If you are not a parent, you have almost certainly heard of the “Terrible Twos” and reacted with equal parts dread and sympathy for what parents must go through. You’ve seen bratty, loud, argumentative, contrary children at restaurants, malls, and the like. This must be what it is. But, as parents will tell you, Two is nothing. Two is fine. Three… Three will make you miss Two.
Joshua’s Therrible Threes have been in full swing since, appropriately enough, his third birthday. From my admittedly few ancillary readings in child and developmental psychology from getting my master’s degree, I get that much of this owes to growth in cognitive function and capacity which typically outpaces emotional maturity. That doesn’t make it any more fun when he gets four time-outs in a two-minute time span for various combinations of yelling, not listening, and hitting. Fortunately, the hitting has pretty much abated in the last month or two, but his selective listening and boundary-testing remain a bulwark of pre-school immaturity.
There are, generally speaking, three approaches to dealing with this behavior. There’s positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and hoping it goes away on its own, like a rattling cough.* We offer praise and sporadic (definitely not consistent enough) positive reinforcement for the good things he does and good choices he makes. Our most recent success-in-progress has been the turn from demands (“Mom, get that block!”) to requests (“Mom, would you get that block for me, please?”). That’s not to say he didn’t get his share of time-outs for the former, but he got ample praise for the latter, too. Negative reinforcement has been exclusively in the form of time-outs and lost privileges. Twice we’ve had to deploy what we call the “Nuclear Option.” His dearest friend and most prized possession, Clifford (a stuffed version of the dog from the books), has been taken away. There were tears, both his and his mom’s, but like the Japanese must have felt after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he decided that saying, “I’m sorry” like a Big Boy was better than suffering that unimaginable torture a third time.
We’re committed to avoiding physical punishments. Having seen first-hand the way that physical punishment can quickly escalate to abuse, we decided to avoid it altogether. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about putting my sweet boy’s head through a window a time or two, but no hair on his head shall e’er by these hands be harmed.
The result of all of this is slower than I’d like. Time-outs are like a river. They slowly erode resistance and bad behavior, but rarely do they immediately end it. And so, when I observe where he is today from where he was nearly ten months ago, I see the canyon being formed. But a day’s work is a frustrating slog with very little observable change. Forest, trees, something something perspective.
At one time, about six months ago, I had hoped that his fourth birthday would simply unflip the switch that got flipped at his third birthday. I know it’s more of a dimmer than a switch. And a river. And a forest? Stupid metaphors.
*I’m reminded of a tombstone epitaph that read, “Never sick a day in his life, and now this!” Probably not real, but it always makes me chuckle.