Age Three: the attack of The Sillies

Something happens to your rather sober two-year old when they become three: The Sillies.

The Sillies manifest in lots of ways, namely dawdling and finding a game in everything.  Your once-functional toddler now plays with his Chex, takes half an hour to get dressed, hops around the house, speaks with cartoon exaggeration, fidgets in his chair, and generally can’t control his face, hands, or voice properly.  Whereas he once could do this and might have even seemed rather adult in his combativeness and control, now everything is cause for a fit of giggles, nothing is appealing unless it is fun, and doing something simple like cleaning up toys morphs into an all-night event.  Plus, three year olds start talking about everything.  If they haven’t mastered “Why?” yet, they soon will, and they can prattle to you all day long.  They chatter about what they see, what they like, favorite cartoons or story lines, and what you’re doing.  They are always making noise and seem to think through their mouth.  They also make lots of mistakes because they aren’t really processing what they’re doing anymore.  They may ask ridiculous questions, make all kinds of noises with their mouths (including some famously inappropriate ones), turn everything into song… and much, much more!

They are totally sweet and, at times, totally exhausting.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about what causes 3-year olds to catch The Sillies but I confess I haven’t figured it out yet.  Probably it is due to a number of influences:

  • television shows and movies
  • nursery rhymes and silly songs
  • ridiculous faces, voices, and gestures grown adults use
  • Christmas, birthday parties, and holidays (which pretty much come up every month)

Now, this is not to demonize these things.  I believe all of them have a place in a young child’s world, some more than others, and that it is perfectly right to relate to your children with unabandoned love, warmth, affection, and laughter.  Nobody expects a reserved and refined preschooler.

However, I am pretty sure that these types of things are the sources of a lot of silliness during that third year because if you deprive a child of those things, they are more serious.  Consider, as an extreme example, children of poverty or some  indigenous cultures.  Where the media and entertainment, or privileges of money have not touched, the children are sober, even grim at times.  The joy we are so used to seeing in a preschooler’s heart simply isn’t there, or at least not often in that affable way we recognize.  This is unhealthy, but it does show us that much of our child’s development is culturally based.

Moreover, Americans seem to have a special appreciation for silliness that other cultures (at least, institutionally) may not have.   We seem very bent on emotional displays and extroverted charm that my British, French, Portuguese, and German friends do not quite understand.  Their sources of delight seem somehow more distant or refined, based in what they see as the deeper joys of life (like family, religion, property, or country).  I live in a metropolitan area and also have some Greek, Russian, Albanian, and Brazilian friends (first generation), and they do not raise their children that way either.  This isn’t to say they are spoilsports—far from it.  Their kids watch Dora and some of their children attend preschool where there are nursery rhymes and class parties, but for some reason the parents do not see their primary mode of interaction with children as needing to be pedantic or silly.  From what I see in the local grocery store or my neighborhood, first generation Asian and Indian parents can be the same way.  They largely talk to their children without silliness, and even sometimes more matter-of-factly than I am comfortable with.  But their children are clearly less silly than mine, so it must be beneficial sometimes =)

And yet, get a group of three year olds together, ethnic or not, and the room will be full of Sillies.  Culture aside, something developmental happens at three which kicks off The Sillies.  Children finally get smart enough and familiar enough with their people, surroundings, and environment to manipulate concepts.  They can invent, flex, and work with characters and emotions given to them so that they imagine, project, and reason through stories in their own minds.  They play with their toys in a whole new way, they see their parents as representative of something specific, and they understand life events evaluatively (as good, bad, sad, funny, etc.).  They are also starting to notice others more fundamentally and are interested in having relationships with them.  But they are still largely innocent.  Their world is unblemished by tragedy, pain, and adult substance (hopefully).  Their joy is unmitigated by pressures of this world, emotions of other people, and what their current circumstances are.  Have you ever seen a three-year old jauntily playing with crayons or something in the middle of a dentist’s office?  or even a prison?  They can do this because they are absorbed in their own creative minds—a very appreciable characteristic.

On the down side, it is hard to teach them about authority and respect.  They are just starting to understand that others exist with feelings and standards, but they don’t have any concept of that being relevant to them/their behavior. They seem to think everyone is like Grandma, or that grown-ups are the same as peers.  They don’t understand the significance of obedience or respect (though you can certainly train them to demonstrate these) because those virtues are not normally taught or expected of them in the shows they watch or the situations they encounter.  If you run into a situation where it is expected (i.e. the library, bank, or movie theater), watch out!  You will almost always be asking for trouble, even if it is just the Chatterbox syndrome.   While before I had children I thought the old maxim, “Don’t speak until you are spoken to” was the harshest thing I ever heard, now I realize it was probably invented by parents of preschoolers!  Definitely don’t go anywhere with your 3-year old that demands seriousness, conformity, or respect for dangerous equipment.  Largely, three year olds were not created for that.  They want to be the center of attention, heard at all times, and creatively hanging on or skipping around whatever paraphernalia is about.

This isn’t all bad, it is just part of being three!  Lots of people are delighted with three year olds, which is why most preschool teachers love their job.  They are teachable and funny, cute beyond belief, and generally happier than they were when they were two.  Their personalities start really showing and they learn to make friends.  Besides, in America we prize joy and silliness in a special way.  It is part of our culture to believe that you are only a child once and you should get all the childlikeness out of the time as is humanly possible.  Simply, we believe the happier our children can be, the better adults they will turn out.  And a large part of that value is probably good.  Americans contribute much charity and strength to the world scene.  We are hard, appreciable workers most of the time, and we are a tolerant loving people.  So my critique of silliness here is meant to be taken with a grain of salt.

I am mainly writing this post for the moms who wonder what silly green monster suddenly ate their toddler =)  If they are bothering you, out of control, or over the top, it may be a sign that too much silliness is in their diets (TV is a huge contributer).  Or that they are being allowed, too often, to be the center of attention.  Assuming you are a loving and tolerant person yourself, you should be able to trust your gut in this issue and modify your child’s intake of goofy or prideful input as needed.  But recognize you are going upstream.  Popular psychology tells us children learn better with silliness… that their brains are wired so they internalize messages when they have all the scripts, voices, costumes, and humor.  I think this is probably the biggest divide between us and other sober cultures… those cultures do not dismiss seriousness as capable teachers.

I’m not saying we should subject our children to documentaries!  Or deprive them of appreciation.  But I am saying that perhaps we should reevaluate our stance that silliness and spotlight is the way to a child’s heart.   Or that emotional exaggeration should be the default way we relate to little children.  Do we really think they understand us better if we’re dramatic?  If we don’t use our normal voices or make funny faces at them?  I’m not talking about being flat or dull.  And I’m not talking about foregoing silliness and humor to make children laugh when they are sad, lonely, or afraid.  I am talking about all the times in between when there is really no reason for it… when we say hello to them, meet them in a store, have them in our homes, give them presents, or otherwise simply interact with them.  I think if we let this entertainment mindset go, at least within our private walls, we will see our three year olds respond.  Let us cultivate their joy and light-heartedness while demonstrating the attitude we ultimately want them to adopt.


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