Whether your kid is your angelic little helper or a “threenager” (or more likely, both, depending on the day), one thing is for sure: Your 3-year-old’s got personality! I know mine sure does.
Based on expert interviews and my own hard-won insights, here are seven things you should know as you get ready for the Terrible Threes.
Compared to the high price of daycare, preschool may actually put some money back in your pocket—even if you go with a private preschool.
Private preschool costs range from roughly $4,400 to $13,000 annually. And public preschool programs, including Head Start and Early Head Start, are free. Compare that to daycare costs, which range from around $4,800 in Mississippi to $22,600 in Washington, D.C.
If the transition to preschool ends up saving you money, consider investing the difference in your child’s college savings plan, which can help you catch up on 529 contributions without affecting your daily budget.
Of course, if one parent has been staying home or you’ve been relying on other family or friends for childcare thus far—or using a cheaper, home-based center—preschool may end up costing more than what you’ve been doing so far.
Keep in mind that preschool isn’t mandatory. A quality daycare program, or even your own efforts to encourage socialization and stimulating playtime as a stay-at-home parent, can build important pre-academic skills, too.
Many “full-day” preschool programs really end mid-afternoon, around 2:30 or 3:30. As you transition to a new schedule, you might want to explore a few options to cover the rest of your workday. Ideas include:
Some preschools offer aftercare at an hourly rate
Hire a nanny or babysitter
Look up family-based care programs in your area: Care.com and Yelp are good places to read up on options near you. Many family daycare programs aren’t licensed, so ask extra questions about CPR training, discipline methods and procedures for dealing with sickness or injury.
Community centers, such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which may offer aftercare on a sliding scale, based on income
Adjust your work schedule: One partner might work 7-3 while the other works 9-5, covering each other for preschool drop-off and pick-up
If it’s been a minute since you last looked at your last will and testament, now might be a good time to glance over your paperwork to make sure everything is still relevant.
For example: if you’re pregnant or thinking about having another child, have had a change in marital status, changed your mind on whom you’d like to be your child’s legal guardian and so on, it’s a good idea to make sure that your will is still in line with your current wishes.
If you don’t already have one, you can make a will for free with Fabric.
Similarly, this is a good opportunity to go over your life insurance coverage. Does the beneficiary you previously chose still make sense? If you’ve had an additional child since you first bought your policy, do you now need more coverage?
Here, too, Fabric can help if you don’t already have a policy. We offer term life insurance that you can apply for online, without talking to a salesy agent, in about 10 minutes.
A 3-year-old is developmentally able to play pretend and recognize more social cues, which leads to favorite TV shows and characters. I didn’t realize how much impact this had on little minds (and adult pocketbooks) until I found myself buying Paw Patrol mac ‘n cheese, which was definitely not on my original grocery list!
Meanwhile, the whole genre of “unboxing” videos serves as a kind of YouTube toddler catnip. It works wonders to keep kids quiet in restaurants, but it also exposes kids to tons of new toy ideas.
It’s tough to keep your child from ever seeing an ad, but limiting exposure to ads for junk food and expensive toys is good for their health and for your wallet. Try ad-free recordings of favorite shows to cut ads off at the source. In my house, we use Netflix and DVDs from the library for commercial-free screen time.
Just like other treats, unboxing videos can work just fine in moderation. Don’t worry about using one in a pinch to save yourself from a waiting room meltdown. Just be mindful of how often your kid entertains herself watching other people’s toys, rather than playing with her own.
Although 3-year-olds may plead for all kinds of things when a toy display beckons, often what they really want is quality time with you. If you’re dealing with wails of, “Mommy, don’t go!” when you set off for work, that’s an indicator of what your child is really looking for.
“The parent guilt factor can really kick in at this age,” says Ellie Kay, co-host of The Money Millhouse podcast. “There’s going to be a temptation to replace time away with things and gifts. Spend quality time with them, and don’t start a bad precedent of trying to buy off your kid.”
Setting aside even 10 or 15 minutes before dinner to squish some playdough or read a few library books can go a long way to satisfy your child’s need for attention—and any guilt you might feel about having your own busy life. You may even rekindle your child’s interest in an old toy by showing them a new way to play with it.
Plus, if you feel guilty about not having enough special time with your kids, you might be likelier to give in to impulse toy purchases; if you know you have some one-on-one time waiting for you, you can say no with more confidence.
With a baby, dangling a set of car keys overhead can serve as hours of free entertainment. With a preschooler . . . not so much. Three-year-olds go through major developmental leaps, cognitively, socially and physically.
They can hop, run and climb. They can draw a circle, and maybe even begin to use safety scissors and glue. They may begin to play dress-up and remember the names of favorite playmates.
What does all this mean for you as a parent? Sports. Art and music class. Summer day camp. And a whole host of new fees for all these enriching extracurriculars.
Availability and pricing for toddler activities varies depending on where you call home. Still, it’s not hard to spend hundreds of dollars a month entertaining a 3-year-old. Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, has a high cost of living, and the toddler-friendly swim school near me charges $110 per six-week session. Mommy & Me music class is $170 for eight weekly sessions. Even the public parks and recreation activities include many tot classes that cost $100 or more.
The choice of how much to spend is personal and often contentious, especially when your kids are young.
You can limit costs by browsing online parents’ groups for deals. Parents share tips through word of mouth, and some may organize events at a discounted group rate. For example, I learned from an online group that my local ice rink offers “tot skate” sessions for only $4.
In some parenting circles, three is a more infamous age than two. Better language skills can mean more sass, and the normal development of independence can turn into constant boundary-pushing. Fortunately, some savvy redirecting goes a long way for good behavior:
Put your kids to work: Three-year-olds crave independence, so give them chances to show off! Specific instructions (“Put the blocks in the bucket”) work better than vague ones (“Pick up your toys”). Praise their efforts (“great job putting the silverware on the table”), and you might find they get more eager to help you.
Name emotions during a tantrum: Telling a preschooler, “You’re feeling mad,” or “You look disappointed” normalizes feelings and reassures kids that you’re on top of the situation.
Offer choices: Maybe if my kid really does need to wear her winter coat, but there’s room for options: Does she want my help putting it on, or would she prefer to pull it overhead herself?
Be boring: Three-year-olds will act out to get a rise, so try not to give them the satisfaction. Just repeat your instructions as a statement of fact (“it’s potty time” or “it’s time to go” or “it’s bedtime”) for every single excuse. They’ll test you at first, but if their antics don’t provoke a reaction, it soon won’t be worth kicking up all the fuss.
Living with a 3-year-old is all about discovering the big emotions in tiny everyday moments. I had no idea how frustrating it could be to master every detail of potty training, or how proud I’d be to see my daughter duck her head underwater after weeks of tears at swim class.
Brushing up on financial and child development insight helps me parent more confidently. Wishing the same for you!
Are you feeling like you’re on a roll? Check out what’s in store when you have a 4-year-old. And take in our financial tips for the first 10 years of your child's life.
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