Book Review: Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy?

Book review of Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy by Louise Bates Ames, PhD and Frances L. Ilg, MD.

I love all the books by Ames and Ilg, researchers who worked at the Gesell Institute of Human Development and wrote the series of books in the '70s. (They've got one for each year up through age 9, and then one for ages 10-14.) This one is probably my favorite, though, because I think lots of us believe that we're mostly out of the woods by the time our kids turn three--we've survived the newborn stage, the 18-month-old stage, and the Terrible Twos, so what else could be so tough? But then 3 1/2 comes along and smacks us down, and it can be bewildering and awfully demoralizing. And it's hard not to think that it's something that we've done that's caused our kids to act like such intuitive little treasures one month and such unbearable beasts the next.

So while all the books are excellent, I'd say this is the one most of us will probably need to read just to keep our morale up for the adventure of parenting a three-year-old.

While I love this book, I also have to laugh at some of the assumptions it contains (it was written in the 70s, after all): All homes contain a married mother and father, the father works outside the home, the mother doesn't work outside the home, and they have financial and emotional resources aplenty. Um, right. But if you can put those assumptions aside and read for the wealth of information about children this age, you'll find lots to help you ease your mind.

Ames and Ilg observed that for kids this age, things seemed to run on a 6-month cycle of equilibrium and disequilibrium. So for awhile children would be fluent and cheerful, coordinated, learning new things all the time, and happy little kids doing things smoothly. Then they'd go through a period of being physically clumsy, stuttering, being in foul moods, and just having things go wrong a lot of the time. According to them, this is normal, so knowing that will help you wait out the periods of disequilibrium, and not get freaked out by things that are developmentally appropriate but seem like regressions (like stuttering).

The book talks about socialization with other children, emotional leaps, routines, "how the child sees the world," and all kinds of other interesting topics. When I read this book for the first time, my older son was in the disequilibrium phase of being three, and I was so relieved to read that some of the things I thought were peculiar to him (like suddenly not wanting to go outside to play) were actually common. It was nice to be able to read about little details of the day, like getting dressed.

The suggestions for how to deal with some of the problems are hilarious, partly because they're a little anachronistic, but also because they're just unflinching and deadpan. My favorite quote from the book comes from the section talking about how a three-year-old can be completely adversarial with the mother, because the mother is the one the child is most emotionally engaged with:

"Recognizing this fact, you will if at all possible enlist the services of a good baby-sitter for as much of the time as possible...This advice may seem like the all-time cop-out. It remains our best advice."

How could I not love this book? Instead of telling you you're doing everything the wrong way, it just flat out says that you can't change the child's reactions at a given stage, so instead just try to work around them. Or pay someone else to deal with your child for the six months of disequilibrium. (I guess my idea of Toddler Boarding School isn't that original.) It makes me laugh, but also really made me feel better about things when I was in the thick of that stage.

This book isn't going to be any kind of panacea for the problems you're having with your three-year-old. But it will give you benchmarks to see that your kid is actually normal, and that is such an enormous help, one that's actually better than giving specific techniques (which may or may not work on your particular kid anyway).

I don't tell people they need to buy books all that often, but this one I think is really handy to own, so you can read it through every few weeks to get a reality check. It's not expensive at $12 new, but it looks like there are tons of used copies available cheaply, so you could pretty much rent it for a year by buying it and then reselling it once your child turns four.

I know others of you out there have read this book. What did you think? Could you get past the anachronisms, or did they distract you too much?