I love 3-year-olds. They are fascinating creatures. Fantasy, imagination, and their attempts to really be in charge of their lives make them very special.
The Magic Kingdom
Make-believe is now a way of life, with every object, person, and event likely to be wonderfully transformed into something else. The 3-year-old makes up little stories to explain events in his life that seem overwhelming, in an attempt to bring everything under control. He's discovered the power of words to make things happen, and he uses his language skills to try to take charge of a life that seems complex, demanding, and ever changing. Imaginary friends who are completely at his beck and call help him handle this world and are very healthy household additions. Don't pay too much attention to them, as they disappear or assume too great an importance under too tight scrutiny.
Your 3-year-old can't lie at this age, but he will creatively reconstruct reality so it matches the way he would like things to be. He thinks his words can create a preferable reality and that reality can be truly denied.
Disciplining Your 3-year-old
Discipline now means clearly linking wrongdoing to its consequence, such as having a child clean up a mess she's made or taking away a toy that she threw. Although time-out is still an appropriate method of discipline, having your child fix the harm done can now be added to your handling of misbehaviors.
Don't delay disciplining your 3-year-old until a better time; though you will remember the incident later, she won't, and she won't relate the punishment to the "crime." Taking away unrelated privileges won't make much sense to her, either. Clear and immediate responses will help her learn the rules of behavior.
Play at this age should be cooperative and really interactive. Mutually regulated play with others can be a mild (though healthy) stress and a source of emotional growth. Giving a 3-year-old the opportunity to play with other children and work out conflicts with them is perhaps the most vital part of parenting support at this age. Being home alone with a parent or babysitter all the time is just not enough.
The Role of Routine
Three-year-olds are dependent on predictability, which is part of their effort to understand and control their world. Things that change on a daily basis create enormous stress. At this age, kids have a three-day time frame: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. When no two of those are alike, you're very likely to have an irritable, whiny child. Going to preschool five mornings a week, for example, is likely to be better than going for three full days scattered through the week. The day-to-day switches are hard for a child to handle. And watch out for too many activities. Although a 3-year-old may enjoy swimming, gymnastics, play group, and trips to the library, he can be overwhelmed by the total number of events.
Three-year-olds adopt rituals to keep a sense of sameness and control over their world. Respect these, provided they don't seriously get in the way. Kids also like to categorize things at this age and are curious about what is the same and what is different about people and things. Expect embarrassing comments as kids notice things about people and events that differ from what they are used to.
Listen to a 3-year-old talk. It's a fantastic narrative drawn from experience and imagination, filled with a few facts and a lot of commentary. A child this age is never slowed down by lack of vocabulary, so nonsense words appear regularly, causing you to see the world with different eyes. Water fountains become "crash waters" and an SUV becomes a "box car," for example. There's no need to straighten out or reconstruct these narratives. Just listen to all that goes into them and reinforce this use of language.
Let your 3-year-old practice stringing words together and reconstructing events. She won't understand metaphors, word jokes, or puns, so be careful with these as they can lead to frightening visions in her head. Saying a man was boiling with rage or that the computer crashed or that a day really went downhill all make for strange images if you are 3. Watch for puzzled looks, and clarify things for your literal child. It's helpful to read slightly more complex books to your child at this age. Look for ones with short sentences composed of lots of action verbs, adjectives, and nouns, associated with appropriate pictures and a strong story.
Most of all, enjoy the magic of 3 and marvel at the hard work it takes to put the world in order.