rosenberg family portrait

What could test a happy-looking family like those chumps up there? A three year old, of course.

I hate the terms “terrible twos” and “terrible threes.” It’s a cop-out. An excuse. It’s a deflection for attacking a normal developmental phase in your kid. It’s a phrase that describes parents more than kids; your toddler’s just being a toddler, but in your second or third year of fatherhood, you’ve grown comfortable. So naturally, when your kid starts spreading their wings, it feels like the end of the world. You wonder why, even with these terrible “terrible” phrases around, you’re the only one going through this.

Recently, I forgot that I wasn’t alone, and luckily for me, a group of guys came to my rescue. On Twitter, nonetheless.

When a kid hits that incredible age between two and three years old, they’re already walking and talking, but they start putting things together into thoughts and intentions. This is where it’s important beyond comprehension that you’re setting good examples in your home. You have to stop using unsavory language, stop having petty fights and nagging the missus (or mister!) in front of your kid, and you have to re-evaluate your television consumption. Well, I mean, you certainly don’t “have to” – but at this stage, your child is developing social norms. So, keep up the nasty crap and you’re going to raise a nasty kid – and I don’t mean Beastie Boys nasty. I mean Jeffrey Dahmer nasty.


This would be my kid if he had one of my monitor's HDMI cables in his hands.

Lately, I’ve been feeling the burn. Our son turned three in January, and it seems like every day, he’s testing his surroundings. He’s like Johnny-5, and he’s trying to get as much input as possible. Every single thing he learns, he wants to learn it inside-out and backwards. He learned how to drink out of a cup – now he wants to pour his water and milk. He wants to spit it into things to see what happens. He wants to turn the lights on (all of them), and touch the lightbulbs in lamps. He wants to read every magazine and book in our home…then he wants to take every page out. He wants to know why coaxial cable runs under the carpet, and he wants to rip up the carpet to see it. He wants to watch us fold the laundry, then he wants to kick the pile over. The kid wants to test every single everything.

What’s worse is that “no” hardly works on him now. If he’s touching something he shouldn’t, it takes four or five volume-escalating “no”s to get him to flinch. And if he does something bad, he fights you all the way to the naughty seat. And yes, we have a “naughty seat,” which again, yes, we certainly did learn from Super Nanny.

So then, he’s on the naughty seat and tries to hit. He tries to bite. He gets up. He peels paint off the walls (literally). It’s the longest 3 minutes of my life every day to put him there. Then, sometimes he gets off the seat and is fine. But sometimes, he re-enters society worse than when he did his time – with the intention of ruining something of yours because you stole three minutes of his life.

Tonight, I got home from work. It was a pretty alright day at work, and I enjoy coming home, seeing my family and cooking dinner for them. But, I walked in the door and immediately, my son walks up and says “Daddy, I wasn’t nice to mommy today.” Three years old and he knows to say this sort of thing.

So, I let him know he’s got to be nice to mommy because – well – it’s his mommy, and she loves him. Also, because mommy’s awesome – coincidentally why I married her.

But, the kid was on a warpath. Two minutes home, and he’s hitting me with a toy. So, I three-count him to the naughty seat. He informs me that he doesn’t want to sit there. I respectfully remind him that he doesn’t make the rules. It goes back and forth. At one point, I’m holding his arms on his lap so that he can’t hit me, and so that he is forced to sit. Just so you don’t think I’m a violent jerk, I’d heard a couple bits of advice where people called for literally bear-hugging your kid to snap them out of tantrums. This was my modified version.

Also, this is a great time to tell you that I have a hard time obeying my first rule of toddlers: whenever you fight with a toddler, you lose.

Eventually, I get him to sit for a couple of minutes as I talk to my wife, who is beyond excited that she’s going out to dinner. She leaves. I return to the chair and my kid’s immediately a saint. He apologizes, tells me he loves me, tells me he loves his mommy, and I give him the green light to return to the room.

Somewhere during the fight, I tweeted (priorities!):

zjrosenberg tweet

I was kind of blowing off steam. Somehow I had the presence of mind to use the #dadstalking hashtag – which is a great secret tool for dads.

Immediately, I was in a Twitter conversation with three other fathers:

These guys saved my night. Even though my kid was now on his best behavior, I still needed piece of mind. While my kid and I did some awesome father-son chillaxing, reading Highlights Magazine and playing with some Batman and Superman action figures, I kept my phone close and checked in on Twitter every couple of minutes.

Joe, John and Chris reminded me that other fathers are also navigating through similar waters. Joe, John and Chris all have kids around the same age – from 3-5 – so they’ve all gone through these years, and have problems (and solutions) of their own.

terrible twos venn

Figure 1: Your 2 or 3 year old kid, explained.

I can’t post the whole conversation here, but we talked about testing limits, setting boundaries, owning this phase, rewarding the good, punishing the bad, and when to get professional help. It was very comforting knowing that other fathers in this phase are both vulnerable and struggling. And struggle in this case is normal – it’s alright to have nights where you think you can’t do it. And it’s certainly okay to have moments where you want to test your local safe haven laws. But you snap out of it (certainly before you leave a 3 year old on the hospital doorstep in a swaddle to trick the nurses into thinking it’s a baby), and solve the problem.

See the diagram to the right. This is everything you have to know about a kid between ages two and three. They have a huge circle of concern, a small circle of influence, and they intersect all over your belongings. In my chat tonight, Joe, John and Chris helped me remember this important diagram. Their kids, just like mine, want a whole lot, but can’t get or do it – and that’s where tantrums and hitting happen.

We also found a happy place for all of us – video games. Chris mentioned that a source of frustration for his son was Mario Kart on the Wii; when it’s time to turn it off, his kid flips out. I understood all too well – my son plays Mario Kart and Wii Sports Resort with similar results. Joe mentioned that Kinect Sports for Xbox 360 actually taught his kid how to take turns.

So – thank you to Joe, John and Chris for the great talk. I really appreciate that there are great dads like you out there, ready to help and ready to talk. And even though we spam the #dadstalking hashtag with links to our own articles all the time – it’s great to know that we all keep an eye out on it as well and actually do some talking.

I should mention, before I’m nudged, that #dadstalking is a byproduct of DadsTalking, a site by Jim Turner, Adam Cohen, Josh Becker and Tshaka Armstrong – another group of incredible dads.

As for me, I’m happy. My kid is tough – but he’s worth it. For everything bad he does, he does two good things. He’s in a phase right now, and as I said in the Twitter chat, it’s my job as a father to move my kid through his phases. Because tantrums and limits-testing is okay for a three year old – but if I throw my hands up and passively wait for him to get out of it himself, he won’t.

Also, this:

johnny-5 family

A recent family portrait.

Whatever, like I was going to end this article all emotional and stuff.