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The rule of three

Oh, age three! You lovable rapscallion! You adorable imp. You sly little devil, you. You Hello, Kitty!-style Beelzebub. You sparkle-eyed Fisher Price My First Enema Bag™! You fresh-faced son of a two-bit whore. You—

Wait, I should clarify here. I'm not saying any of you parents of three-year-olds are two-bit whores. (That's just me, and I'm told [buffing nails] I underprice.) And our children are lovely people, delightful people, when three doesn't have them in a half-nelson, choking the charming little bejesus right out of 'em. What I mean is, at our house three has come to roost, and we're ankle-deep in its guano.

It's an exercise in deep discombobulation to be Ben's parent these days.  Much of the time he's so lovable that I honestly feel it in my body — a curl of the toes, a wiggle of the fingers as I lunge in to poke him, to make sure he's real.  To pick just one example, there's his current obsession with family.  I don't mean us, his family, but the abstract idea of it. Everything's part of a family: people, animals, inanimate objects. If he decides to pretend to be a farmer, then he is the Dad farmer and one of us adults gets to be the baby farmer. (Make up your own joke.) Any variation in size results in the assignment of a family role, unto the generations; we have not just Mama, Dad, and Baby Elmo, but enough dupes in graduated sizes to go back to Piltdown. He makes these — I don't know, adorable? unnerving? undoraving! — tableaux of families:


A family of Batmans. …-Men.  …-Mobiles.  (No one's told the putative father Mama got it on with a Chevy.)


Potatoes…I…guess. Yes, I know one's an onion. I'm assuming they adopted.


Rabbits. From left: Mother, baby, father, brother. ("The brother is big! He wears underpants!") How do I know the white hand puppet is the mother? Simple:


[Running feet, eager voice.] "The mama bunny has a pouch! Yook! She can carry her baby!"

Whoops. Sorry. Next time I'll warn you: bunny junk. NSFW.

So a lot of the time he's doing endearing stuff like that. But he's never just okay, never neutral or pretty good. The rest of the time he's nigh on intolerable. He likes things the way he likes them, our Ben, with a fervor that borders on compulsion.


You know. "Borders on."

When things don't go the way he wants them to, he loses his potato-loving mind. If he has the idea that he's going to set the table, for example, and instead we have Charlie do it because Ben couldn't be persuaded to drop the goddamn tuber, first he does this flamenco of outrage, beating his heels so fast that it makes his screams of protest judder. "I wanted to do it! I wanted to do it!" But, Ben, we remind him reasonably, we asked you to do it twice, and you didn't come when we said to, so you missed your chance to help. And then he wigs out a little more, unable to believe how much natural consequences suck, and then tries to gather the cutlery, return it all to the drawer, and, I don't know, spool back time so that events unfurl correctly. Rewind and redo. It's like Run Lola Run in little orange Crocs. With dinner knives. On angel dust.

These meltdowns are just that. You can watch his circuits just fry as he tries to make sense of what has happened, why he doesn't like it, and how he could possibly change it. We try to forestall them by involving him as much as we can in decisions and choices and plans, but, Jesus, sooner or later you just want the table set, and the cost is a one-kid supernova.

And I realize by now I've characterized my kid as a catastrophic explosion, a drug-addled knife-thrower, and a furious little Time Lord who stole the keys to the TARDIS. (Also, in case you'd forgotten how appalling I can be, an enema bag figured, way back there in paragraph one.) But there are also the rabbits, the Batman…s…es, the things that are sort of potatoes. And because three is so mercurial, you have no idea from moment to moment which one you're going to get.

I was talking on Twitter the other day with Alexa about this series of books — I've mentioned them here before — put out by the Gesell Institute. Although I actually like the books quite a bit, finding their information on developmental phases to be reassuringly bang-on, they're amusing, too. I'm not going to steal a march on Alexa, who may write about this herself, by quoting extensively; I'll just say that the authors' suggestion to encourage a three-year-old to give up his blankie by cutting it in half strikes me as rather, you know, old school. Good work developing that independence, kid! I'll just reward you with a few snips here…a trimmed thread there…There! I have OBLITERATED ALL YOU HOLD DEAR.

Anyway, the three-year-old volume is called Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy. And although the title makes me snort, I have to say it's fitting. Because these days with Ben we just never know which of those we'll get. Friend or enemy. Batman or Satan. Lovable bunny or unauthorized upskirt. (Look, I lost control of these metaphors about 600 words ago.)

I remember with Charlie three was much harder than two ever dared to be. It's shaping up the same with Ben. Charlie is living proof, though, that somehow we made it through. And so we will with our current friend and enemy, Ben. Enema-frienema-Benemy. May Batman protect us all.