta Mama - Jennifer April 4, 2011

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the books in this series. I have read Your One Year Old and just finished Your Two Year Old. The author even mentions in Your Two Year Old that parents better savor this age because it gets rough as all get out at age three. Hang in there mama! I know you have tons going on but this too shall pass. You will be a better, more grounded mama for it!


26 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

I will definitely be buying Your 4 (and 5) Year Old after reading some of the responses to this post ;)


27 Terri April 4, 2011

Oh no! My 2 year old turns 3 in a few months and I was thinking we were going into a brand new stage of blissful development! :-) My illusions are shattered!! Ah well I’ll look for that book and keep doing my very best with gently raising her and myself. Thanks for the tip-off ;-)


28 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

If anyone can tell us an age of “blissful development,” it would give everyone something to look forward to ;)


29 Monica April 4, 2011

Oh man. 3. Sucks. I’d imagine it sucks for both kid and mom, but only remember it as mom. With DS1, we had normal 3 stuff plus speech delays plus his mom’s temper (minus the years of learning to reign it in). It was….. trying. The 3-ness passed, the speech improved, and we’re still working on the temper (hell, *I’m* still working on mine, he can hardly be expected to handle it at 7-post fodder for you, D?).

Hang in there, Dionna. It’ll get better. You’re welcome over here any time, no matter how 3 Kieran is being. :)


30 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

Thank you Monica – and how right you are about the temper thing. I am the same way, just learning how to control my own, why should I expect it of a child?! Sounds like YOU need to write a guest post for me ;)


31 Amy April 4, 2011

Dionna, I feel you. And Abbey is only 2 1/2. But reading your bullet points, I can totally sympathize.

Abbey just started the “Don’t HOLD my hand!” struggle, among other “attempts to control everything” as you put it :) and we have been allowing her to walk without holding hands, but once it turned into “ooh. now I can run, and do other things” we had to explain (simply) that walking un-aided was a privilege that she can only enjoy when she stays close and listens to our voices, and when she can’t we have to go back to holding hands.

All I can say is thank GOD I DO parent my child with compassion and respect – otherwise, that conversation about privilege would have not gone over well (or happened at all). Something I definitely have gained from our shared methods of parenting is that Abbey and I have really really great communication (as a generality).

I LOVE your comments on gentle discipline and the fact that our children, disciplined gently, like lambs in a fold, are NOT brats. They are perfectly normal and amazing :) But YES you DO have to remember to be gentle with yourself. You know that that is something I have been realizing lately, too. And I have to admit, it has been getting harder and harder and harder as I get closer and closer to my due date!


32 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

I bet mama! You know I’m sending you all kinds of peace and strength vibes as you get closer to birthing. I love your words to Abbey with the hand-holding – we’ve had that struggle, and I’ve never voiced it just like that. Thank you for giving me those gentle and logical words!


33 Theresa Sirois April 4, 2011

mine is 3 and 1/2, I’m counting down the days till 4- glad to hear Im not the only one! and that I havent raised a total brat :)


34 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

You know, *I* can be a brat sometimes, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too upset when my child exhibits the classic signs ;) Really though, the “this too shall pass” mantra has been a life saver.


35 WV Mama April 4, 2011

Dear Dionna,
A friend of mine once said ‘the problem with three is that they know exactly what they want but they can’t (always) have it’. When I thought about how ridiculously FRUStrating that state must be I was able to do three with slightly more Grace. Slightly. Mine are 9, 6, and 4 1/2 now and I must say the almost tween 9-year-old is the hardest for me now. Where did he learn to glare at me like that? Since when did ‘I’d prefer not to’ get to be the answer to a parental request. Seriously!?!?!?!

Which I guess is to say that each age has its challenges, yes?

love to you!


36 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

“I’d prefer not to” just gave me a serious fit of the giggles. I love it when kids pick up those adult phrases and throw them right back (yes, even when my own does it) ;)
And you’re right – it always helps to stop and look at it from their point of view. How frustrating it must be to be 3!!


37 Memama April 4, 2011

Great post! I’ve been struggling with many things lately in my personal life and emotional struggles. On one part I truly want to be a gentle parent and I have a long way to go to change my ways of doing/seeing things, as well as DH. But what’s worse is having deep ingrained emotional issues that come out and at the time I can’t really “control” them. I’ve realized now (with some great insight from some wonderful mamas! one who sent me here! And I usually follow your blog and NPN) that I have to work on this stuff all the time, and not wait until the heat of the moment to deal with my emotions because my cognitive brain apparently can’t reach out to the emotional side. And I realize this now because even though I tell DH the same things when he acts emotionally towards the kids, he tells me when i’m doing something and yet I don’t really “connect” Inside I’m thinking, but ugh this makes me SO ANGRY or whatever emotion. But deep down I KNOW I was wrong to act that way, but it is so deep ingrained in me from my own childhood.

anyway, I definitely feel better knowing there are so many others in my shoes who also struggle with their emotions…but importantly to see that my child is not “damaged” because of “me”. I truly was starting to believe it, that I had “ruined’ him. He’s 5 by the way and some days it’s the most awesome and fun age and then at the exact same moment it is THE.ABSOLUTE.WORSE. HA! I guess they are just so much older now and able to express themselves more and they truly know how to manipulate their environment and push your buttons etc…it’s not so easy to “redirect” them or distract them. They know what they want and they aren’t going to give in till they get it…hmm wait that sounds just like my 2o month old too. sigh…parenting is tough and I don’t know if it ever gets “easier” just “different”.


38 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 5, 2011

My thoughts are with you mama, if you’d like me to help you find some support, I’d be happy to post something on CNM or NPN for you!
As far as not “reacting” to our kids’ behavior – have you ever tried taking a time-out for yourself? Maybe giving yourself a minute and running through some of those old scripts silently – honor your own emotions, then shake off that anger reaction and focus on responding with love.
Good luck mama – it’s OUR learning journey too!


39 Memama April 5, 2011

Thanks Dionna! Sure if you want to post it, it’d be great to see what other mamas are going through and how they have coped with or healed their ingrained patterns/behaviors. I truly thought just “wanting” to do different with MY kids than the way I was raised would be “enough” boy was I EVER WRONG! I had NO IDEA how ingrained those emotions/behaviors are…when that was all your were modeled/taught as a child it’s hard to overcome that.


40 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 6, 2011

Posted on my Facebook page – I hope you get some great responses!


41 Mama Mo @ Attached at the Nip April 6, 2011

Memama, I hear you. It’s hard to evaluate in the heat of the moment. I’m sure there will be lots of great responses from gentle mamas for you, but I’d like to add my own suggestion.

One thing I found that helps me is I’ve been choosing different words for my thoughts. All the time. My 14 month old twins aren’t “manipulating”. They’re “orchestrating”. They’re trying to make things go the way they want. That’s what everyone does! It’s just harder for children who don’t have the power or life experience to make it happen smoothly. Crying is communicating. Whining is the best expression they can give to their emotions at the time. And it’s my job to give them better tools to deal with life.

I wish you the best of luck. Change begins within, and you’re on your way.


42 Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings April 5, 2011

AMEN! Three was killer for us, though at the time I was just thanking my lucky stars it hadn’t come a year earlier when my twins were born. I sort of wondered if she was just saving it all up since she knew there was no room in our house at the time for more challenges. In any case, it was bad for us for about 3 months before three until about 3.5, and much better by 3.75 and 4. 4 has been pretty great (I realize in retrospect, ha), though I was just posting on FB about how as she approaches 5 I am seeing more challenges again! Doh!

I am kind of dreading 3 x 2 with my little ones and am already seeing some of it (they’ll be 3 in May) but not as bad (yet) as their big sister. She is just more intense in general, so that figures!


43 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 6, 2011

Kristin, you amaze me with the gentle and logical ways you relate to your little ones. I know it will be tough with two, but I bet you will sail right through :)


44 Kristen April 5, 2011

Add my darling little Zoe to the 3 1/2 year old monster list.

Memama–I too struggle with my own emotional crap and have worried that Zoe’s “behavior problems” are because of me. It is always reassuring to hear that those behaviors are actually typical.


45 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 6, 2011

Amen! I think we each worry that we’ll pass on our own neuroses to our kids, it is so reassuring to know that they’re acting normally despite their parents ;)


46 Suchada @ Mama Eve April 6, 2011

Dionna, I’ve really enjoyed reading these comments and responses. My oldest son is only 2 1/2 (so maybe I just have no idea what I’m in for!), but we’ve (I’ve, actually — doesn’t require work on the little one’s parts) worked hard recently on being direct and honest about what’s ok behavior and what’s not.

It’s a major change from how I was raised, where if I was told no, I was “in trouble”. It’s taken me a lot of practice and deep breathing exercises — it’s very, very hard for me to stay calm and evenly but forcefully say, “No, I’m not going to let you do that, you need to find something else to do” — when my natural reaction is to yell and say, “Stop kicking your brother NOW!!”. It’s also taken me a lot more creativity to come up with consequences that aren’t punishments — like, “If you kick your brother again, I need to separate you so neither one of you gets hurt”.

I’m also working hard on allowing them to re-direct themselves into appropriate behaviors within guidelines (If you need to kick, here’s a ball — otherwise you need to play in a way that doesn’t hurt other people).

When I’m in the zone and give clear directions and boundaries, we’ve enjoyed really wonderful behavior. And when I’m not, it turns into a zoo . . . but at least I know what I need to work on. I’m keeping my fingers crossed this will continue as they get older (the zone, not the zoo!) :)


47 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 6, 2011

Such a good point Suchada – saying no is often enough, we don’t need to dole out a punishment (and our anger) along with it. The point is to set boundaries, not to heap on shame and fear.


48 Lauren @ Hobo Mama April 7, 2011

Ah, thank goodness! Someone else to admit it. We enjoyed 2 years old so much, and everyone with an older child was like, “Just you wait…” I didn’t want to believe it, but boy howdy, 3 can be a pain. But a normal, it’s-all-part-of-the-development pain, as you say.

I keep needing time-outs…for ME. I’ll let you know how 4 goes in a couple months.


49 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama April 8, 2011

Time-outs for me sound wonderful. Today I needed a time-out so bad I was almost willing to stick Kieran in a closet. (ahem) Problem was, he wouldn’t unstick himself from my body long enough to shut the closet door. (sigh)


50 Laura April 10, 2011

Three is two with PRACTICE. :)

I once said that the only reason preschool starts at three is so you don’t kill your child. I’m not sure I was kidding…

Another chanllenge is my non-verbal 2 yo who thinks he is seven. Hummm…


51 Rebecca June 9, 2011

Thank you, thank you, thank you just for posting this. I have been losing my mind and my sister sent me the link to this post. It is amazing how the collective knowledge of mama’s is so comforting and reassuring. Again thanks.


52 EmH June 11, 2011

SO glad I found this post today! My daughter will be 3 at the end of July, but she’s very smart & verbal for her age, so it makes sense she’d be hitting this stage earlier. I remember before I had kids, when I was babysitting for a family w/4 kids, and making the same observation as you: terrible twos? They’re NOTHING compared to the threes! Now I just need to remind myself how normal this is for my own child to be acting, well, like a three-year-old.

We’ve been having so much trouble with (lack of) listening, running away (even in parking lots), controlling (I don’t want you to sing! Only I can sing!), etc. Good to know we’re all in this boat together! SO good to have company…

I’m another momma who is doing her best to parent gently, despite the way I grew up. It is SO hard to control my own emotions in the heat of the moment, and not jump to raising my voice & correcting her behavior–especially when it involves my 3-yr-old and her younger sister. It’s that momma bear instinct that takes over, wanting to furiously protect your little ones from whatever is hurting them. But when the “whatever” is your other child, it takes a lot of restraint and practice and patience to remain calm and deal with the situation gently.

One thing I am now getting good at is apologizing and expressing my own emotions to my daughter. For example, if I lose my temper in the heat of the moment, I make sure to talk to my daughter about it after we’ve both calmed down. For example, “I’m sorry mommy yelled. I got very angry when I saw you grab that toy away from your sister again, and I was feeling frustrated.” At least, by explaining my behavior afterwards, my daughter can see that parents screw up sometimes too, and it’s good to own up to your behavior. She can also hear me vocalizing my feelings, which is good modeling for her to then use.


53 Cardenie September 29, 2011

I soooo needed to read this today. #1 is 3 and #2 is 5 months and WOW…I was really beginning to think that something was seriously wrong with either him or his dad and I. I’m sure little bro’s arrival has an impact, but some of his behavior has been out of pocket. Glad to get confirmation that it’s developmental and we will get past this.


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