Your Drama Loving 4-year-old

Jamal has a cape tied around his shoulders, and while his mother shops, he flexes his biceps like a weight-lifter, fixes his face in a scowl, and stalks up and down the grocery store aisles.  Oblivious to the amused smiles of the adults who can hear him, he softly sings to himself, “Spider Man!  The Amazing Spider Man!”

Four is the age when children’s sense of self truly blossoms.  A three-year-old may like to dance, but a four-year-old happily proclaims, “I am a dancer!”  A three-year-old will love fire trucks, but a four-year-old becomes a firefighter by constantly wear his fire helmet, learning the names of the local firefighters, and pretending to put out fires everywhere.

Looking for answers to “What is important?” four-year-olds want to know, “What is important about being a person?” and “What is important about being me?”  The answers children find to these questions shape their vision of the world.  Because young children are primarily experiential learners, four-year-olds pretend to be many different kinds of people as their way of researching human experience.  When they try on different dress-up clothes and different hats, they are experiencing what it feels like to be important, to be silly, to be powerful, to be babyish, to be big, and to be small.

Because four is an exuberant age, famous for exaggeration, the four-year-old is the most beautiful ballerina, the strongest truck driver, the bravest superhero, or the scariest monster ever seen or heard!  In a sense it’s true—he is the best that he has ever been.  The four-year-old has gained so much in abilities and confidence since he was three that it is not surprising he is often boastful and bossy.  He has figured out that adults are not quite as powerful as he once thought.  He has even figured out that, if he is really crafty, he can slip one by the adults.  An exciting experience indeed!

The joyful passion of the dramatic four-year-old also can be challenging for parents.  She expresses herself with emotional extremes and exaggeration that are continuously fluctuating.  Just as she plays at being the biggest giant, or the tiniest caterpillar, she views her family and the world in similar ways.  Mom is the nicest–or the meanest–Mom ever.  Dad is the best–or the most unfair–Dad in the whole world.  She is the same in her peer relationships, one minute declaring, “You’re not my friend anymore!” and the next wanting to know when she and her friend can play together again.  The playtime has changed, too—unlike a year ago, four-year-olds are ready for some organized activities, including sports games.

Occasionally the creative four-year-old lies. These fall into two categories.  The first type is the “magic story,” when a child tells a story or exaggerates the truth in a way that he wishes were true.  The other kind is the “instrumental” lie, told to gain a good result or to avoid a bad result.  Since four-year-old children define fairness as basically “getting what I want,” they have not yet learned that telling lies is the wrong way to accomplish this.

Four-year-olds are also notorious for out-of-bounds behavior.  There are the room wreckers, the users of swear or “potty” words, and the naked streakers zooming through the living room when company is visiting.  This kind of wild and crazy behavior is part of the behavioral exaggeration and experimentation typical for this age.  As long as the adults don’t overreact, four-year-olds won’t use this conduct to deliberately try to provoke their parents and make them angry. If the behavior cannot be ignored, respond to it by upholding limits as calmly and matter-of-factly as possible.  The four year old often thinks they are being hilarious, and may be truly surprised that you don’t think it as funny as they do.

Which brings us to what do four-year-olds understand about how adults think.  The answer is: almost nothing.  Four-year-olds are so busy with figuring out what they think—they haven’t gotten around to wondering what you think yet.  Four-year-olds are focused on their present reality with only a vague concept of past, present, and future.  Children are not able to fully understand a perspective other than their own until the early teens when they develop the ability to think abstractly.  Until that stage, children tend to focus on learning the “rules.”  It is like learning how to follow directions on a road map to get a desired result:  “If I want my Mom and Dad to be happy with me, then I need to say please and thank you, pick up my toys, and not fight too much with my brother.”

Four-year-olds are in the process of figuring out that there is such a “guide book” to learn and to follow.  As Dr. Ames of the Gesell Institute of Human Development says in Your Four-Year-Old, “He likes and respects boundaries and limits, which he does not always have within himself and … therefore, often have to be supplied.”

When four-year-olds test their boundaries of behavior, parents need to teach them the “Family Behavior Rules” and how to follow them.  If this sounds too hard, don’t be discouraged.  The “order- loving” five-year-old will know the “Family Behavior Rules” by heart, and the “know-it-all” six-year-old will catch you when you break the rules and tell you how disappointed she is with you!

While you coach your four-year-old on what is appropriate behavior, you can also encourage him as he explores and experiments with answers to “What is important about me?”  Parents can reflect the best of what they see in their child, as they help him name his best qualities and encourage the best parts of his personality.  In expressing your appreciation of your child, try not to be manipulative or to pigeonhole him.  When possible, join in and enjoy your funny and amazing four-year-old.  Marvel with him at his “incredible” abilities and savor this glimpse into his future.

The four-year-old is eager to gain mastery—take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to train her in age-appropriate skills!  The mercurial four-year-old will be happy to contribute as long as the jobs keep changing and don’t become too routine.  She can feed pets, water houseplants, make a fruit smoothie in the blender, vacuum, and help find groceries at the grocery store.  The imaginative four-year-old will really perk up if the job is dramatized imaginatively:  “Oh dear, the goblins were in here and made a terrible mess.  If only we had a brave knight on hand who could slay these crumbs with his sword (the vacuum cleaner!).”

Every March the Parent Encouragement Program hosts PEP’s Self-Sufficiency Fair, a special family event where children come to learn new practical skills or demonstrate mastery of old ones.  Instead of tossing balls through hoops to earn another plastic trinket, they hammer nails, patch dry wall, set tables, learn seven different ways to apologize or race against the clock to clean up a living room.  Parents are amazed at their four-year-old’s enthusiasm for chores, and the sense of pride the children come away with lasts longer than any goldfish prize ever did.

Age four is the time to begin using consequences as a discipline tool, but in a very gentle and educational way.  For instance, your four-year-old has scattered toy cars and trucks all over the living room.  You have told him that when the cars are picked up, then you will be happy to take him to his friend’s house to play.  He ignores you and keeps playing.  So you remind him that you had a deal about picking up the toys.  (When he picks up his toys, then he will be able to go to his friend’s house.)  You might offer to help him pick them up, but you can also point out that he and his friend aren’t going to have as much time to play together because he waited to pick up the toys.  The point of this lesson isn’t blaming or shaming, but teaching in a friendly way that his behavior has consequences.

Parents of a four-year-old may find themselves one minute wondering where their baby has gone when they see their son dressing himself, putting out a snack for the whole family or playing kickball with the neighborhood kids.  The next minute they may wonder whether he has morphed, not into Spiderman, but the Hulk, an amplified, opinionated two-year-old.  It’s an exciting age of transitions and fluctuations.  He is not yet self-sufficient but is ready for limited independence in many areas.  Your job is to provide support, limits, guidance, encouragement and, of course, love.

Tips for Setting Limits

1 – Simplify the environment

  • The physical environment, including substituting child-friendly objects for dangerous or fragile ones
  • The emotional environment – choose your issues carefully

2 – Offer limited choices, not generalized open-ended ones I think examples of phrases are easier for novice parents to understand.

  • “You can either kick the ball outside, or find a different game to play, you decide.”
  • “When you are dressed, then you can have breakfast.”

3 – Be firm and friendly

  • State what you are willing to do and what your expectations are
  • Refuse to argue
  • Acknowledge the child’s feelings, exchange points of view  “I can see you are disappointed, but it is time to go home now.”
  • Restate your expectations and what you are willing to do – once, and then act.
  • Then act (Could be confusing down here?)

4 – Use training

  • Teach them how to act and what to do in different situations
  • Explain why it is important to say “please,” for example.
  • Train in skills appropriate to developmental age
  • Provide opportunities to practice

4 – Use fantasy and humor

5 – Plan ahead

  • Preview the day, the outing, the vacation

6 – Take time to think

  • “If you need an answer now, it’s ‘no.’  If you’re willing to wait, the answer is maybe.”

7 – Always Encourage

  • Be appreciative of child’s helpfulness, cheerfulness, etc.