What do these things have in common: running out of apple juice, offering up the wrong flavour chewy vitamin, the local cafe being closed and our favourite parking space being occupied by someone else’s car? If, like me, you’re the mother of a three-year old, you may have guessed that all of the above are all liable to induce in my son a meltdown of epic proportions.
The terrible twos get an awful lot of bad press, but when it comes to the threes I’d just like to point out that I WASN’T WARNED. Someone could have mentioned it, couldn’t they? Or perhaps, like the excruciating reality of childbirth, it’s best not to know in advance. Knowing no different, I naively assumed that, once Little Boy hit three, we would enter a new and easier world; a world of argument-free supermarket trips, calm mealtimes and zen-like car journeys. Unfortunately it was not to be.
Normally a fairly calm and rational soul, he loses all perspective if he’s not allowed to take the scooter into the swimming pool, has to wear a coat when it’s sub-zero outside or if his broccoli is too close to the ketchup on his plate. Not being allowed to watch Toy Story at 7am while eating a packet of Pom Bears also sparks outrage. Heaven help me if I forget to bring a snack with me on the nursery pick-up or, worse, bring the ‘wrong’ one. I didn’t see ‘mind reader’ in the job description but it turns out to be vital to mothering without (too many) tears.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great things about having a three year-old, and he really is a pleasure a lot of the time. He’s more sensible and has a marginally better regard for his own safety than he did as a bumbling two-year-old. Toys are to be played with rather than shoved in his mouth, and now he only falls over or bangs into things occasionally rather than all the time. He can play on his own much better and is a great conversationalist. It’s just a shame that I don’t always want to hear what he says, given that it’s often the little boy equivalent of ‘objection your honour!’. If I had a pound for every time I heard ‘But Mummy I don’t want to’, I’d be booking myself a restorative luxury spa break somewhere warm without delay.
Luckily I know my son better than the back of my winter-dry hand, so it’s fairly easy to second-guess him. If I were to choose a specialist subject for Mastermind, it would be him. I know his favourite pants, biscuits, sandwich fillings and CBeebies programmes. I know exactly how far I can dilute his apple juice before he starts protesting that I’ve given him water; I know that he’ll be amenable to the prospect of a trip to the shops if he does several laps of the park first; and I know his little tricks to try to avoid eating food he doesn’t like. I know what incentives will work and which threats he regards as hollow and therefore have no effect.
Armed with all this, I try to head off potential conflict at the pass. Although I don’t believe in giving into his demands all the time, I know when it’s worth putting my foot down, when I should compromise and when it’s just not worth the battle. Some things – like teeth brushing, sharing with his sister and being polite – are non-negotiable. Others, like wearing his pyjama top as a T-shirt the following day, I’m willing to let slide for the sake of a peaceful household.
An old lady started talking to me in the supermarket the other day, admiring the baby and passing the time as we waited in the queue. She told me with some disdain about a mother she’d seen on the bus that day. Her baby was whining and shouting for food, so she fed it some banana. It continued to whine for more, so she gave it a rice cake. ‘She’s making a rod for her own back’, the old lady told me. I nodded and said nothing, knowing that I’d have done exactly the same. There’s a time and a place for standing your ground, and a crowded bus isn’t it. A bit of banana for a quiet journey seems a fair trade to me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to try to persuade the boy that he wants to go food shopping. We can’t risk running out of apple juice.