13 Ways to Know You’re Raising a 3-Year-Old

When it comes to kids, every age has its challenges. But they don't call them 'threenagers' for nothing.

by Brett Ortler
3-year-old boy drawing with color pencils on a white wall

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Maybe it was all the parenting guides I devoured before my kids were born. Maybe it’s just what I heard growing up. But I’d always been taught to fear the ‘Terrible Twos.’ Two was supposedly the year when your beautiful, obedient baby transitioned into a rebellious, snarling barbarian. When it came to my kids, though, 2-years-old was surprisingly pleasant. Their newfound mobility and ability to communicate far outweighed the few behavioral snags we encountered.

Then they turned three, and good Lord. When it comes to raising kids, every age has its challenges. But in my experience, man, three is something else. Here are 13 ways to know your toddler has passed the 36-month mark.

Non-Stop Talking

I should have expected this. Both of our kids have always been vocal, but from about three on, the talking accelerated and never stopped. Remember that fast-talking Micro Machines narrator, the one who could fit approximately 4,500 words into a 30-minute cartoon on Nickelodeon? Having a 3-year-old is like having that guy around, albeit with a slower delivery and a far more tenuous grasp on vocabulary. Most days of the week, I drive my daughter to daycare, and from the moment she gets up to the moment I head on my way to work, it’s an ongoing conversation.

You Never Know Where the Conversation Will Go

When you talk to an infant or a toddler, the conversations are understandably one-sided. But by the time three rolls around, the conversations can start to have some substance. You just never know in what direction they’re going to veer. Both of my children are fond of reciting what they did that day, but the thread of any given conversation usually only lasts for a few sentences before an entirely different thought intervenes: Daddy, at daycare I had tomato soup, I went outside and saw the leaves … we had a dog named Truffles and SHE DIED.

Things Get Volatile … Fast

When read carefully, the CDC’s milestones for three years of age acknowledge that things might get bumpy. The site notes that a child “understands the idea of mine,” “shows a range of emotions,” and “dresses and undresses self” among other milestones. What the CDC neglects to mention, however, is that sometimes these milestones all overlap, and you’ll be witness to your kid rage-shrieking, without pants, about a tiny scrap of construction paper that her brother is now scribbling on.

They Obsess Over Certain Toys

Obsession with certain toys, blankets, or stuffed animals happens at many ages. But three is ground zero for obsession. My son was obsessed with exactly one Duplo Lego brick ⏤ the only black brick that we had. Quickly dubbed ‘The Black Brick of Power’ by grandpa, that brick became the subject of a number of furious search-and-rescue operations when it went missing … at bedtime … at the Lego table … in public. In fact, we had so many near-misses that we actually snuck into the Mall of America’s Legoland and swapped out one of our blue Duplo bricks for a backup black brick. Every time I pass the store, I still feel vaguely guilty.

You’ll Be Watching the Same Show On Repeat

In addition to fixating on specific toys, kids obsessively watch the same shows again and again. At three, our oldest watched two things on repeat at bedtime each night ⏤ Dinosaur Train and Frozen. In fact, we watched Frozen so much we actually broke the DVD. And to this day, I can still sing the “Dinosaur A-Z song.” We recently took a long car ride and listened to “You’ll Be Back,” the silly King George song from Hamilton, fifteen times in a row. Every time it ended, our 3-year-old shouted, “Again!”

Bedtime Becomes Groundhog Day

Both of our kids transitioned from a crib to a toddler bed around their third birthday, and thus began the great bedtime rebellion. When they were in a crib, our kids never tried any great escapes, but once in a bed, both soon realized they could climb out of bed, turn on their light, and more often than not, casually stroll on out to the living room to see Mom and Dad. After realizing that we would immediately tuck them back into bed, our kids soon started acting like spies. They would slowly turn the doorknob, open the door, and sneak down the hallway, only to sit there staring at us until we noticed them.


A 1-year-old can be stubborn. A 2-year-old may occasionally give you guff. But they don’t call them “three-nagers” for nothing. And that’s no joke. When I mention in passing just how sassy my youngest is, the parents of older kids nod their heads, shrug, and invariably say, “Yeah, that won’t ever change.” What makes it even weirder though is that a 3-year-old is adorable like a toddler and has that innocent lilt to their voice. But then she narrows eyebrows, launches an elbow onto her hips, looks you directly in the eye, and says “I KNOWED that already, DADDY.”

Maybe the Worst Part: The Whining

Imagine you’re a mad scientist. Your experiments so far have been a wild success: You’ve brought your creation to life, taught it to cry for food, to smile, to giggle, and even belly laugh so hard that its adorable little neck bolts jostle. But for all of your success, your creation still is incomplete. Its communication is halting, often gibberish. Its attention span, non-existent. Then, thanks to a secret formula, some luck, and a well-placed bolt of lightning, you hear a long, repeated wail, one that soon you’ll hear, even in your dreams: I’m hungry, I want a snack! This is called whining. Congratulations, you’ve created a 3-year-old! And no matter how much you anticipate their needs, give them snacks before they implode, keep track of the toy-that-cannot-be-lost, and stick to a regular schedule, you’re still in for some epic whining. Buckle up.

Pickier Eaters

When our kids began eating solid food, they were eating machines. They tried anything. By three, however, their taste buds went on strike. Their favorite meals got locked in ⏤ as if the only foods in the world were peanut butter and jelly, cereal, etc. ⏤ and, needless to say, it’s infuriating. You effectively become a sous chef at the world’s most repetitive restaurant. It’s also not great for them ⏤ there’s only so much mac and cheese a kid can eat.

They Run Everywhere

No, seriously. My youngest doesn’t walk. She sprints. Except she’s still not great at navigating corners, or pets, or siblings. Thankfully, a child’s body is two parts bouncy ball and one-part Slinky. When you’re adult, gravity counts; when you’re a kid, that’s not always the case.

Potty Training Commences

Potty training is one of those things that you look forward to, and fear, at the same time. Like retirement. Or having kids. You know it’s going to change your life, but you’re not exactly sure how until you get there. With one of our kids, potty training took almost no effort; they were out of diapers and that was it ⏤ almost no accidents. With the other, it’s been nothing but work. Fortunately, potty training accidents aren’t nearly as bad as I had envisioned before kids, when I pictured them as a collision between two fully loaded septic trucks. But it’s really not that big of deal. There are days with underwear, there are nights with diapers. So far, the diapers are winning.

They Become Tiny People

One of the weirdest things about being a parent is seeing a toddler turn into a kid. There’s a world of difference between the two. A toddler ambles, but a kid walks (or springs), a 2-year-old complains, but a 3-year-old will debate you. Once a kid is three, you really start to get a decent handle on their burgeoning personality, including their social skills, language abilities, even personal preferences. There is a reason that doctors and child developmental specialists emphasize reading to and communicating with kids nonstop in the first 36 months; it’s when all that internal wiring is finalized.

They Will Melt Your Heart

Seriously, not to end on a sappy note but one of my favorite things about my 3-year-old is that her flashes anger or whining often end unexpectedly with an “I love you.” For all of its troubles, three is the perfect age in that respect. You get the unalloyed love of an infant or a toddler, smattered with the smarm and the sass of a little person going on 23-years-old. There’s still something to that instant transition where a kid looks at you, smiles ⏤ despite what they’ve just done wrong ⏤ and says, “I love you, Daddy.”

Brett Ortler is the author of a number of non-fiction books, including Dinosaur Discovery Activity Book and The Beginner’s Guide to Ship Watching on the Great Lakes, Minnesota Trivia Don’tcha Know! His writing has appeared in Salon, on Yahoo!, at The Good Men Project, and on The Nervous Breakdown, among others. A husband and father, his house is full of children, pets, and noise.