I am not sure what’s going on. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t been outside as much lately? Or maybe it’s a growth spurt? It very well could possibly be the hubbub of the holidays and the immense amount of processed sugar being consumed? The likely verdict: all three. Potential triggers aside, we have a very spirited three year old who has been having a hard time lately, and a mom who is feeling it too. Chances are high that if you also have a three year old, you’re nodding your head wherever you are reading this. Solidarity. Three is hard! For them, for us, for all. Way harder than two in my opinion, but our story is just one in the tapestry of motherhood, so take it with a grain of salt.
What I think make three so hard, especially for spirited little loves, is that they aren’t quite equipped with what they need to communicate, but can communicate well. They also aren’t quite equipped with what they need to be independent, but are super independent. They are in-betweeners, some more in-between than others, and it can be rather frustrating. Sometimes this frustration can build up and come out in a myriad of stressful ways, depending on a host of external factors blended with personality types, causing things at home to begin to lean to one side, naturally so.
Whenever I feel things leaning too far, I know it’s time to take a look at our daily habits and how we are doing things at home with regard to rhythm. It’s easy for life to feel as though it’s tipping heavily in one direction or the other, that’s life that the beauty of growth that makes us human. That being said, I strongly believe it’s our intuition that senses this shift first, signaling as a red flag inside to help get us back on track and somewhere near our center. As mothers, it is one of our superpowers, being able to feel that shift internally and using that compass to steer us and the family back on course. As a mom right now my flag has been raised, my compass is out, and it’s time to reset a few things.
This past weekend I collapsed in the big chair in our living room feeling completely overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted, shout-telling Andrew something has to change! I felt deep within that we had been doing discipline-wise for our kids, particularly for Alfie, was no longer working. Back to the drawing board. For those of you who know Alfie, you know how determined, self-sufficient, loyal, and strong-willed he is. He is also physically strong which can be comical for a tiny human, given that he needs to lift heavy objects all the time. I don’t get it, but it’s one of his favorite things. Give the kid a gallon of milk to carry inside on grocery day—he’s on it. Need to hammer something in—call Alfie. He is also a quick learner, hands-on, and s.m.a.r.t.
Andrew and I used to joke way back when he was just beginning to walk, that one day he was going to build himself a little log cabin in the woods, a homestead of sorts, where he would make and do everything by hand. He loves knowing how everything works, always has, and loves even more to make things work himself. This is no longer a running joke, but just something we just know is a part of who he is. His beautiful mind works in wonderfully complex ways, and it’s incredible watching him build and create. And while these are all admirable qualities, especially in adults trying to find their place in the world, mothering those qualities in a tiny human who cannot do everything himself requires an extra dose of patience and a lot more energy than I have most days.
He’s three, completely conscious of this very concrete fact, and it’s hard for him to live with. Some three year olds I know love being three. For Alfie, he’s always been the kind of kid who sees the mountain to climb well beyond the path before it, so he gears up for adventure ahead, forgetting that it’s the path that will get him there. I also believe he will climb and actual mountain one day. And I love this about him—his passion and grit—we love this about him, but it also makes three hard. And sometimes actually scary. Did I mention he likes knives? Alas, play-dates have been really challenging lately. I think he was a gladiator in a past life. No really, I do. Bedtime is a constant struggle, so is getting ready for the day, supper, and anytime we need to run errands. He wants to do it all, all by himself. And also, he has been hitting and pushing a lot lately. While I know it’s a phase, some longer and more pronounced depending on the kid, it doesn’t take away the very big emotions for everyone involved, namely he and I because we spend the most time together.
Which brings me to creative discipline. Aren’t those two words just lovely together? I don’t believe I’ve seen them sandwiched like so before reading them this past weekend. Creative Discipline…Yes! This is what we need—some out of the box ideas to shift habits we’ve been practicing that are no longer working the way we need them to. We are reading Beyond the Rainbow Bridge in our parent-toddler class, and this chapter was the assignment this week. Talk about serendipity. Sometimes I don’t read the chapter assigned. Other times, I thumb through it. But this time I got out a damn pen and went to town, folks. I got so much out of this reading it made me cry. Good tears. Optimistic tears. Hopeful holy water, as I see it. If you are in a discipline rut and need a fresh perspective or a few new tricks to add to your toolbox, perhaps some of these ideas will work for you. But before I share my takeaways, three things worth mentioning:
- By discipline I do not mean to punish, but rather, to disciple, to teach, to show the way. This way of thinking came from The Soul of Discipline by Kim John Payne, another great read I often recommend to parents struggling in this area.
- Just as every mother is different, so is every child. What works for others and their personal relationship may not work for you and yours. Be soft on yourself when figuring this out. Be soft on others who are figuring this out.
- Or in other words, give yourself grace and patience. Buckets of it. This is the hardest work you’ll probably ever do, but also the most important.
Your Brief from ‘Creative Discipline’ in Beyond the Rainbow Bridge: Here is what I learned from this chapter, and have broken down to share with you.
- Imitation is Everything | “A child at the imitative stage of development absorbs every aspect of his environment, which then becomes part of the innermost stirrings of his will, deep below the level of consciousness.” Because imitation is so important with little ones, the most effective disciplining we can do shows through our actions the kind of behavior we are trying to nurture. Be the behavior you want to see. If you don’t want your child to yell, don’t model it. This is really hard to do, as children have free will just as we do, which is why #2 is particularly important…
- Self-Discipline Matters | Because children this young learn through imitation and modeling, it’s important that those giving care and discipline do so with care and consideration. Self-discipline and self-care on behalf of the caregiver will help the child immensely, because the teaching will come from a place of abundance and positive action, not scarcity and fear-based reaction. I am not talking about selfish behavior whatsoever, but taking the time to check-in and calm down before blowing up at three year old who just hit you in the face. Oh, hi. I’ve been there.
- Reform the Space | “When children in a Walforf kindergarten misbehave, it usually means they have “fallen out of form” of the moment. How can we re-create the form around them? This is a great question to ask oneself when in a sticky situation and needing to restore harmony without interfering too much. Reforming the space means putting things back in order without talking, but quietly doing. It means using actions to straighten up the situation to infuse calm into the chaos. I do this all the time at home by tidying when I am stressed. Bringing order to my outer environment soothes my inner landscape. This works for little ones, too.
- Offer Limited Choices | How many choices and options have you given your kids today? Think about it. Sometimes I have offered Alfie around the ballpark of twenty options well before noon, and no wonder he is out of sorts. Very few choices to pick from means less energy expended in making decisions, which is draining and often times overwhelming. I am someone who prefers limited choices myself, and can see how it would add stress to a little one’s day. Instead of giving options, try gently telling your child this is what they may play with, eat, watch, or do. I think many parents who offer options believe they are fostering autonomy and growth via independence, but three year olds need caregivers who know what’s best. This gives them assurance and makes them feel safe.
- Use“May” Instead of “No” | I don’t even want to think about the number of times the word “no” is said on a daily basis. It’s a lot. Using the word “may” is an alternative to let your little one know what they “may” do instead of what they shouldn’t do. When we overuse “no” it becomes abstract and meaningless. Try phrases like, “You may walk” instead of, “No running!” to teach the lesson.
- Have a Rhythm | Time to examine the way you are spending time and energy in the flow of your day. Are you going outside? Kids need fresh air and freedom to run and build and play. When I notice things being a little tense at home, we will head outdoors and it always sets us straight. And if it’s really bad and we are all off, we’ll spend the whole day somewhere in nature (with plenty of snacks on hand) to hike and reconnect with the natural world—our healer.
- Give Purposeful Work | This last takeaway is one that I am going to be implanting even more for Alfie at home. Some kids consider meaningful work as a part of their play and how they process and learn. He is one of these kids. When you notice behavior going down hill, try offering ways they can do purposeful work that is both safe and nearby. Little ones, just as adults, thrive when doing something that matters to them. And some little ones are exceptionally talented at working hard and completing real life-related tasks! I am going to put together a little worker box for Alfie to use when he needs an outlet, and will share that in a follow up post.
shauna - hi amanda! i always read your posts and don’t often comment, but had to send along a big resounding YEP to this one! we are right. there. with. you, mama. our family (four babes, one on the way!) has also been feeling so out of sorts lately with the holiday overload. as much as we try to simplify, it always seems to take hold. i actually just took out both soul of discipline and simplicity parenting to look over this week for encouragement. and then today, there’s your post! so many wonderful ideas, many that we are currently practicing and a few new ones! like number 5, which i’m sure i will have a chance to try out probably in the next three minutes! 😉 thank you for taking something so many of us are going through and gifting your readers with some beautiful wrapped thoughts on it. your willingness to share is always so appreciated! merry christmas blessings to you and your family! shauna
Kirsten - Oof, needed to read this today! I have a very spirited and highly verbal and independent 16 month old who has been all about her independence and testing boundaries lately – I’m scared of what this will look like at 3!
Lisa - Such a great and important post! I’d love to hear what goes into your worker box or ideas you have for meaningful work. I need to incorporate more of that into my daughter’s daily routine. I let her “vacuum” with the dust buster and she gets such a kick out of it.
Margaret - Thank you for this! I’d love to know some more examples of the meaningful tasks you offer your 3 year old. My 3 year old loves to help (loosely interpreted!) me do my chores, but I don’t feel like I have good ideas for ones she might be able to do more independently? I’m intrigued by your idea of a worker box for him and would love to know what you plan to put in there.
Genna - #5 is my favorite. Just morning I was nursing my little when my two year old decided to pour her bowl of milk in the trash- I knew what she was doing well before she got there- begging and pleading her not to dump it in the trash- saying no no no! What I should have said was Wait! You may pour that in the sink, let me get the stool. It may or may not have worked, but I do get so sick and tired of saying No all the time! I will really try to work on this. Now, if I could just get my 2 & 3 year old to stop fighting over everything… 😜
Tess Frame - I’ve got a brother who isn’t a parent, but who is inherently more gentle and patient than I am. When I get overwhelmed by my kids (typically it’s their volume that sends me past the breaking point – I’m very sound sensitive), I either shut down and start to give up, or I match their energy and try to bring the situation into control by being louder or bigger than them. It’s instinct more than anger. My sweet, soft brother behaves so uniquely with my kids that it’s a wonder to behold. If things are escalating with the little boys or there is some fighting or tantruming or other non-ideal but totally normal and healthy behavior, my brother will gently beckon the troubled kid over, hold his hand softly, and talk so softly it’s almost a whisper. The kid has to settle down so much in order to hear, and is able to feel calm and reassured by the hand holding, and is eventually able to find words to communicate what’s wrong. It’s such an example and an awesome inspiration to reset my own mind when dealing with my kids. Sometimes examples are found in unlikely places.
Jenny - Saving this forever!! Kudos to you for opening up and sharing something that is so complex and often difficult to navigate. This is so helpful, thank you!!!
callie bristow - Hi Amanda! I loved reading this and your IG post today. This really resonates with my heart and current state of the union at home. I have a very spirited 5 year old son. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and at this time we are choosing to forego medication and work on behaviour modification. Your 7 suggestions are excellent! I try to really focus on the positives with my little love. Positive reinforcement is so huge (for everyone!), especially for our spirited little Cubs. Hang in there mama! Our boys will do wonderful things as they continue to develop and learn and unfold into who they are meant to be 🙂 xx
Wendy Smith - My baby girl will be two in February. We aren’t to Alfie’s point quite yet, but I can see little glimpses. She pulled a butcher knife out of the drawer this morning & thought she could use it to cut some wrapping paper for the gift she was pretending to wrap. It took me about an hour to get my breathing back on track after that scary moment. Imitation is everything to her. And we definitely need to work on using the word “may” instead of “no!” I also got bopped in the head a few times this morning. I can relate to all of this & just wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time to write this out for other momma’s to read. Merry Christmas!
Chelsey - Amanda,
Your words are a soothing balm for the soul! Our firstborn is also spirited and in the throws of her “threenage” year. From the moment she entered this world she has been a force to be reckoned with. From colic to refusing to sleep until the 7th month of her Viking like existence, she has kept us on our toes. I thought I was not made for this motherhood gig until our peaceful little Alfred entered this world. How strange that siblings can be so wildly different! We too love our little leader’s tenacity and quick wit, but it is EXHAUSTING and relentless. A book I call my parenting bible is “Raising your Spirited Child”. I go back and highlight and thumb through on a regular basis. It’s the only parenting book I haven’t felt like starting on fire!
In solidarity sweet friend!
Samantha - Great topic! I’d like to second (and third!) the request for more info/separate post on your “worker box” idea. My spirited boy will be three next week and we just welcomed our second baby so I’m trying so hard to make sure he is still getting all the love and attention he needs while I tend to her. He is also very independent and mimics some of my household chores so I love the idea of him having his own box or space whenever he needs it ☺️
Amanda - Hi Amanda,another Amanda here. It’s really interesting reading through the points of your book. I’m currently a special education teacher and there are so many similarities between those points and the way so many schools are moving towards positive based behavior management and mindfulness. Number 5 is big. Little brains always take the last thing they hear as in no running and all they hear is running. You have to share the behavior we want to see vs. the one we don’t. The one that stuck with me as both a teacher and a mom is definitely #1. In mindfulness we refer to it as coregulation. My daughter will be 3 in March and we are definitely seeing glimpses of the terrible 3s. Most kids from 3 to even 13 don’t always respond to taking a break or ways to regulate their bodies or their space, but the second you model that for them, the easier it is for them to imitate as well. The only thing I didn’t see mentioned is really teaching the new behaviors you want to see. Why is he hitting? Does he need attention? Is he trying to get something he wants. Just modeling ways to still get those things or implement your choices you mentioned usually makes a huge difference. It does take time though. Take care of yourself mama!
Crystel Hardin - Hi Amanda, I have a a highly spirited 3.25 year old, and he and Alfie sound very similar. Two was a cake walk compared to life lately! Thank you for these tips, as I’m currently feeling the need to change the way we approach discipline in our house as it’s not working at all and leaves my introverted husband and I overwhelmed and exhausted at the end of each day. It’s comforting to know we aren’t alone on this rollercoaster. 🙂
Karissa - I also have a three-year-old who is over-excited/over-sugared/stuck indoors too much lately and these are very helpful hints. Offering fewer suggestions has made a big difference for us in recent months, especially around what to wear or what to eat. I also like the idea of “reforming the space”. With multiple little ones, our house gets crazy so quickly and it can drive me crazy but I hadn’t thought about how it might affect them.
Naomi Jaensch - Loved this so much. My little Noah is about to turn 3, and he sounds a lot like your little Alfie. Can’t wait to see the little worker box! And yes, I’ve found that meaningful tasks (often involving chopping or hammering or a spray bottle) and some fresh air do wonders! Thank you for sharing! xxx
Lauren McLoughlin - Just what I needed today with my two year old son! Thank you.
reading 1.4.19 – Bridgette O'Connor - […] Creative Discipline & Motherhood Right Now “He’s three, completely conscious of this very concrete fact, and it’s hard for him to live with.” Other toddler parents out there? 👋 […]
Hayley Parker - With three year old & 17 month old wilflower ladies…this hit home. Thank you! My strong willed three year old will be a leader some day but some of her traits we share come as my challenges in our daily rhythm. I’m often looking for answers to better steer her and myself included without “discipline”. Your post was just the refresh I needed.