Plastered across the virtual pages of social media are parents’ laments of three-year-old behavior gone awry. Parents and caregivers across the globe are fighting to maintain normalcy at home. What was once a daunting task of balancing a routine of school, work and play has now doubled in complexity. Families are charged with the task of working full time and providing child care full time. Families are striving to create a structure and routine amidst the backdrop of a drastically changed society. For the many who shelter in place, one time of day morphs into the other. Among the meetings, the newly organized pantries, the laundry and the dishes, stands the three-year-old. The child that every parent and caretaker is trying to protect, teach and love. The child who is challenging us. The child who is faced with a dilemma.
Children all over the world have been thrown into a uniquely stupefying situation. Children had schedules they could depend on. They had dates and events that gave them a sense of time. They knew going outside and being with people was safe and joyful. What was familiar is now foreign. What was cyclical is now halted. What was benign is now injurious. The ordered events of our days have unraveled. We attempt to remain grounded as the landscape of our daily lives shifts beneath our feet. But the three-year-old has a uniquely grand task at hand.
The mind of the three-year-old child is inherently sensitive to order. Staircases need to be repeatedly climbed, socks need to fit just right, and the same story often needs to be read six times (in a row). Dr. Maria Montessori’s work documents the child’s need for consistency, repetition, order and routine. Predictability gives a sense of security.
With social distancing, children have lost a sense of predictability, and in turn, they have lost some sense of security. Right now, they cannot go back to their routines. Schools and parks are closed. Playdates are paused. So much of what they knew to be true has temporarily shifted. Adults can understand that this situation is transient, albeit challenging. Asking a three-year-old to understand the complexity of this situation is an arduous request. This lack of choice and predictability not only disrupts their sense of order and routine, but also directly contradicts their sense of independence. One of the favorite phrases of the developing toddler is, “I do it myself”. With the lack of independence and choice, myriad tantrums erupt. Simply put, it’s hard. And thus, we have the three-year-old’s dilemma: a search for order amidst a disordered time.
So what can we do? We hold space. We give freedom within limits. We set up home environments where the child can succeed and feel independent. Acknowledge big feelings in a factual way. Give choices when you can, while also holding limits. When your child screams because they don’t want the cereal you set out this morning (even though they eat that cereal every single day) remember it’s not about the cereal. In the classroom, children start suddenly reacting strongly to normal routines when something in their home life feels out of control. Now that home and school are melded together, it’s not surprising that children are testing limits- the world currently feels out of control. Children are trying to figure out what still has order and what does not. They might push back on a common routine like eating cereal for breakfast just to see where the limits are.
Involve your child so that they feel empowered. You can give back independence by offering two choices for your child to eat in the morning, or create a menu for the week with them. Let them choose between two outfits and when they get stuck, offer to help with one pant leg while they do the other. The child wants to know we are holding some boundaries and are there for support. Imagine driving on a highway. We want lanes on a highway – we want the freedom to change lanes, but need guidance as to where those lanes are. Children want the freedom of “choice” in their day, but the adults can help guide them by giving choices, routines and support. Create spaces in your home where children can access materials, toys and snacks independently. Pause to observe your child throughout the day. Observe again.
Remember, in this seemingly endless period of uncertainty, it’s not about the cereal. Rather, it is a call to recreate a sense of order for the child. The sense of order we all so deeply crave.