I have two sons, and they are almost exactly two years apart. Good family planning, you think. But not so fast. One is about to turn four! My, they grow up quickly. But the other is about to turn two. Terrible.
When Nate turned two, we started experiencing some tantrums, those “terrible two’s.” I heard really uplifting news from lots of supportive and credible people: “Just wait, three is worse than two.” Thanks.
But they were right.
Two year-old tantrums were challenging, sure, but they were manageable. Two-year olds tantrum because they’re frustrated. They want something, but they lack the communication skills to properly express it.
So, you just get down on your knees, eye-level, and say something really sympathetic and respectful, like “I’m trying to understand you, but I need you to stop crying and use your big boy words.”
And Sam’s on the verge of this now. His water hurts him. Or his sock hurts him. Or he can’t get a piece of watermelon onto his fork. Or he spilled a single drop of milk onto the corner of his plate. Or the golf ball he’s playing with keeps rolling to the corner of the dining room behind the heavy arm chairs. Apparently, our house is lopsided. Often he’s hungry, but he can’t yet identify hunger. So he cries. Everything I do is wrong, everyone who walks by or says something to him is the devil. And this kid gives really good death stares. Really good.
Last week, he got angry after trying for several minutes to put his banana back inside the peel. The peel had already been split into three widths all the way to the bottom, but time after time, he attempted to defy the laws of physics by wedging it back into the banana’s former home only to watch it slide back out and bounce onto his plate.
Seated next to him, I observed with furrowed brow for a few moments before trying to explain that his task was doomed to fail, that this was not something that is typically done, that once naked, a banana is naked forever—or at least until it’s eaten.
This only enraged him more, and he turned to scowl and shout at me: “No! No, Mom! No b’nana!”
I decided soon after that it was naptime.
Three year-old tantrums, on the other hand, are more malicious, and they’re about power—though sometimes it turns out he just has to poop. He dumps out toys, breaks puzzles, turns off the TV while I’m watching the news, and removes the bookmark from the book I’m reading—all while maintaining eye contact.
It’s almost as though they’re schemed in advance. Sometimes I imagine Nate rolling out of bed in the morning, unfolding his copy of the blueprints to our house and, using crayons and action figures, mapping out his attack. And because he’s three and no longer two, he’s able to predict our counterattack and devise an effective Plan B.
“You think you’re the boss of me? Well, I’m gonna ruin your day!”
Last night for dinner, I was making grilled cheese sandwiches. Nate drifted into the kitchen and requested that his grilled cheese not be cooked, he just wanted cheese between two slices of bread. “Fine,” I said, “but do you promise you won’t be mad when Sam’s sandwich has gooey cheese oozing out the sides and your just have a flat slice of cold cheese?”
“I promise,” he said.
We sat down at the table and he looked with disgust at his plate. He picked up the top piece of bread and let it drop.
Then he looked at Sam’s plate.
And back at his plate.
Back at Sam’s plate again.
And back at his own.
“Hey! I want my sandwich to be like Sam’s—cooked!”
I refused to cook another one. I told him this isn’t a restaurant and other mom clichés. His mouth watered as he took one last gaze at Sam’s crispy, buttery sandwich and proceeded to howl. Tears—real tears!—balled down his flushed cheeks!
That was it—just like that, he ruined my dinner! First, I had to listen to him wail loudly in my ear about how he loves grilled cheese and how famished he was. Then, I had to feel guilty because he was so miserable. I could tell he was genuinely hungry and I began to worry whether he’d survive the night on an empty stomach.
Tighe and I, seated across from one another, continued to eat, occasionally glancing up at each other with irked and distressed expressions. Desperate for some peace, we were each trying to express our weakening resolve without words: “I don’t want to cave into him, but if you do, I won’t stand in your way.”
Finally Tighe, probably able to think more clearly than I since he his eardrums hadn’t exploded yet—I was temporarily deaf—said, “Nate, how about we compromise and toast it in the toaster oven?”
Suddenly, my hearing snapped back and faster than Sam can injure himself, I replied with enthusiasm, “Yes! Great idea, let’s do it!”
So we did. He was thrilled for a few minutes, probably relieved that he didn’t have to waste all that energy sobbing anymore. And he ate three or four bites. Awesome.
The important thing is that he got quiet. It was a good night.
And sometimes, Nate’s tantrums aren’t fervent. Instead they’re calm and passive-aggressive, like the stoic state of an estranged, moody teenager.
“Who’d you play with at school today?”
“Were all your friends there?”
“Where were they?”
“They’re all sick.”
“All of them?”
“What about your teachers?”
“They’re on vacation.”
“Oh, so what’d you do?”
“Sounds really boring. You just sat in a classroom all day by yourself?”
Serene on the surface, but we can feel the waves of resentment flooding slowly toward us.
Are you fifteen now, Nate? Are you hormonal? Should I buy you some zit cream? Some tampons?
Which reminds me: eventually they won’t be two or three anymore. They’ll be teenagers! With access to cars and drugs and alcohol!
If parenting is a theme park, we’re strapped into this roller coaster of fits and tantrums for a long time: The Tower of Terror. I’d at least like some funnel cake.