Gareth and his son have a hug.

What’s worse: the Terrible Twos or Terrible Threes?

Prompted by his son’s recent fourth birthday, Gareth Shute look backs and decides which of the preceding “terrible” years did the most to fray his nerves.

Before I was a parent, the phrases “terrible twos” and “terrible threes” were meaningless to me. I figured it was a slip of the tongue when people alternated between them. There couldn’t really be two terrible years, one after the other? Imagine my horror, when I had a child of my own and a friend explained that, no, there’s definitely two distinct terrible stages of toddlerhood – so be prepared.

The Terrible Two-year-old is a ball of frustrations. This tiny creature wants you to understand them so badly, but all they have is a spattering of nouns and the ability to gesture wildly in order to communicate their needs and desires. If they’re anything like my son, their frustration doesn’t simmer long before it boils over. Soon he’d be flopped on the ground in a tantrum haze, putting every ounce of his strength into yelling and flailing wildly.

I could feel his pain – how infuriating would it be to always be guided by the whims of someone else, without being able to make a case for what you wanted to do? I’m sure my son spent a lot of time in the supermarket trolley thinking “Why can’t I just look at these Paw Patrol cookies a bit longer? You spent ages gawping at all the things you wanted to stare at…”

Gareth and his son.

This sudden wish for more agency isn’t great timing for parents, since by the time you have a two year old you’re already pretty worn out. Hasn’t enough of your time already been sucked into the wormhole of having a baby and attending to its every need? Surely your adorable toddler is finally ready to become a bit more self-reliant? The thing is, you can see that they’re almost capable of self control but they just can’t keep up the act for long. A little bit of missed sleep or a delayed meal and your cute little bundle of joy turns into a feral animal.

At first, I reacted to my son’s tantrums by trying to distract him out of his flaying, with toys or other temptations, but eventually decided it was easier just to wait it out. Not so easy when you’re in the middle of a supermarket aisle, with the judging glare of strangers all around you and perhaps – god forbid – another child or two in your care.

The two year old’s other advantage when it comes to the terribleness stakes is that they’re obsessed with exploring the boundaries of their power. Can I drop this plate on the floor? Can I throw this glass? Will my father mind if I swing this stick between his legs? Now he’s making a funny sound, maybe I’ll try whacking him in the face…

They’ve left behind the careless meandering of a baby, who accidentally breaks things – now they purposefully push the limits. Just when I thought I was beyond having to constantly watch my son, he suddenly became a miniature daredevil. The only way he was going to learn what was too high to jump off or how fast he could turn a corner was to try it out for himself. Of course, this is also what makes two year olds so much fun – even something simple like jumping off a couch onto some cushions can keep them entertained for hours.

If you’ve got time on your hands, then playing with a two year old is easy since they don’t even need to toys to keep them occupied. But when you have to get them ready in a hurry or need them to learn something new, their ability to be endlessly distracted suddenly becomes a hurdle. This might also be the age which you choose to potty-train your child – all I can say, is good luck with that!

Given all this, you might think having a three year old would be a welcome reprieve, but unfortunately you have a different shade of terrible to get used to. It’s true that by age three, my son had become more cautious and had gained some social competence, but it was a mixed blessing. Sure, he could now head off unaccompanied to the far side of the playground with one of his friends (giving me precious time to talk shit with another parent or check my phone to see what was going on in the world). Yet once it was just him and me, the barrage of demands began. He had no more difficulties with being able to communicate what he wanted – but now the problem was that I didn’t always want to give it to him!

No, you can’t have a chocolate. No, you can’t watch any more television. Please get in the car, we’re already late. Get in the car. I’m going to count to three … oh for fuck’s sake [hopefully not said out loud] …

In response, my sulky little three-nager remained slumped on the ground, more interested in a leaf he’d found than my increasingly strained voice above him. Time wasn’t a concept that he’d got his head around – it made no sense that I wanted him to abandon what he was doing and get in the boring car again. It was hard enough to convince him otherwise when we were going somewhere fun (like the zoo or a playground), let alone when I just needed to get him to daycare before work. How could I explain that daddy was going to be late for a meeting, when he didn’t understand the word “late,” let alone “meeting”?

My only options were steely resolve or long drawn out conversations which usually ended in me threatening to “count to three” (for all the good that did). Oh and there was always bribery. In a pinch, that was always a get out of jail free card. Really it was all about him feeling in control of the world, so I also became adept at the art of the false alternative – e.g. “Do you want to go to toilet before you brush your teeth or afterward?”

Sometimes my son would actually use his growing intelligence to be helpful, though this didn’t always work out. Like when he used our half-brush and shovel to clean up a punnet of yoghurt he’d spilled off the table. Amazing how hard it is to get yoghurt off all the hairs of a brush…

Gareth’s son “cleaning”

What was easy to miss during those two years of butting heads is that what my wife and I were doing was setting out the rules of the world for our son. No wonder the preschool years are so often cited as a crucial developmental stage. This is when he truly learnt to communicate with others; to share rather than fight; to work within the limits of acceptable behaviour rather than always pushing over the edge.

I’m not going to lie – it could be a pain in the arse trying to get that stubborn three-year-old through the day, but what came out of it was the beginnings of a truly independent human being. It was wonderful to suddenly become a tour guide to our everyday life and experience it afresh through my son’s eyes. He burned with interest at any never-seen-before insect or animal and every moment brought a chance to find out something new and fascinating.

All in all, I’d say that having a three year old probably wins out in the terribleness stakes, but not for the reasons you’d expect. Here is our sweet helpless baby taking his first hesitant steps away from us. Deciding for the first time that – no, he doesn’t want to wear the retro-cool Beach Boys T-shirt I have chosen for him, he wants to wear the garish, ripped one that he painted himself with his nana’s help.

These days, when I walk through the supermarket and see another parent with a kid rolling on the floor, bawling their eyes out, I do feel a slight pang of nostalgia for those days. Of course, I would never want to switch places, but I do think, good luck to you my friend, I know how you feel. Me and my four year old are just going to casually walk out of this place with our shopping now. See you on the other side!

Gareth Shute splits his time between being a stay-at-home dad (with a four-year-old son) and freelance writing. He has previously published four books on NZ music and the arts.

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