The other day I was out and about with Clara and Alexandra. At the check out counter in a store, a man observed Clara helping me unload our basket, while Alexandra watched from the Ergo. He asked Clara if she was the big sister. “No,” replied Clara. “Katherine is the big sister.”
It dawned on me that Clara may not appreciate her position in the middle. From my point of view, coming from a two-sibling family, she occupies the fortunate place as both big sister and little sister. What could be better?! But to her, she may be neither. She does not hold the “big sister” title, and she has lost her place as the youngest, a displacement that coincides with her natural transition from toddler and girl.
As is typical of age three, she is now more little girl than toddler, though she still switches between the two regularly, seeking more independence, but not quite ready to let go of the benefits of a close attachment to me. One moment she wants to do it by herself, like Katherine, the next she is Alexandra, crawling on the floor. In the midst of this transition, as I remember well from Katherine’s third year, she is making sure we know it is still our job as parents to take care of her and keep her safe. She is testing us. Constantly.
But of course it is very different than it was the first time around. With Katherine, I was coming off a beautiful first two years during which I had the time, energy, and patience to parent exactly as I pleased, with no distractions or competing factors. This time, I am also caring for a 5-year-old and an infant. I find myself addressing Clara’s behavior as I would Katherine’s, offering a consequence that is too complex for a three-year-old; or not following through with an appropriate consequence because I am mid diaper change.
It’s no wonder, then, why Clara continues to slam the door, or draw on the furniture with crayon, or throw her food on the floor. She is looking to me for a solid, direct response, an “I see you and I am here to take care of you” response.
Removed from the situation, I know exactly how I would like to address her actions: age-appropriate consequences communicated calmly, kindly, and firmly. But in the moment I struggle to suppress the frustration, the Why can’t you just response that is so easy to throw out in the midst of the chaos. I let frustration overrule compassion. And Clara calls me on it, slamming the door again, even harder, then smiling at me for good measure.
Compassion. The key sentiment in effective parenting. When I take a moment to step back and slow down (doesn’t it always come back to slowing down?) I see Clara’s behavior in all its three-year-old charm. I feel pride in her mischievous grin as she blatantly disobeys. I admire her sense of humor as she teases Katherine. And I feel compassion for her place between being baby and girl, little sister and big sister. Suddenly, I am connected to her again, and no matter what she does, she’s just doing what all three-year-olds are supposed to do. She’s making sure I am parenting her.