My friend Dinie wondered if Petra’s telephone manners, or lack thereof, mean that she is spoiled. I can’t speak to spoiling in particular, except to say that although I’m prepared to cop to not being the sternest parent ever, I don’t think Petra is spoiled. I think that what she is, is three.
When you don’t spend a lot of time with preschoolers, it’s easy to look at small children lying on the floor in supermarkets because they didn’t get a treat, or flipping out on the street because they’re not getting their own way, and think “why don’t the parents sort it out? If I had a kid, it would never behave like that.” I know, because I was guilty of that myself.
But once you start living with a child, you soon realise that the tiny helpless creature you’ve brought home from the hospital has his or her own personality and agenda. They’re not perfect, and they’re not perfectly biddable. I was chatting to one of the kindy mums the other day and the conversation got around to the uncomfortable realisation we’d both had that our little darlings are not paragons of virtue. They have likes and dislikes and they express them, and you can’t stop that. So I get to listen to Petra bossing Louise, the head teacher, around in a way that makes me squirm (and amuses Louise, who’s met a preschooler or two in her time and is no longer shockable) and watch Petra shoving any kid foolish enough to try to take toys off her. And the other mum gets to watch as her son kicks toys or tries to throw a bucket of water over Petra. Of course, we’d rather they didn’t, and we express disapproval, and as time goes by, the kids learn what behaviour works and what doesn’t, what’s acceptable to the people around them and what isn’t.
Because this is what being three is about. It’s about learning the behavioural ropes. And the best way to learn is to push and push until you get a reaction out of the people around you. That’s how you find out where the boundaries are. So kids do shit, shit that you never would have thought of. As a parent, you do your best to keep up, keep them safe, and help them learn. In my observation, it doesn’t really matter how strict you are or aren’t – this boundary pushing is a developmental imperative and everyone does it.
As Louise told me when Petra first started kindy and was having trouble figuring out how to play alongside the other kids, it doesn’t matter what agendas the parents and teachers have, the kids are focused on their own requirements (at three those are learning to separate from their parents and to share with the other kids). Everything else is just gravy.
If you’re wise, this is the second thing you realise, that the behaviour that’s currently driving you insane, is mostly developmental. If you’re consistent and kind, set reasonable boundaries and do your best to model the behaviour you want (and this is so hard – I feel like I fail at it over and over) the child will grow out of yelling when you’re on the phone or having tantrums or whatever else is going on. They’ll move smoothly through to the next phase, leaving you scrambling along behind them. Watching Petra go through this process, seeing her courage at tackling new things, and observing her astonishing cleverness and creativity is one of the joys of being a parent (even when her creativity is directed at finding out how best to get a rise out of me).