Twos? Psssh. The Threes Are Way More Terrible

I adore my son. But hanging out with a 3-year-old feels like being a designated driver of a bus filled with hot-headed drunks.

by Jeff Koyen
toddler eating pasta with hands

“I think I made the transition from being a pushover to being more of a disciplinarian,” the WhatsApp message read.

“Good for her,” my wife said before tossing her phone onto the nightstand and sinking back into the white sheets in our ocean-view room in Bermuda.

The text came from my sister-in-law, who kindly agreed to babysit our 3-year-old son while we spent three days alone at the beach. In a previous life, jetting to an island for no good reason wasn’t an uncommon way to spend a carefree weekend. Now, with my wife five months pregnant, it bears the ridiculous nickname of “babymoon.”

Because we already have one kid, spending a few days together requires an awful lot of planning and assistance. This isn’t my sister-in-law’s first weekend alone with her nephew. The last time, he was nearly one year younger, and the difference between a 2- and a 3-year-old is markedly different, to say the least.

The “Terrible Two’s” are widely considered the most challenging period of raising a child. According to Parenting magazine, the term was coined in the 1950s, when Mad Men-era marketers were discovering the power of branding.

“Perhaps because so much pressure was put on families to be detergent-commercial perfect,” writes Patty Onderko, “that the moment a child grew out of compliant infancy, moms were freaked out.” To assuage their fears and soothe insecurities — and compel them to buy more shit — the Terrible Twos became a thing.

Decades later, we can safely call bullshit. “It’s an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Dr. Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University.

In our house, two was a breeze. We had our fair share of meltdowns and crying jags, of course, but I rarely loathed my son. I’m not alone. In an informal poll, my fellow parents agree: Compared to what’s coming next, the Terrible Twos are a cakewalk.

My son will turn four in a few months. It’s fascinating (and rewarding) to see your own human creation come fully online. His brain is almost firing on all cylinders; he has opinions; he has reasoning skills. On most days, there are great joys. You can finally have a conversation with your child. They’re always watching, and they never forget.

But my kid still doesn’t know anything about the world. He’s not smart enough to (for example) avoid oncoming cars. It’s a miraculous time filled with joy and wonder; it’s also an infuriating period of irrationality. He wakes up to use the bathroom at night, but he also can’t accept that noise from the neighbors isn’t a ghost.

Hanging out with a 3-year-old feels like being a designated driver of a bus filled with hot-headed drunks. Make one wrong move, and the entire enterprise falls to shit. That’s why I’ve named this period the Screw-You Years. As in, “Hey, kid, screw you.”

Fundamentally, I don’t think my son is an asshole. But, as my sister-in-law is learning the hard way, he can be a real prick. Given the leeway, he stalls going to school indefinitely; though he’s clearly hungry and cranky, he refuses to eat a snack. I’ve yet to tell him to go fuck himself, but I’ve been so very very close.

I met a 3-week-old baby girl last weekend. The newborn daughter of my friends Michael and Ariana was delivered at 6 lbs., 13 oz. My own kid was 6 lbs.,12 oz. It’s easy to forget how tiny they were.

It’s also easy to forget how awful they were — at every age. Scientists now believe we’re hardwired to care for our children. I believe it. If we weren’t programmed to propagate the species, right-minded humans would leave their newborns alone in the wilderness, forced to fend for themselves like newly hatched turtles flopping toward the ocean.

Instead, we nurture them while suffering countless indignities. We sacrifice our sleep and well-being to keep them happy. As modern fathers, we’re not part-time parents; we don’t retreat into our garages and yards after dinner, leaving the lion share of parenting to our wives. We choke up when they say “I miss you” over Facetime when on a babymoon with their mom who’s five-months-pregnant.

No doubt, I’ll look back at my son’s Go Fuck Yourself Three’s and smile, much as memories of his first months are now bathed in a warm glow of innocence and joy. Just wait until he’s a teenager, I tell myself. In ten years, we’ll look back on this time as our salad days.