5 Tips for Parenting Your Three-Year-Old

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By Ashley Gainer

Freelance writer




Many parents who’ve been there will tell you that having a two-year-old is a cakewalk compared to having a three-year-old.

Not one to be bested by a preschooler, I decided to figure out what was going on with my boy, and how to fix it. It took a lot of reading and a few shifts in my parenting, but we eventually hit our stride.


There’s good news and bad news with three-year-olds. The bad news is, pretty much all Threes go through several months of heightened volatility. It has to do with their changing physiology, and there’s not really a way around that.

The good news is, there are some things you can do to get through it with much less turbulence. It was eye-opening when I realized that I was parenting my son the same way I’d parented him as a two-year-old, but those habits simply did not apply anymore. You may be in the same situation!


Here’s some of my best advice from my year in the parenting trenches with my own funny, sweet, remarkable three-year-old boy:

1. Make everything a race (instead of saying “hurry up” a thousand times a day)

I don’t know how it is around the royal residences, but we believe in the pitter-patter of little feet. So when my son was dawdling, balking, or distracted, I got him into focused action by calling for a race. Nothing was off limits: we raced to see who could get dressed faster, who would get to the top of the stairs first, whose seat belt would buckle first, everything. Something about racing made things exceptionally fun, and distracting him with a race saved me from many a meltdown.

2. End mealtime struggles


A lot of parents will feed their little kids separately to alleviate the mealtime power struggle and to accommodate picky eaters.

This mama don’t play that game.

My boy has always been a pretty decent eater, but he’s still a normal kid with his own, very real preferences. These 6 words saved our family dinners: “You don’t have to eat it.”

I wanted us to eat dinner together as a family. But if you’ve ever tried to ply a regular kid with grown-up food, you can probably guess that it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

To make it work, I had to change mealtime routines, starting with lunch. Instead of asking him what he wanted to eat and then acting like a short-order cook, I simply served him what I wanted to serve. I always made sure there were foods he liked, and if there was something on his plate that he didn’t want, I just said “You don’t have to eat it.

Dinner became more of the same, with a couple of adaptations. I would put a modest serving of the approved foods and just a taste ― about a teaspoon ― of the unapproved foods on his plate. He was free to choose what he ate. If he wanted more of something, there was one rule: he had to taste everything on his plate before having seconds, and a sniff or a lick would count as a taste.

3. Teach emotions  

My three-year-old had lots of big feelings he didn’t know how to handle.

So I taught him. We’d see a person or a picture and I’d ask questions like “What do you think her face is saying about how she feels? Do you think she’s happy or sad?” He began to connect the dots between feelings and expression, and he learned what to call different feelings.

I’d also help him along. When he was too upset to function, I would offer a “You’re angry because we can’t go to the park right now” or “You’re disappointed because you thought I could play with you but the baby’s crying and I can’t.”

Being able to say “I’m sad” or even a simple “Yes” went a long way toward helping him calm down and come up with a plan to move forward.

And then we would race to the kitchen for a snack (that he didn’t have to eat).


4. Become hard-of-hearing

One of the hallmarks of age 3 is the whining, and not everyone has a nanny to offer some relief. It may have been a survival mechanism, but at some point during my son’s fourth trip around the sun, my ears suddenly stopped being able to hear that whiny voice. He’d slip into whining mode, and I would rub my ear and say “I see you talking, but my ears don’t hear that voice very well. Can you try your big boy voice?”

At first, he’d just whine at a louder volume. Eventually, though, it began to sink in.

Did going whine-deaf eliminate the whining? Not really. But it did reduce the whining, and it gave me a way to opt out of my own emotional response to the whining. By refusing to engage, I could give him a chance to do better while also managing to keep my cool.

5. Offload as much as possible

The best parenting book I read that year is called Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy. (Yes, that’s really the title. There’s a whole series of these books and I have every one of them, now.)

The book says that every three-year-old goes through a phase when they basically lose their everloving minds. Their primary caregiver (usually the mom) bears the brunt of this, and the best way to survive it is to put him in someone else’s care as much as possible.

People who are into attachment parenting, peaceful parenting, gentle parenting, and other connection-based parenting approaches absolutely hate this advice. I know this because I’m one of them.

But when I finally gave up on being the perfectly attached, calm, peaceful mommy and started letting the local grandparents help on a regular basis, I found that my three-year-old and I were both tremendously happier. So as much as the gentle parent in me hates to admit it… the book was right. Getting someone else to care for him made a big difference. It’s worth a shot!

There’s only so much you can do

Even with all the love, structure, attachment, and freedom that we provided, our three-year-old had a months-long rough patch. Just remember: it won’t last forever. That goes for the rough days, but it remains true for the fantastically sweet days, too.


Ashley Gainer is a freelance writer specializing in money and entrepreneurship. When she’s not writing for her awesome clients, she’s teaching other at-home moms how be writers. Sign up here to get her FREE report on the best resources for freelance writers, and join her FREE facebook for work-at-home moms here.

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