Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from: Fathering Your School-Age Child
Extract from Chapter 3: Fathering Your 3 Year Old - Bye, Bye, Baby
What’s Going On with Your Child
Your child is getting bigger, but not nearly at the same pace as he was as a toddler, so kiss that baby belly good-bye now, because it’s not going to be around much longer. Over the course of this year, your three-year-old will grow just two or three inches and put on only five or six pounds. By the time he turns four, he’ll have a full set of baby teeth.
By now, your child will be getting an uninterrupted 10-12 hours of sleep at night, except, of course, those nights when you’ve planned a romantic evening at home. He often wakes up dry, but accidents are still common. By the end of this year, a lot of girls will be toilet-trained. Boys usually take a little longer to get completely out of diapers, but they’re on their way too.
He walks and runs like a champusually without having to hold his arms out for balance. In fact, he’s so good that he can even take corners at full speed. Once he does slow down, you might catch him practicing walking on tiptoe.
He’s a good climber and runner, and should be able to jump up and down, as well as hop on one leg. He can kick a ball forward, catch one if it lands on his outstretched arms, and walk up (but not down) stairs alternating feet.
And how ’bout those fine motor skills. Somebody’s feeding himself with a spoon, and most of the food is actually getting inside. He brushes his teeth, holds a crayon sort of like we do, traces some (very basic) shapes, and may even take a crack at drawing peoplemost of whom will bear an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Potato Head. He can build a tower nine or ten blocks high; he’s figured out how to screw open jars and bottles (although he has no interest in closing them), and how to turn the pages of a book one at a time.
Sometime around the middle of this year, your child may backslide a little physically. He’ll fall down and bump into things more often than he did a few months ago, and those block towers won’t be nearly as steady or as high as they were. Not to worry, this will pass as he nears his fourth birthday.
Your child will not stop talking, and you can understand about three-quarters of what he says. He’s got an active vocabulary of over 600 words and likes to arrange them in three-to-five-word sentences.
Even with the nonstop chatter, he’s still not much of a conversationalist and prefers announcements and demands to give and take.
He loves stories and rhymes, preferably over and over and over and over. The good news is that if you get laryngitis, he’s perfectly able to “read” you the book in his own words, using the pictures as a guide.
He’s got “now,” “soon,” and “in a minute” down pretty well, but he’s a little fuzzy on more abstract time words such as “tomorrow,” “yesterday,” and “today.” He also understands simple sequences much better than before and can handle two or three steps in a row: we went to the park, then we came home, and then we watched a video.
He associates people with places, which means he may not recognize his favorite pediatrician if you bump into him in line at the grocery store.
He can identify the primary colors and maybe a few others, and counts “one, two, a lot.”
He can put together six-piece puzzles and loves the relationship between whole objects and the parts that make them up. But he thinks like Yogi Berra, the famous New York Yankees catcher. When ordering a pizza, Berra was asked how many pieces he wanted it cut into. He replied, “You better cut it into four pieces, because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” If you pour a cup of water into a bowl, and another cup into a tall glass, your child will insist that the glass has more in it. And if you cut one cookie in half and another into four pieces, he’ll take the one with four pieces every time.
His imagination is soaring, and his active fantasy life includes dress-up and role-playing. Cross-dressing is still common at this age, as are imaginary friends. These characters serve a very important purpose, helping him try out different behaviors and emotions, and giving him someone to blame if things don’t work.
Whew, those terrible twos are pretty much over. There’s a good chance that your three-year-old will do what you ask him to the first or second time instead of the seventeenth or twenty-ninth. He says yes more often than no, and, craving your approval, he’s ready and eager to help you with household chores. When he does ignore you or misbehave, he may express some guilt or embarrassment later.
But about halfway through this year, your compliant, cooperative, cheerful little angel may become possessed. He’ll be obstinate, ornery, insecure, anxious, and will completely refuse to go along with anything you ask. Fortunately, there’s no need to call in an exorcist, as this phase will begin to fade by the end of this year.
He may also spend some time testing your limits, pushing you just to see what kind of reaction he’ll get. Luckily, he’s got a fairly short attention span, and you can easily distract him, which makes it easier to avoid a crisis.
He’s becoming a little less self-centered, changing from “I want” demands to “Let’s do” requests.
He’s becoming very aware of differences in race and gender, and understands that certain activities are “boy” things and others are “girl” things. Most of the kids he plays with will be of the same sex. Interestingly, though, he may start expressing a preference for the opposite-sex parent.
He enjoys playing near other children his own age, but not necessarily with them. And although he’ll occasionally give one of his toys to another child, he’s still a ways away from mastering the fine art of sharing.
He’s discovered the joy of making other people laugh, and can be quite silly at times.
He is learning that other people are real and have real feelings. The tiny seeds of compassion have begun to sprout, and on occasion, he may comfort you if you hurt yourself.
What’s Going On with You
Experiencing More Empathy
Over the past decade, I’ve interviewed several thousand fathers. And one theme that comes up again and again is that fatherhood seems to open all sorts of emotional doors. Many men say that after having children, they were all of a sudden able (or forced) to experience feelings they didn’t even know they were capable of, everything from joy and pride and intense love to blinding fury, disgust, and jealousy. And there was one more feeling, which may or may not qualify as an emotion: empathy. Call it the ability to understand and imagine what other people are feeling without them having to tell you.
During the preschool and early school years, most children can’t really express their emotions verbally as well as they’d like to, which makes it hard for parents to understand what’s going on inside their kids’ hearts and minds. Fortunately, you have some conscious or subconscious memories of what you felt like when you were a kid, and that makes it possible for you to empathize with your child at least a little bit. For example, if your child is still wetting his bed at night or having accidents during the day, you may be reminded of the shame you felt when you did the same thing at the same age. That kind of empathy can make you a lot more tolerant and patientnot only of your child but of others as well. “To be able to feel what the child feels enlarges the parents’ capacity for empathy in other interpersonal relationships,” writes the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry. Doctors who are parents, for example, are better able to empathize with their patients, which is something a lot of parents instinctively feel. Think about when you take your child to the pediatrician. You probably never asked whether he has kids of his own, but don’t you really want to know? This isn’t to say that childless people shouldn’t be allowed to be pediatricians or that pediatricians who have kids are naturally better. That’s not true at all. What is true, though, is that as we become more empathetic with our children, we naturally want people to be more empathetic with us. (I actually know a pediatric emergency medicine doctor who had to change specialties after becoming a father. He simply couldn’t deal emotionally with all the injured children.)
As your child gets older and his vocabulary increases, he’ll begin using words to express many of his innermost feelings. To be truly empathetic, you need to really listen to himnot just to the words, but to the emotions behind them. Connecting with your child on that kind of level leads to a far deeper kind of empathy than you experienced beforeagain, toward both your child and others.
Confronting Your Demonsand Putting Them to Work for You
Like it or not, who you are as a dad right now has a lot to do with the kind of childhood you had. “To brew up an adult,” wrote psychologist Roger Gould, “it seems that some leftover childhood must be mixed in; a little unfinished business from the past periodically intrudes on our adult life, confusing our relationships and disturbing our sense of self.”
But your own often-zany childhood doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative impact on your fathering. In fact, for most men, it’s just the opposite. Most fathers try hard to give their children the positive things they experienced during their own childhood, to spare their children the pain they themselves suffered, and to make sure their children never lack what they did.
Harvard researcher John Snarey found that that men with positive memories of being fathered use their fathers as models. In other words, if a boy’s father gave him a good education, was warm and nurturing, and supported his emotional and physical growth, he tends to do the same with his own kids when he becomes a father himself. At the same time, when men have negative memories of their fathers (for example, their dads didn’t provide a good education or a stable economic situation, or relied too much on physical punishment), they tend to use their father’s shortcomings as an example of exactly what not to do and as motivation to do better.
Were you an only child? If you loved being one, you might want only one kid. If you hated it, you might want to have a large family. Similarly, if you’re one of nine kids and were continually getting lost in the shuffle, you might want a small family. If your brothers and sisters put together a championship baseball team, you might want to have nine or ten kids of your own. If you never graduated from high school, you might do everything you can do to ensure that your children get the best education possible. If you grew up in a rich family, you might want your kids to learn what it’s like to have to earn their own money. And if you grew up in a poor family, you might want to make sure they never have to go without the things that money can buy. Ultimately, having kids isn’t exactly a second chance to live your own life. You can, though, boost the odds that the next generation will have it better than you did.
One big question here is whether (and if so, how much) you should talk to your children about these things. If the decision is about how large a family to have, your children probably won’t be invited into the discussion. If the issues have to do with education or money, you may talk about them over a number of years. But what about events or experiences that were decidedly negative, or at least murky? Whenif everwould you tell your child that you spent time in jail, whether it was the result of a silly college prank gone wrong or something more serious? Do you tell him about a previous marriage? What about if you killed someone in a car accident? And what if something awful happened to you?
I faced this last dilemma (and I’m still facing it now) with regard to an experience of abuse at the hands of a trusted friend who worked at the YMCA where I spent a lot of time after school lifting weights. It happened more than thirty years ago, but I still sometimes feel a twinge of shame when I think about it. Should I tell my children? If so, when and how? Do I write my experience off as something so rare and unpredictable that there’s no possible way to guard against it, or do I teach my children to be wary of everyoneeven the people they think are friends? After all, just one error in judgment could forever changeor even enda life.
At this point in your childs life, the answer is pretty black-and-white: Keep your past to yourself. Well be talking about this in great detail in the next book in this series. But for now value your childs innocence and help him stay that way.
You and Your Child
Why Be Involved with Your Three-Year-Old?
Simple. Because the more involved you are in raising your children, the better a father you’ll be. Being an involved dad is good for everyone: your kids, your partner, and even yourself. Of course, what exactly “being involved” means to you will probably be different from what it means to anyone else. But however you define it, remember that it’s a function of both quality time and quantity time. Kids whose dads are around but don’t spend much time with them end up doing about as poorly as kids whose fathers aren’t around at all. Here are some of the specific benefits to being actively involved with your three-year-old:
The closer and more positive your relationship with your child, the better his friendships with his peers will be.
You’re helping your child separate from his mother. “Healthy though dependency on their mother is for children at the beginning of their life,” writes fatherhood researcher Kyle Pruett, “they will not experience, let alone practice, their own competence and mastery skills if they do not strike off in search of their own physical and emotional autonmy.”
As amazing as it sounds, the quality of your relationship with your three-year-old is a good predictor of his capacity for empathy toward others when he grows up, according to researchers at McGill University in Canada.
Your child will be more curious and a better, more confident problem-solver.Seeing you participate in child care and other home-related tasks will make your child less likely to have traditional, stereotyped ideas of what women and men are supposed to do. Your involvement at this age is also a good predictor of how involved your childrenespecially boyswill be when they become parents.
By playing physically with your child, you’re giving him a great way to burn off some of his aggression that might otherwise get directed at others.
You’ll be a more effective parent. Researcher Mary De Luccie did a study of 177 firstborn boys and girls in an attempt to figure out what made dads get involved and feel satisfied. She found that it was a kind of loop: fathers who were warm and firm with their kids felt they were doing a good job and thought they had good relationships with their kids. That, in turn, made them want to get even more involved. It just keeps getting better and better.
Looking for PreschoolThe Pressure’s On
By the time their children hit three, most parents have already started thinking about moving their child into a more formal preschool or pre-kindergarten situation. In fact, over 60 percent of children under five are in some kind of nonparental child-care situation. Could be a nanny, a babysitter, your parents or in-laws, a company-sponsored day-care center, or some other arrangement, or even a combination of several of these alternatives.
Unfortunately, getting a child into preschool isn’t as simple as it was when we were kids. In a lot of places it’s easier to get into an Ivy League college, and the application process sometimes starts before the babies are even born. Parents may have to write essays profiling their children, and they hire high-priced consultants to coach the kids for their interviews (including beefing up their scissors-handling and coloring-between-the-lines skills). Favors are called in, bribes are made.
Hopefully you won’t need to resort to underhanded tactics. But if you’re planning to put your child in preschool and haven’t finalized the arrangements, you’d better get started now. On the pages that follow, you’ll find some guidelines that will help you narrow your search and find the best program for your child. Because many parents start thinking about preschools when their children are one or two, I covered a lot of this material in the previous book in this series, Fathering Your Toddler. If you read that book, feel free to skip ahead to page 30. If not, stick with me