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3 Is the Age When Everything Changes Forever

Photograph by Serge Bielanko Private

The first two years of a child's life are always magic and beautiful and all that jazz. Everyone knows that. Babies are precious—rolling on the floor, sleeping on our chest, cooing at our idiotic attempts to baby talk at them when they're trying to force a poop out. Hell, even the relentless gauntlet of changing diapers takes on a peculiar air of poetry when it's our own tiny creation making all that blowout mess.

Then, before we know it, that first birthday party brings a tear to our eye. Look how much they've grown, we tell each other. Look at what we made. Before we know it, they start walking across a room toward our open arms and suddenly we are overcome by the extraordinary majesty of all this life going down before our very eyes.

No one can argue that the first couple of years of our child's life are unlike any we've ever experienced before. No one. But then along comes 3.

Nothing can prepare you for that, for 3. It is, I daresay, the age when whimsical fantasy collides with raw human experience. Tears begin to take on an entirely new role. They go from having very specific meanings like hunger or constipation or exhaustion to a more confusing set of circumstances—3-year-olds, after all, are beginning to learn the tried-and-true ropes. And they're out for blood.

Sure, a crying toddler might be trying to tell you they need a nap or something worthwhile like that. I can't dispute such a fact. Still, look closer at any bawling 3-year-old and there's often more than meets the tear-stained eye.

Because 3 is the age when kids start crying because they want their way and they want it NOW. Resistance is met with tantrums. Gentle attempts at coaxing them towards discipline can get you bit on the arm.

Charlie, my youngest kid, is 3. I've been here before, too, having watched his older sister and brother pass through the gates where he is now. Every day, I keep trying to remind myself to soak all of this is in. He won't be this age again. It's not easy, though.

Kids this age try your patience. Charlie seems hellbent on hurting himself most of his waking hours. Finding the balance between letting him grow and learn from his mistakes and trying to keep him from needing four or five stitches every couple of days isn't as easy as it sounds.

There is something sublime about watching a 3-year-old develop a passion of their own.

Personality oozes out of my son more and more each day. When he was 1 or 2, he was cute and all, but he was, I don't know .... more generic. I don't mean that as a bad thing. I think kids are just more alike when they're not yet 3. But once they hit this place, where Charlie is now ... look out.

Brain development and physical growth has a lot to do with it, of course. Everything picks up steam around this age. They start catching on to the patterns of life. Hot stoves are bad news, catching bees is probably a bad idea and if you open the fridge when no one is looking, you can maybe reach the bottle of chocolate milk syrup and squirt it all into your gaping pie hole.

Yet, there's something more to it all than just the things that pediatricians and child psychologists uncover. There's an unspoken vibe that comes with being 3. Rebellion is reality. Testing boundaries means you're making connections with the finer parts of being alive. Sadness becomes purer than it was back when you simply cried because you'd crapped your pants again. Excitement and joy begin to be affiliated with very specific things that appeal to you and not your brother or sister or your mom and dad.

There is something sublime about watching a 3-year-old develop a passion of their own. Charlie turned 3 and soon after he began to be riveted by fire trucks. Yeah, I know—real original. That said, it still counts for everything, if you ask me. Almost overnight we went from a family just driving around in a little Honda to one with a young buck in the backseat who would shriek with giddiness whenever we passed a lone fire truck parked outside some random firehouse.

It was my first real glimpse of my youngest son's uniqueness. A little boy loving fire trucks is as old as the damn hills and I know it, but when it's my own boy, my own flesh and blood, my heart races harder as I hear him freaking out back there, his tiny voice breaking the daily monotony of running errands.

"FIRETWUCK!!!" he hollers. And we all feel his spirit lifting us up. We all get caught up in the spotting of a truck that hasn't ever really done much for us before. My other two kids never cared much about fire trucks at all. This is Charlie's thing. It's all him and we know it now. We smile as he scares us with his sudden shouts when he spots one on the road. We can't help it. It's a thing without a name. Our brother, our boy, loving a thing he can't even explain. Which makes us love it too.

Age 3 is when you see a kid's face become a face that someday, a long time from now, you will look at sitting there across from you in the backyard, chomping on a burger, maybe sipping a beer, and you will recognize the same exact tiny cheeks and sparkling eyes and shining smile that you used to watch in the rearview mirror.

You will watch them eating their dinner, your now-grown child completely oblivious to your careful stare, and if the conditions are just right, if you wait long enough and watch closely enough, you will see the same exact pop of joy cross their face that you used to anticipate once upon a time. Back when you would roll up on a fire station, slowing down as you passed the open doors, just waiting for the magic you knew was coming—a magic that your knew was about to unleash itself in one beautiful burst of 3-ness.

Magic you still remember like it just happened yesterday.

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