“Horse. Horse. Horse? HORSE. Donkeys. Donkeys. Mooooooooo. Moooooooo. DONKEYS! Farm? Farm. Baaa. Baaa. Doat? Doat. Horse. Cock-a-loo. COCK-a-loo. Horse. Moo? Moooooo. Birdie? Birdie? DUCK. DUCK! Duck. Horse.”

Dal Capo al Coda.

While Dylan can essentially be described as a pint-sized, squeaky-voiced farm-fetishizer these days, Riley at the ripe old age of four is busy developing some new personality traits I can only describe as PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY TELL ME THIS ISN’T WHAT FOUR IS GOING TO BE LIKE OH JESUS KILL ME NOW challenging. There’s the whining, for one thing, which has been ratcheted up to a new level capable of triggering a thrilling physiological response in my eyeballs involving them protruding from my skull by a good three or four inches and painfully vibrating at the ends of their optic nerves. There’s also the dramatic scenery-chewing over-reactions to mild knee-scrapings and other bodily injuries, which feature bloodcurling screams accompanied by howls of “NOOOO! NOOOO! NOOOO!” while people in neighboring counties sadly shake their heads and reach for phones to dial CPS.

Most upsetting to me, however, is how he’s dealing with frustration lately. The moment he’s thwarted by some activity he’s attempting—getting his bike turned around, for example, or untangling a string—he starts flipping out. “I CAN’T! I CAAAAAN’T!” he screams, becoming more and more agitated while I try and calmly remind him to take his time, ask for help if he needs it, try setting the bike down or a second, chill the fuck out before the nice lady from Protective Services comes by again, etc. Likely as not, the item in question gets hurled to the ground while he shrieks “I DON’T WANNA” and somebody gets a time out because Mommy’s eyeballs are doing that Warner Brothers thing again.

Dylan often expresses frustration by doing fishflops and angrily eating dog hair off the carpet, which is less than pleasant in its own right, but Riley’s I CAAAN’Ts make me sad because god, I just don’t want him to feel that way. I don’t want him to feel like he can’t. I want his world to feel like exactly what it is right now: wide open, everything spread before him.

I know he’s a little kid and things sometimes feel like a Really Big Deal even when they involve, like, taking a extra half second to un-Velcro his shoe before attempting to remove it. I know children are not exactly known for their patience. I know it’s not out of the norm for tiny things to morph into giant enormous overwhelming challenges that light up the TILT section of a preschooler’s brain, maybe particularly during times when they’re tired or hungry or their moon is in Uranus or whatever. But I worry a little about his self confidence. He can be a tentative guy, and I want to be doing everything I can to help him feel . . . you know, like he can. Or at least how to deal with life’s inevitable difficulties without resorting to a total system meltdown.

I guess the more I think about it, it’s less that he’s changed, and more that I have. I expect ridiculous histrionics from a toddler, but I expect more from my big boy. And for the 385727485th time, I wish there was a manual for all this.

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warcrygirl
13 years ago

I have about as much patience as my oldest, who at the ripe old age of 11 this January does the EXACT SAME THING, only now it’s punctuated with the dramatic “I’M NEVER GOING TO *insert thing he can’t get to work at the moment* EVER AGAIN! I tend to take the easy way out; if it’s important enough to him he’ll calm down and work it out (although I preface it with “yes you CAN do it if you try”), if it isn’t then it wasn’t worth the effort to calm him down in the first place. Once Dylan starts with his own Whine-O-Rama this tactic may work for you.

Niki
Niki
13 years ago

Mine are now 14 and 12 and were exactly like yours. Ditto the eye bulge, the CPS and EVERYTHING. It’ll be fine. You’ll get through it. I promise. My baby got on the bus to go to the high school yesterday. Unreal.

GingerB
13 years ago

My girl, three years & three months is just the same. I think it is a cross between just getting some attention and interaction and being a little overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. But I am damn sick of hearing she can’t put her undies on, seriously. Undies!! I think your boy sounds normal.

Sandra
Sandra
13 years ago

My husband had the same meltdown last night when he found his light colored shorts on the floor of the closet after putting them in the wrong dark color-coded hamper. This was also after a 10-minute discussion as to which clothes go where. 10-minutes because he was being an ass clown regarding the whole thing. The color coded hampers were his frickin idea, I just put the process in place. I guess I am going to have to hang signs to try and thwart another meltdown. He’s a 38-year old toddler.

Sarah
Sarah
13 years ago

Unfortunately, they don’t tell you about Four. Four SUCKS. An online forum “friend” once said this to me, when I complained about four: “Two was fine. Three was awful. Four nearly killed me. Five might have been better, but I was probably just still shell-shocked from four.” I think about that all the time because you NEVER hear about the 3s and 4s, just the “terrible 2s” which in my kids’ cases, were perfectly enjoyable. Survival is the name of the game haha.

JennyM
JennyM
13 years ago

Being childless myself, I really don’t know jack squat. But I can’t help but think that the incredible love that you so clearly have for your boys and your strong belief that their future IS wide open can’t help but ultimately triumph in the face of The Terrible Whatevers.

Also, I think we need a cartoon sketch of The Warner Brothers Eyeballs Effect.

Amy M.
Amy M.
13 years ago

My 3.5-y-o does the exact same thing! I was worried he was just a tender little boy & a drama queen like his mom. ahem.

Definitely not looking forward to my sweet little 1-y-o turning into that crazy beast!

Jill
13 years ago

I can totally relate. My four year old gives up on anything that doesn’t come easily to him. That bike we got for him last spring? Collecting cob webs. Swimming lessons? Colossal waste of time and money. He already KNOWS how to do these things. He doesn’t need lessons. And no, he doesn’t not want to “practice.” I see so much of myself in that behavior that I want to go back in time and slap young me upside the head for not trying, because I can’t do it to my own kid in the here and now. I hope it gets easier for you and your boy… I’ll let you know if and when it eases up on my end :-)

p.s. Moon in Uranus? #snort

Melissa H
13 years ago

The part of this post about Riley? Could have written that word for word about my almost 4 year old. Seriously, the whining, it will KILL ME. Or it would if I wasn’t already half dead from taking said child to the dentist yesterday. That was just delightful.

Marie Green
13 years ago

Oh, how I second the whole “needing a manual for this” sentiment.

In fact, *if* such a manual was available, perhaps a warranty would also be available, and then when the children went into “system fail” we could twitter about it and get a REPLACEMENT PART(S). And perhaps a brand new child, to entertain the childless women at the shelter.

However, even if I didn’t get a spare child to donate, and even if I didn’t get a replacement child when mine went wonky, I’d STILL love a manual. =)

Jenny
13 years ago

heh. uranus.

LJ
LJ
13 years ago

Manuals would have been nice. I always said ‘It’s a miracle 1st children live’. It’s a crap shoot figuring out the why’s, what’s, how’s and how come’s. They do live though and things work out for the best. Mine are now 20 and 17 and good kids..

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

I’m a blog stalker but this post got me, I had to comment and tell you it was fabulous, and I feel the same way when my 2-year-old says I can’t. Oh, and I think my eyeballs do the Warner Brothers thing too.

Lesley
Lesley
13 years ago

“Horse. Horse. Horse? HORSE. Donkeys. Donkeys. Mooooooooo. Moooooooo. DONKEYS! Farm? Farm. Baaa. Baaa. Doat? Doat. Horse. Cock-a-loo. COCK-a-loo. Horse. Moo? Moooooo. Birdie? Birdie? DUCK. DUCK! Duck. Horse.”

I am thinking how awesome this would be programmed into someone’s clock alarm.

Heather
13 years ago

We never had terrible twos. Only f*cking fours (quickly followed by the feisty fives, sarcastic sixes and what is shaping up to be the screw-you sevens). However, this was with our daughter. Our son is a whole other ball of wax. Is there such a thing as going through the “ones”???

Kathryn
13 years ago

My son is doing to SAME THING. It tends to make bedtime my favorite time of day.

My mom (who has a doctorate in early childhood dev) tells me 4 is very challenging, but that it gets better at 5.

Let the countdown begin!

Kathy
13 years ago

Four is so different than two, isn’t it? Two year olds can do everything “all by myself, mommy!”

The first time we put my 2YO on her tricycle this summer? She tried to ride it down a hill. The trike fell over (of course) and she hit her face on the handle bars. Bingo. First bloody nose.

SJ
SJ
13 years ago

You just described my newly turned four year old to the letter. Except throw in some “you don’t love me’s” and the sassy, bossy attitude he seemed to have found overnight. I’d really like a manual too please.

haitian american family of three

Wait, wait JUST A MOMENT HERE!!! I’ve been under the assumption that four was great! Amazing and easy! I am barely hanging on as we enter three and now you people are telling me four is going to be worse-this is just horrible. I like the lie better.

Terra
Terra
13 years ago

So funny. My son turned four in July and has the same issues. He says, “I quit.” and “I’m a quitter!” The other day he told me he wasn’t going to school because “Everyone has a bad attitoo.” That’s a you problem, buddy.

melanie
melanie
13 years ago

oh man it MUST be four…… and here I though it was just my 4 year old……. I so needed this post today thanks!

Gigi
13 years ago

ROFLMAO!!! Too funny. 3, 4, & 5 are hard. Really hard. But then it gets easier and then it gets hard again. Then, hopefully, they move out.

Love your blog!! Brings back many memories!

Julie
13 years ago

My mother told me when my little boy turned 2 that the terrible 2s were just the beginning, followed by the horrible 3s and the miserable 4s, and then when they turn 5, they wake up, finally, as little people. He turned 5 2 weeks ago, and the whining is still amped, the frustration and subsequent I-give-up-you-do-it-Mommy-es come just as fast and even more furiously. I’m hoping it’s a delayed reaction to his birthday, and I’ll keep checking every morning that he wakes up a civilized human being.

workout mommy
13 years ago

I just have to chime in and say that I feel much better knowing I am not the only one going thru the hell of “FOUR” right now. I thought it was just me because all of my friend’s kids seem like perfect angels. Then again, they are probably lying.

I would pay a ton of money for a manual right about now. (Or a nanny!)

andrea
13 years ago

All I keep hearing about is how much four sucks and I can’t begin to imagine that it can get any worse than three has been so far. We are in the midst of the mind numbing whining and the never ending “I can’t do it’s” with the added bonus of not quite exiting the “but why’s”. My son told me the other day that “he didn’t know how to learn” when working on his numbers and it nearly broke my heart.

Perhaps six is the golden age, or maybe twenty-two? Practicing great acts of patience over here and wishing I could get my hands on one of those manuals.

Shannon
13 years ago

Thought you might find this interesting, given the topics of your blog posts lately. This is from my friend Kristi:

http://interruptedwanderlust.blogspot.com/2009/09/natural-motherhood.html

Sunshyn
13 years ago

Well, since my kidlet wasn’t neurotypical, I can’t compare, but I will tell you that it works fairly well if I get into his ear and whisper, “I can’t hear you when you whine (shout, yell, scream, whatever).” First, he has to shut up and listen. And second, if I get his attention, then I can calmly tell him something else and model the tone of voice I want him to use. And I WON’T grant any requests from him unless they are worded as requests, won’t help him, won’t fix his problem or show him how to fix the problem, unless he calms down and talks to me in a regular tone of voice. It’s worked wonders. Otherwise, I ignore him, and he HATES that. Because, you know, I can’t HEAR him.

jen
jen
13 years ago

It’s funny, when I read the bit about “I CAN’T” and subsequent tantrums, I thought you were talking about my husband. Seriously though, my 30-year-old man-child has some issues with self-affirmation and confidence, and when he read this post (he reads them all with me!) he said try throwing in an ‘atta-boy’ and a high five when you start seeing signs of the can’t-monster. If anything, it might help interrupt the tantrum process.

Pam
Pam
13 years ago

Oh man, now you all are scaring me. My son just turned THREE and I told my husband that it was like someone turned on his whining switch overnight. It’s been really over the top lately and it just grates on me more than anything he did in his twos. I thought FOUR might be my light at the end of the year long tunnel! Also, I think you worry more with little boys. You just want them to be super strong and confident. It’s weird, I definitely thought I would worry much more with my little girl, but it’s just not true.

JennB
JennB
13 years ago

Yes, that’s 4. I’ve found it simultaneously the most challenging and the most rewarding age. They can do lots more on their own but when the shit hits the fan, it’s like a manure spreader hitting a giant… i don’t know, fan, I guess. It’s a shitstorm.

This is when you have to get out the iron fist stuff. It’s tough.

Lesley
Lesley
13 years ago

Sundry and exercise enthusiasts, you may get a kick or maybe a punch out of this.
“motivational, martial-arts inspired dance-a-thon that is Body Opponent Blocking”
http://bit.ly/16sQlG

I would LOVE to go to a class. Think I’d be cracking up though.

joaaanna
joaaanna
13 years ago

One thing that I found with kids that I babysat and later taught at preschool (no kids of my own YET) is when they whine at me… I whine right back at them. Let them hear how it sounds. And if that doesn’t do the trick – I use the Dr. Jo-talk of, “I can’t hear you when you whine, when you can talk like a big boy, I’ll listen” and the walk away.

My thought is: the cheering at acheivements and somewhat ignoring blowups at his “version of failure” will send a good message too. He’ll get it when he gets it and you are still a rockstar mama. But then, yeah – that’s a given.

End Assvice from a non-mom-who-has-some-kid-experience. :o)

Amanda
Amanda
13 years ago

*squint* You just gave me heartburn, and mine isn’t even BORN yet. Shit.

I vaguely remember this sense of overwhelming RAAAAAAAAAH! in my sister’s kids, and the resulting WHAT THE FUCK IS IT NOW?! sense of frustration in response to the whining. Not that I didn’t want to help them, but seriously, what NOW? Your crayon broke earlier, then you couldn’t find your soccer ball (outside, genius, the ball was outside) or the book you wanted to look at, AND your cartoon wasn’t on yet, and seriously, how much more can we get our feelings hurt by today? BECAUSEICANNOTTAKEIT!

And I don’t remember how long it lasted, or what was done about it. So. I’m not helpful. But can I say that I love how your little man eats dog hair when he’s mad? That’s awesome.

jana
13 years ago

Oh, it is SUCH a relief to read this, to know that another parent is going through this with their child. My daughter (three years and two months) is big into the whiny begging, “I can’t do it,” dramatic emotional breakdowns. It pushes lots of buttons for me because I just want her to be empowered! To feel agency in her life!

And to read all your commentors who are experiencing similar things…well, it’s encouraging. Because presumably all our children can’t grow up into pathetic adults, right?

SKL
SKL
13 years ago

I think my kids are picking this stuff up from their little friends, because they never heard ME say “I can’t, it’s too hard for me.” I used to think it was their nanny telling them to be wimps, but now I think it’s peers.

Last week, my athletic DD (almost 3) was trying to transfer from bar A to platform B at the park, and she begged me to help her. As usual, I merely told her that if she wasn’t big enough or brave enough, she needed to climb back down and do something else. Well, this earned an unusual bout of crying and whining, which ended our park outing. The next trip to that park, Little Wimp climbed back up and figured out how to perform that feat, and she was mighty pleased with herself. I haven’t heard the word “can’t” out of her since. I think the best way to convince kids that you believe in them is to let them try, fail, and try again, without injecting your feelings into it.

Belle
13 years ago

Aww I wouldn’t worry about his confidence based purely on the countless I CAAAANTs. I babysit for so so so many kids that do this – I think mostly it’s for attention or out of pure grumpiness.

Amy Q
Amy Q
13 years ago

this book has changed my life – changed my relationship with Stella and imo is pretty close to a useful manual. It is kind of similar to the Happiest Toddler on the Block techniques but outlined for older kids.
http://www.connectedparenting.ca/
good luck – I have so been there.

Andrea
13 years ago

Oh…so sorry about the ‘I can’t.’ Our ridiculously cute, amazing nephew turned four and all the sudden everything out of his mouth was “I can’t” yelled or cried in a high pitched whine. It’s most likely a phase, and as everything goes, it will pass soon. But, I feel for you and given the choice, I would almost rather fish dog hair out the baby’s mouth (which, actually I did this morning!) than deal with negotiating with a four year old.

lisa
lisa
13 years ago

I don’t have any profound advice but you aren’t alone. While I have found that overall 4 is significantly better than 3, Nathan all of a sudden can’t do things like get himself dressed (“but I caaaaaaan’t”). And I tell him, “you’re FOUR- you can do anything!”

Im sure like everything- its only a phase. :)

Cookie
13 years ago

Dealing with a toddler that you expect to have tantrums and a four-year-old that you don’t expect to have tantrums (however they express it), is challenging. I worry sometimes I expect too much from Gabe just because he is older and his whining is like nails on the chalkboard at times. I can feel a vein in my neck start to pulse as my eyes start to bulge and my mind goes oh no he didn’t. It’s more difficult because he’s not easy to distract or console. My toddler is easy. Yes, he gets upset more often, but it’s quick and relatively painless to get past.

Amanda
13 years ago

You will get through this stage.

One of the greatest phrases that ever popped out of my mouth was “I can’t hear you when you’re whining”. YMMV but this worked wonders for my children. Usually they’d stop and find another tone of voice if they wanted something from me.

Riley’s frustration, he’s growing and learning new tasks, and that’s frustrating. Just keep encouraging him. Each task he learns will reduce his frustration – I know you already know all this but it seems to slip the brain when they’re screaming. Sometimes during a growth spurt they need more sleep too. Both of my kids “I caaaaan’t” when they’re more tired.

Cheryl S.
Cheryl S.
13 years ago

I am SO right there with you. 4 is going to kill me. My brother (whose son just turned 5 and is like an angel now) says 4 is just 2 times 2! God help us all. . . .

Andrea
13 years ago

Maybe someone’s said this before me, but I’ve noticed that JB is extremely capable, with his scaling mountains in a single bound, finding lost planes that even the AIR FORCE couldn’t find, diving to depths that only prehistoric fish and zombies could survive, INVENTING MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY TO SAVE US ALL FROM THE PLAGUE FOR CRYING OUT LOUD. The man is a superhero in human form (you lucky freakin’ dog) (and JB, please watch the circumference of your head with this comment) and I don’t think the word “can’t” is part of JB’s vernacular.

Riley and Dylan have a helluva role model to look up to in their dad.

I’m betting this is a phase, one I’ve gone through with my 5 year old when he was 3 and 4, and I’m sad to say that he’s picking up the “can’t” mantra again when we go through Kindergarten homework (yes, homework, WTF?) and I try to help him hold his pencil or something. Luckily, my kids have a pretty superhero dad to look up to also.

One step at a time. Just remember that leading by example is the best way to instill confidence and good qualities in your kids, and with your triathlon training kickboxing stairclimbing badass self, you’re no slouch in the hero department either.

Michelle Whitehurst
13 years ago

Amen! God I love reading you! I have a five year old with the same issues and it breaks my heart when he gives up so qiuckly and I know if he just slowed down he could do it. :) Thanks for making me laugh again!

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 years ago

Same boat. I worry about my 4 yr old’s self esteem and wonder if I majorly fucking him up by losing my shit about his whining/freak outs. And when I am tired it is worse. I think it is just the age but still I want him to know he can. And I expect more from him when I know he is just four. I should likely lower my expectations!!

BTW, that Woodlands Zoo in Seattle rocks! Best zoo eva ;)

SART
13 years ago

The “fucking 4’s” SUCK!!!! We’re half way through it and I’m secretly hoping “fiesty 5’s” will be better. Can you tell I hate whomever it was that came up with this stupid labels?

I have a feeling it won’t get better til he hits the “escaping 18’s…”

My newborn however is pure joy on a stick.

shriek house
13 years ago

Four is a hard year… they’re so verbal, they understand *some* logic, but their emotional maturity is soooooo far behind their intellect and we tend to forget this.

This is going to sound stupid, counter-intuitive, slightly impossible, and disgustingly Stuart Smalley-ish, but just naming feelings for the child can sometimes really help. “You’re so frustrated. That string is really tangled and you’re upset about it.”

I KNOW. Sounds RETARDED, right? The first few times I tried it I didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit. But something about acknowledging the feeling helps them not be overwhelmed by it, and focus on the task instead.

(You have to put your eyeballs back in first, though.)

Kate
13 years ago

I know exactly what you mean, with the “I CAAAAAN’Ts” and it is kind of heartbreaking, right?

My four and a half year old does this less now than she did at the start of the year, so it does get better. She is tentative as well, and that’s a perfect description of this type of kid. Just a little bit more cautious, you know? And I want her to know it’s okay to take some risks, and put herself out there. That failing is not the end of the world.

As parental models go, Riley has totally lucked out in getting a mom who is teaching him these lessons every day, so there’s that…

Tara
Tara
13 years ago

This doesn’t really help you any, but after reading your post and all the “I have so been there” comments, I feel WAY better about my own whiny, “I CAN’T”-ing four-year-old. This too shall pass, I guess.

In the meantime, pass me some hard liquor. And my migraine meds.

Krissa
Krissa
13 years ago

No kids of my own, but my mom (who had three kids within 4 years of each other, and was a SAHM until the oldest was 12) swears by the “No whining” thing. There was no discussion, no compromise – whatever the problem was, we could not whine. If we started to, she’d cut us off with a “no whining” and then turn back to what she was doing.
We could then sit there and figure out what was actually bothering us, and tell her in real words, or we could stew…but she didn’t have to listen to it. She always said she would’ve killed us if it hadn’t been for that rule.

This is similar to Super Nanny’s approach, and what other people have mentioned – I think the hardest part (at least, when I’ve had to pull it out whilst babysitting) is actually standing there and doing it – not listening to the whining, and waiting for them to form an actual sentence, in a normal tone.