Forget ‘Terrible Twos’ — Three Is When The Real Horror Begins

They defy us and fight us and know that we hate almost everything about what they’re doing — and are totally fine with it.

by Garth Johnson
Originally Published: 
A child in a princess dress cries and throws a tantrum.
Robyn Breen Shinn/Getty

I’m not really sure who came up with the term “terrible twos,” but they were wrong: Three is a much worse age and definitely worthy of its own horror-inducing catchphrase. Don’t get me wrong; 2-year-olds, especially at the later stages when they’re approaching 3, are a handful. But something dark and ugly kicks in deep within their little brains after that 3rd birthday.

You can’t call it a knowingness, because for some reason they still can’t grasp that the discipline we dole out is a bad thing they don’t want to see again. It’s more like a vague understanding and perverse enjoyment they take in trying to break us down in almost every mental and physical way. They don’t really know that this is what happens, but they do have some inkling that we hate almost everything about what they’re doing — and they’re fine with it.

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More than fine, they seem compelled to repeat the same mistake. Impelled to take the same insolent joy in disobedience and rail against what they know they have to do anyway (because they know the basic routine by now). Impelled to ignore the gentle ask, the gentle repeat, the third ask, the firm ask, the fifth loud ask, the tell, the hard tell, the implore, the impassioned implore, the threat, the demand, the yelled demand — while you can’t understand why it has to be so hard and repetitive.

Does the crying 3-year-old want to be yelled at? They remember so much, but they can’t remember they have to wear underwear to daycare? Or socks to daycare? Or clothes to daycare? Or have to go to daycare?

Daycare is only one example. There is a rotating series of asks — brushing teeth, getting clothes, getting dressed, going to the bathroom. And there are the child’s questions — about breakfast, their destination, their siblings’ destinations, their hair and shoes. Each and any of those, and oftentimes combinations, can fuel that day’s pitfall. The 3-year-old also likes to order off-menu a lot, so we get hand-crafted tantrums that at least bring some unwanted spontaneity to the unwanted routine.

The 3-year-old revels in saying ‘never’ and ‘no,’ and you can see it. You can see it in the twinkle, or spark of hell, in those devilish eyes and dirty, round dimples. You can see it in those shrugs when you ask them how and why they could do such a thing when they know it’s wrong. When they clasp their hands together in their little laps, and writhe their bodies slightly while smiling to no one and look up at the ceiling saying, “I don’t know…” with that little-kid drawl high-pitching out of their wickedly upturned lips, curling into an impish smirk.

Even the thought of the upcoming battle for this morning’s bout of inanity and stubbornness has got me worked up and breaking into cold sweats. It’s as inevitable as the sun rising, although without the warmth and promise that a new day can still bring to the uninitiated.

I’m sure specific examples are not necessary since anyone with children has gone through this terrible and evil phase. Everyone knows, to varying extents, the frustrations I’ve described. My only hope for you is that those days are over, revisited in old photos and distant memories, and that the head-shaking you do is brought about by reminiscing and not your everyday reality.

So, let’s shed light on this hidden truth for future parents. Let us not let them look forward to a nonexistent future of hope and brighter tomorrows. Let’s prepare them for what will come as naturally as the tears and yells that form this awful phase. Because I am mindful of precedent and respect those whose struggle has paved the way for my own, I am willing to accept the notion of the “terrible twos.” But I must insist that we add three into the mix. The “terrible tees,” perhaps, to encompass both two and three?

I will work on this new catchphrase, which must be recognized to validate our plight. Then everyone will understand our scowls, our dishevelment, our frazzled looks and demeanors. We must tell the world that awful behavior is not just limited to that one age. Right now I’m leaning toward being “in Living Threll,” a nice mash-up of three and hell (just in case that was too arcane for anyone, probably someone who doesn’t have a 3-year-old). I like it, but catchphrases can take a while to become part of our vocabulary. Since I have an 18-month-old rapidly approaching the danger zone, I will have ample time to work on it.

Garth Johnson is a dad and a carpenter in Fairbanks, Alaska. When not bribing his four kids, all under 9 years old, he loves to tickle, play, and wrestle with them.

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