Parenting a four-year-old-going-on-thirteen

09/11/2012 at 12:48 pm | Posted in Motherhood | 16 Comments

I need to write about Lily.

It’s hard being the best mom I can be for her. Really hard.

You know from reading here that she is an awesome kid. Kind, smart, clever, funny, beautiful in countless ways. She owns my heart.

But she’s also a four-year-old.

Which makes it very difficult to figure out how the heck to be a good parent. Most of my mom-fail moments involve Lily. Like when she demands my time, my attention, for me to turn on the TV right this minute. She doesn’t care that I’m up to my elbows in baby poop. Or that Sophie is wailing so loudly that I can’t hear the little dictator bellowing at me from the other room. So I snap. And then I hate myself.

In her four-year-old mind, the entire universe revolves around her. Her wants, her needs. It’s like egocentrism on steroids. I understand that this is how little kids’ brains work. The trouble is, I can’t maintain that perspective in the heat of the moment.

And then there’s all the extra drama. The girl-ness, which no matter how feminist I am, I realize is a simple truth. Girls are wired uniquely. I get that now. I used to believe it was all societal influence, but it’s not. Lily cries over every single little thing. The tantrums can be epic, especially when I ask her (in as kind a voice as I can muster) to take some time in her room to calm down. Despite my best efforts to instill a “brush it off” mentality, she continues to cry. And to gasp at every injustice, such as when Sophie picks up one of her favorite dolls. She becomes frustrated easily and seems overwhelmed by her emotions. Where to put them, how to make them less big.

The thing is, I’ve been there.

And my parents are probably enjoying a little chuckle at the karma. I was (am?) the overly emotional big sister, complete with manic mood swings and an inflated sense of justice. So my empathy for Lily is overwhelming at times. I remember how it feels to have a pain-in-the-butt little sister (sorry Laura) and how it seemed she got away with murder just because she was the baby. So sometimes I indulge Lily’s tears. I hold her and ask her to talk to me and help her feel heard. She needs that. But not every time.

Thus, my dilemma: How do I walk that line? How do I stay calm when she seems to know exactly how to push my every button? How do I parent with my heart when she hurts my feelings, or when the whining and sassing become like nails on a chalkboard?

And she hasn’t even screamed “I hate you” yet. I dread that rite of passage.

I start each day with a silent promise to Lily of patience and kindness. I smother her with hugs and kisses when she wakes. We start fresh. We try.

And each day has its tender moments, too. The tiny bits of love and sweetness and her breath on my cheek that erase all the hard stuff.

She is mine, I am hers. Always.

A good friend told me that age five is easier. And I’ve heard from other moms that ages six and seven can bring even more mellowing. Please let this be true.

Because we’re both going to need a break before puberty hits.



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  1. I’m not that far ahead of you, but so far? Yeah, 5 is a LOT easier than four. We still have the tantrums and the drama, but it’s been tempered out a lot by the start of kindergarten and being forced to cooperate with 20+ other kids for several hours a day.

    Right now most of the problems I have with Catie come from her jealousy that Lucy takes up so much of my time. My hope (haaaaa!) is that it will continue to get easier as Lucy gets older and a little less high-maintenance. We’ll see, right?

    • It’s funny. I’m equally ecstatic and filled with dread over the prospect of kindergarten. πŸ™‚ Glad to hear that you’ve noticed a difference. Gives me hope!

  2. um, yeah, so it’s like you’re INSIDE MY HEAD, and just wrote this for me and my 3 year old boy. thank you for doing so, so eloquently! i’m having the EXACT same struggle, a very sensitive kid (he too is overwhelmed by his emotions, quick to frustration and drama), a very sensitive mama, a younger sibling on the scene, and struggling to find that line between understanding/sympathizing with him (because we are so alike) and not enabling/indulging/tolerating the whining and sassing. people keep telling me to hang in there and four will be better, sounds like i’ve got longer to go. sigh…

    oh, and keep rockin it, mama. i know we’re hardest on ourselves but we should be quickest with praise too. the fact that you’re pondering, worrying, and trying to find a better way shows what a great mother you are. lily is blessed to have a mother who truly understands her and will help her reach her highest potential.

    • Thanks for that reminder, Merranie. You’re right. My kid would be a lot worse off if I didn’t give a crap about any of this. Never thought of it that way! Hope you’re doing well. I love seeing your IG pix. Looks like you have a very sweet baby boy on your hands. xoxo.

  3. The karma terrifies me…if I ever have a teenage daughter, I am in big trouble.

    I have no real-world advice, but you’re doin’ just fine, as far as I can tell. I’d say just keep on keeping on. And trust that time will turn her into a more pleasant person (as it usually does) and remember that when she’s in her twenties, you can throw this all back in her face. πŸ™‚

    • You are hilarious! I always love your perspective. And, yeah, I figure I’m giving her plenty of fodder for therapy in her adult years. πŸ™‚

      • See? You’re just helping! Otherwise she’d have nothing to tell her therapist!

  4. Have you read the Ames’ development books? They are not parenting books. They talk about the development at each age. They are very dated but some good information. Anyway their research shows there is an equilibrium phase and disequilibrium phase with each age, generally on the half year. Age 4.25-4.75 would be the disequilibrium phase for this age.

    Age 1 was crazy. Age 2 was terrible. Age 3 was trying. Age 4 was when I really wondered if I had failed as a parent, whether the kids ever heard what I said to them, whether they would be “those kids.” It was a really low point for us.

    I wrote about it here:

    It got better. The age 4 book is called “Wild and Wonderful.” Wild pretty much summed up that time for both of my boys. For us, using 1 2 3 Magic and putting them in time out in their rooms helped us get a breather. And it was worth the time to set limits as it made age 5 a lot easier.

    Parenting is hard, yo.

    • Ooh — thanks for this tip, Laura. I’ll definitely check out those books. I was just chatting with Brandy about the Wonder Weeks “phenomenon” for babies, and this sounds much the same. I’m not a fan of parenting books, but science? I can get behind that. Thank you!

  5. Two things that I was told that hit so true to home when we were struggling through the 4’s with Linus:

    1. “Terrible two’s? Terrifying three’s? No. No. No. The worst? The f***ing fours.”
    2. “There’s a reason that kids head off to school at five… and that reason is survival — their’s.”

    I know. I know. The fours are SOOOOO hard. Linus has only been in kindergarten 1.5 weeks and the increased patience I have for him, and the opportunity to dispense some of that energy for him is glorious. Absolutely glorious.

    Hang in there…

    • Oh, I love those! Tempted to print them and hang them on my bedroom mirror. Thank you for the laugh! I needed that. And I’m so relieved to hear that kindergarten can be magical. Gives me hope!

  6. Oh the fun of age 4. I am secretly hoping that Cole will just continue on his magical path of being the most laid back kid ever and I won’t have the trials and tribulations of ages 2 through 5. I like my fantasy land, it’s nice here.

    I think you are doing the best you can. Lily is an awesome kid and you are an awesome mom. I know we both use a lot of the same tools for behavior and consistency has been key for us. Some days are better than others, but 5 is most definitely better than 4. It wasn’t immediately better, but improvement has been gradual. Ian seems to have a rough go around his whole birthday, levels out for a bit, has a rough patch around the half-birthday and then levels out again for a while. I need to check out the books Laura mentioned.

    • I have a good feeling about Cole … you might just get to stay in fantasy land. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your constant encouragement, Ann.

  7. Definitely been there! Hang in there. The maturity level really goes up when they start school. But girls are always full of drama…I have nightmares about the teenage years ahead. Night. Mares.

  8. I heard age 4 is supposed to be better than 3? No?!!
    Ughh the drama! We have that over here too. The world revolves around our daughter & if she doesn’t get what she wants right at that moment, we better watch out.
    And I am dreading the I hate you phase!
    You are definitely not alone!

    P.S your daughter is adorable πŸ™‚

  9. Um, yeah, so add a penis and once again, (I know, big gasping shocker, right?) we are living the same reality one state apart. Hugs, friend. 5 HAS GOT TO BE easier.

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