John Craigie sings a song, What Phase is This? and that is the refrain playing in my head when I think about life with a three-year-old. What phase is this?
I wrote this post mostly for Elie and me, so we can remember THREE, the mundane, the difficult, and the overwhelming joy and awe of it all. But, it’s also for you, if you are someone else in Theo’s life. Or if you have a three-year-old of your own and wonder what other three-year-olds are like (I know I do). Or, if you’re just in the beginnings of parenthood and you want to see what might lie ahead. So, this post is for anyone curious about Theo or what it’s like to be three.
Three brings big changes, or it did for Theo. Starting school, giving up the crib for a big boy bed, transitioning to no nap, moving from diapers to underwear. It’s a shake-up year, and it shows.
Three started with a bang. Two days before his third birthday, it felt like a switch flipped in our sweet son. Suddenly, daily tantrums and difficult transition times added to our usual snuggles and his eternal curiosity and imagination. Elie and I became wide-eyed and wary.
Right after Theo turned three, Elie and I attended a ‘creative discipline’ talk at his school, Whatcom Hills Waldorf. Much of the information we had already read or heard before, but hearing again in that context made it stick for us. We found two concepts, in particular, to be helpful.
First, a child’s day is an ebb and flow of activities akin to breathing in and breathing out. ‘Breathing in’ embodies structured activities, like listening to a story, doing a craft, or guided play. ‘Breathing out’ embodies unstructured activities like being outside in nature, playing in the park or independent play time. Especially at a young age, children need more breathing out than breathing in, or they explode.
We found the breathing in-breathing out metaphor helpful. If we’re ever having a difficult morning inside, the moment we step out for a nature walk or head to the beach, Theo visibly relaxes. It’s magic.
Second: neutral tone of voice and calm demeanor. When Theo first turned three, he struggled during transition times: brushing teeth, putting on clothes, getting in the car seat. When he would stall to the frustration of all of us, instead of getting stern we would use a neutral (or even positive, sing-song) tone of voice. “It’s time to get in the car seat now. I’m putting you in the car seat now.” And then gently but firmly following through. Not getting mad. Not getting frustrated. Breathing through. Calm.
Miraculously, it worked. And I don’t know if it was the consistency in implementing that change or just Theo’s own developmental growth, but six months later, we rarely struggle through transition times. He climbs into his car seat himself. He brushes his own teeth. He still likes for us to dress him, but it’s no longer a struggle. All the praise hands over here.
Three has also been the year of tantrums, although they have become much less frequent in this second half of the year. Now, they generally only show up during times of stress, like when we’re traveling or we’ve kept him up late for summer fun too many nights in a row. He’s much better equipped to manage his emotions and ask for the help he needs. If he’s upset, he’ll sometimes say, “I need to be by myself right now.” Or he’ll ask for a snuggle. Or he’ll ask for help in calming down, which means a snuggle and a deep breath. For all of those, we secretly applaud. Hallelujah.
Other times, he melts down. Usually this is when he’s really tired or overstimulated or has had too many sweets and not enough nourishing food. Elie and I have learned to just ride it out, staying as calm and unaffected as we possibly can. It always ends in snuggles, usually with Theo apologizing for getting upset. We never ask for an “I’m sorry.” We always tell him it’s okay to get upset and feel his emotions, and we’re always here for him. If this sounds familiar to you, you might find the work of Janet Lansbury as helpful as we have.
That’s been the hard part of age three. But the joy of this age far outweighs anything else. I haven’t been as good this year of writing down the daily milestones and adorable sayings this year, so I’m not sure exactly when three became so darn delightful, but it did.
Here are a few memories I want to forever save.
One morning while we were reading books, Theo looked at me and said, “Mommy, I love being your Theo.”
In the midst of Theo and Elie playing, Theo will look at Elie and say, “Do you know what, Daddy? I love you.” We are an ‘I love you’ family.
It makes my heart full, watching Elie and Theo’s relationship change over this year to become so playful. Elie has become a willing and cheerful participant of imagination play. I smile just thinking about him being a dinosaur or astronaut or baby chick or whatever other role Theo assigns him, building castles in the bed or forts on the floor. It’s great.
I never knew Elie was so creative, but he spins delightful stories. During dinner, Theo will ask for stories from Elie, to be repeated, retold or expanded upon. And I love listening to the laughter coming from the bath when Elie and Theo are playing in there together.
Speaking of imagination play, Theo always creates stories around his current interests. Earlier this year, Elie gave him the book, Moonshot, about the Apollo moon landing. He literally memorized the entire book and has become fascinated by the moon and space. He often reenacts the moon landing, reciting from the book.
Friends were visiting one day, and Theo was on the floor, showing them the Moonshot book. He told them about the landing and then looked up at them, completely serious, and said, “Isn’t that impressive?” We all couldn’t help ourselves from laughing at this three-year old using the word impressive. Impressive indeed.
Theo has developed quite the vocabulary this year, probably because we’ve always just spoken to him like he’s an adult and not a child. And because we spend at least an hour every day reading books. Theo will ask for meanings of words he doesn’t know, and then he’ll use them. It always makes me smile when he uses a word he just learned, trying it out in conversation.
Observant and appreciative of beauty, Theo always–literally–stops to smell the flowers. He talks to the bees. He admires the moon. He’ll say, “Mommy, these trees are soooo beautiful.” His sense of wonder inspires us.
Wonder and curiosity prompted big questions this year. One day, he was looking at a picture of Elie and me when we got married. He asked, “Where was I when you got married?”
I said, “You weren’t here yet. You were just waiting to be born.”
“But where was I?” he insisted.
“I don’t know, sweet boy. Some things in life are a mystery, for us all to wonder about together.”
It’s amazing how he uses what he learns in books. One morning, we were reading Brave Enough for Two, one of our favorite books, and Theo asked me what it meant to be brave enough for two. I explained that sometimes, when someone is scared, we can be brave enough for both of us. Later that afternoon, we went to the beach and we were walking across rocks covered in barnacles. Theo grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mommy. I’ll be brave enough for both of us.” I’m locking in that memory.
I love how he adopts words and phrases. Sometimes, when I’m trying to explain a difficult concept to him, like why we need air to breathe and why there’s not air on the moon, I’ll say, “It’s kind of complicated.” And then when Theo’s telling me something–like why dinosaurs are extinct–he’ll say, “Well, Mommy, it’s complicated.” Those works are accompanied by outstretched hands, a shoulder shrug, scrunched up eyes and a head nod. I wish I could get that on camera.
Theo’s kind and empathetic. He’ll say, “How did you sleep?” or “I hope you have a good day!” The other day, I was visibly frustrated because he wasn’t doing something I wanted to him to do. I let out a big sigh. Theo turned to me and put his arm around me, saying, “It’s okay, Mommy.” Frustration gone.
We bought an electric bike this year with a child seat, and Elie and Theo love to ride together. After we bought the bike, we rode to swim lessons in the morning, which seemed like the ultimate summer luxury. Often in the afternoons, Elie and Theo ride off to hunt for blackberries or pick apples.
Speaking of swim lessons, I signed Theo up for four weeks of swim lessons this summer. At first, we thought we might drop out half-way through if it seemed like too much of a time commitment. It turned out to be one of our favorite parts of summer, heading to the pool at nine a.m. to hang out with other parents in the sun, all delighted in our children. It only took Theo about two days to get comfortable, and then he just kept asking when he got to go swimming again with Miss Emma, his teacher. It felt magical.
We also got a summer membership to Bayside Swim Club this summer (where Theo took swim lessons), which has also been a delight. It’s only five minutes from our house, so we would often just head over for an hour in the afternoon. Elie and Theo would swim and play and I would lay in the sun and read a magazine. It felt like a mini vacation every time. (I would have gotten in the pool and played, but Theo still has very specific roles for both Elie and me. He swims with Daddy, not Mommy.)
Right after Theo turned three, we moved him from the small bedroom in his crib to his new big bedroom and big boy bed. The first night he only made it until midnight before coming in our bed. But he’s slept in his own room every night thereafter (unless he’s sick, and then he ends up in our bed). He has foam bumpers on the sides of the bed, and he’s only fallen out of bed once, which we caught on the Nest cam. We couldn’t stop laughing at seeing his back flip out of bed. He was fine, of course. I’m glad we have it on video.
Theo started preschool at two-and-half, at Whatcom Hills Waldorf. It’s a dreamy environment, peaceful and calm, with unlimited time for exploratory play and imagination. They spend half their day outside in ‘fairy land’ and the ‘magic woods.’ Magic, indeed. It took Theo the first half of the year to become accustomed to being dropped off (read: he cried every drop off for months) and playing with the other kids. At the beginning, he was just an observer. But by the time he turned three, he was fully engaged. At the end of the year, I would arrive to pick him up and he would be standing at the fence loudly singing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, and all the big fifth grade kids working in the garden were singing along. We love his school.
Speaking of school, Theo will be staying in the same preschool class again this year. Last year, he was one of the youngest and this year, he will be the oldest. We just had a playdate at school with his new class, and it was astonishing to notice the difference between this year and last. He is so sure of himself, so outgoing and social. He’s more willing to take risks. He enjoys playing with the other kids, but won’t let himself be pushed around. It was really fun to observe and reflect on how much he’s grown emotionally and socially.
This past summer, at just over three years, we transitioned from diapers to big boy underwear. I was dreading it, but like most things, I shouldn’t have worried. From the very first day, he’s never wet his bed at night. He only had a few accidents the first week or two and he’s used the potty ever since. We’ve been on planes, road trips and long adventures with no accidents. Theo will tell me, “Mommy, I can hold my pee for a long time. ” He sure can.
He loves to twirl my hair, and his own hair.
He still loves his motzetz (pacifier). We don’t stress about it very much. He’ll give it up in his own good time.
We travel with Theo and often take him out to restaurants. When he was just a baby, I had set a goal of age three for when he would be able to sit through an adult dinner without entertainment. Check. We can now take him out to a long dinner and (for the most part), he can sit and eat and talk with the rest of us. He loves staying up late and looks forward to going ‘on dates’ with us.
Talking about staying up late makes me think of sleep. Ah, sleep. I have obsessed more over Theo’s sleep than almost anything else, because I personally know how terrible it feels to not get good sleep. This year he finally, finally! started sleeping in just a little. And by sleeping in, I mean 6:30 a.m.
Some time around age three he started dropping his nap. At first, he went to bed very early, like 6 or 6:30 p.m. But over the summer, he started to take a late nap and then stay up late, until 9 or 9:30, which got him in the habit of sleeping in just a little. Now, he goes to bed between 7 and 7:30 p.m. and generally gets up between 6 and 6:30 a.m., which feels great. We get up and make breakfast and then crawl back in bed to eat breakfast, drink coffee and read a big pile of books before the day starts. I love starting the day that way.
Another big change for this year, Theo can go on a long car ride with no entertainment, something I never dreamed would be possible. When he was little, he hated the car. Now, we can talk or play music, play ‘I Spy’ or just look out the window. I want to remember to be grateful for that shift.
This summer, Theo started doing sleepovers at Mimi’s house, which is right next door. They dig in the garden, make chocolate chip cookies before dinner, stay up too late watching videos and eat popcorn for breakfast. It’s perfect. I loved doing sleepovers with my Granny and Pappy when I was little, and my relationship with them was such an important one in my life. I am so grateful Theo gets to have a similar experience with my Mom.
Theo is a lucky little boy, surrounded by so much love. He adores his Uncle Oren, Auntie Liz and his cousins. We get to spend a lot of time with Saba, Elie’s Dad. And even though we don’t see my Dad that often, Theo talks about him often and pretends we’re going to Alabama (where we last vacationed with my Dad) to see Papa. We have great friends who love him dearly. He has an amazing nanny whom he loves.
Back in my community health consulting days, I remember reading the research on resiliency–children with positive, loving relationships with their parents or other adults grow up with a greater sense of self and personal strength. More than anything, that’s what I dream for Theo. To be like his Daddy, completely comfortable in his own skin. An independent thinker. Kind.
I think he’s off to a good start.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten so many of the funny and sweet sayings of three. But these few memories will help me remember this precious time, because it’s already going too fast. We love this little boy to the moon and back.
All photos by Matthew Land Studios.