I have three boys and my middle son is my wild man. He’s three and a half but says he’s six. He sits in the wrong direction in his seat at dinner. When he grows up he wants to be a bank robber. Last year he told me that “reading is disgusting.”

At elbow’s length from me he ate a deadly nightshade berry and another time shot down a full bottle of liquid vitamin E.

He’s wild but fun. He’s always up for a walk or to help cook breakfast. He will come upstairs to “check on” me or wiggle his butt to get me to laugh. He’s my “little middle” and has a special, feral place in my heart. Although sometimes it resembles an ulcer.

He’s usually carefree and doesn’t worry about what others think. However, recently he shared something that broke my heart. Putting him to bed, I laid next to him to read a story and help him wind down from the day. Quiet conversation ensued…

Will: When will I be the oldest?

Me: Henry (my oldest) will always be older than you. He will always be two years older.

Will: That’s not fair! I want to be older than him. 

His face revealed a deep sadness and hope lost. This was a genuine question. I suddenly could see all his younger brother frustration of being shorter and less strong, being outwitted and outrun, and feeling less capable at generally everything. They fight because they are constantly in competition and Will thinks he won’t win unless he is older.

Having a wild man personality often gets him in trouble. He may not worry about what others think but that often includes not bothering to try to please adults. He doesn’t fully yet understand that his actions directly cause discipline and so the cycle continues. Forget a peaceful dinner if his nap is missed! 

My oldest son is mature enough to understand the consequences of his actions and the baby is too young to misbehave. My middle is often in trouble because he is in the terrible threes (worse than the twos). Some day he will have better self control but for now he’s a small tornado.

Recently, I placed him in his car seat to take him on errands with me. This was a break partly to give him a change of scenery and partly to separate him from his brother. As I buckled him in, his lip quivered and he began to quietly cry.

Me: Aw, what’s the matter? 

Will: I’ll never be good and no one will ever love me.

He said this defeatedly and my heart sank. He hadn’t been in particularly more trouble this day. He hadn’t been punished. Most importantly I must add that I tell him I love him a hundred times a day, every day. It shocked me to hear him say that and on such an ordinary day.

That’s when I realized that good and bad are not adjectives to ever describe a child. It’s too dichotomous and caused him to conclude that when he’s not good then he must be bad. I decided right then that there are clearer, more precise words I could use with him.

Nothing he can do is truly bad at three years old. When he spills a drink, he’s careless. When he ignores my command, he’s not listening. When he doesn’t get dressed, he’s distracted.

I also try to avoid “good” to describe his positive actions. When he shares with his brother, he’s being generous. When he sets the table, he’s helpful. When he follows directions, he’s respectful.

Using precise language has helped him better understand why some actions cause discipline and that his sense of worth is not a good/bad split.

My oldest gave me a false sense of parental excellence. He’s easy and looks to please and I thought I was the cause. I’ve raised my middle in the same way and he has profoundly humbled me. I cherish all of my sons and have realized that they all need their own little extras from me because of who they are and the order of their birth.

Christi Terjesen

Christi Terjesen is the mother of three lively boys in New York. She keeps her sanity through daily walks, expensive wine, and good books. Check out her blog, Mental Stimulation for Moms at christiterjesen.com, and her playground blog, longislandplaygrounds.com.