Three was a bit of nightmare, but (so far) four is pretty awesome. Come on in and find out why…
“What if he just ends up being a jerk?”
I shared this concern about my son—a fear I’m sure many parents harbor with varying degrees of secrecy—with a friend over coffee a few months back.
“Well,” she answered, “you have to remember that he’s between three and four.”
She paused and took a sip from her mug, lost for a moment in thought and not-so-pleasant memories.
“Those ‘half-ages’ can be AWFUL,” she finally said, stifling a full-body shudder.
Seeing my weary eyes widen in fear she perked up.
“Oh, but you’ll see a change soon! It’ll be like you have a different kid. Really.”
I nodded as I downed the dregs of my cup, relieved I wasn’t alone in my struggles and (even more so) at the possibility of a light at the end of the infuriating tunnel that is life with a three-and-a-half-year-old boy.
I felt even better after doing a little research on my friend’s claim later that day because, as it turns out, half-ages are a thing! A really, really hard thing characterized by what the Gesell Institute of Human Development1 calls “disequilibrium.” As kids grow, they move along a zig-zaggy, spiraling developmental path that bounces them between states of disequilibrium and equilibrium–you can check it out for yourself on the second page of this handy and dandy PDF.
Children hovering around the points of disequilibrium (typically at or around those half-year marks) are often defiant, temperamental, and moody—or, as I like to call them “tiny hot messes.” However, as a child’s birthday approaches, he moves towards a phase of equilibrium where he just sort of snaps out of it for a while.
When I wrote The truth about three last summer, our son JR was the epitome of that stage of disequilibrium. Our once sweet, mild-mannered, and blessedly compliant kid was replaced by a dramatic, short-fused, angry little man with strong butthead tendencies. But in the weeks leading up to JR’s fourth birthday, my husband and I felt a definite shift in his behavior—just as my friend (and the Gesell Institute) promised. Tantrums became the exception rather than the rule; JR was happier more than he wasn’t (as were we); and our daily interactions suddenly felt constructive instead of _de_structive.
Now, three months into life with a four-year-old, I often experience the urge to pull a Mary Tyler Moore out in the middle of the street. We still encounter the occasional “off” day, but, overall, it feels like we’ve made it out of the woods.
…at least until May when he hits four-and-a-half and it all goes to shit once again.
But! We’re not there yet. So in an effort to really soak up and celebrate the joy that is this stage in our son’s life, I wanted to share a few things that I think make four so great.
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1. A legit sense of humor
Gone(ish) are the days of nonsensical “jokes” and heavy reliance on poop2 and pee punch lines in our house. JR’s sense of humor grows by the day—both in what he puts out there and what he appreciates. While he still loves all things silly, more and more we notice him picking up on sarcasm, irony, absurdity, and even the impact of correct timing and tone.
For example, the other night JR was watching TV with his dad. My husband, for whatever reason, stood up and “did a small dance,” as he put it.
JR looked at him for a moment and then, executed a perfectly deadpanned, “Awwwwwwkward.”
I mean, sure, he’s no Tina Fey, but it’s a hell of an improvement over the whole “knock-knock-who’s-there-name-whatever-item-you-see-in-the-room-and-laugh-like-a-crazy-person” schtick.
2. Appreciation for things other than toys and candy and more toys
A couple weeks ago I decided to surprise JR by picking him up from school just before naptime—something he’s begged me for months to do. I’m not sure why it had to be right before naptime, but that was always a key component in the scenario he’d built up in his mind. Who am I to mess with such things?
When I suddenly appeared in his classroom that day, he started to blubber with excitement. Guys. My four-year-old son cried happy tears at the unexpected (but apparently much-hoped-for) sight of me. As we got in the car, I asked him what he wanted to do with our afternoon together, steeling myself to field off what would have been three-and-a-half-year-old JR’s request/demand/brain-melting whine for a visit to McDonald’s or Target. But instead he just smiled and shouted, “Let’s go to our house and hang out, Mama!”
That sweet episode felt like the culmination of some major changes we’ve seen in JR since he turned four. As I’ve mentioned before, JR loves stuff. He’s always loved stuff and probably always will; gifts seem to be his primary “love language.”3 However, his understanding of the many ways to give and receive love continues to grow, as has his appreciation for them. Now, when choosing a reward for good behavior, requests for quality time with me or my husband come up just as often as his requests for “a special treat,” as he calls them.
Well, almost as often.
Ok, honestly it’s at about 70/30, but we’ll take it.
JR dresses himself in the morning, brushes his own teeth, puts on his own coat and shoes, gets himself out of bed in the middle of the night to pee, and knows how to work the Roku. A year ago, he couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) do any of these tasks without help (or at least a sympathetic audience). Now it’s all no big deal.
I’ll admit that some of my excitement over these developments comes from a place of selfishness because they make my life easier (Roku proficiency = a few extra minutes4 of sleep for me), but mostly I’m just really proud of him. I can’t help but get a kick out of watching my kid going about his business, doing his thing, like he’s a real person or something.
4. Realizing that other people live in the world
Do you know how good it feels when your kid looks at you and asks, with all sincerity, “How was your day, Mama?” Not only is it downright sweet, it also shows he’s developing an understanding that people exist outside of the context of his own little world of Legos, preschool, and Star Wars.
In my quest to raise a non-jerk, I find such a development to be extremely encouraging.
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Tell me: did you find “half-ages” difficult? What do you love about your child(ren)’s current age? What do you…not love?
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- Back in the early 80s Louise Bates Ames, one of the Gesell Institute’s co-founders, published a series of books devoted to specific years of a child’s life. The titles are amazingly spot-on: Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender; Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy; and Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful. ↩
- He learned it from watching me. ↩
- My wallet gently weeps. ↩
- Or 60. ↩