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Now They Are 4

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Your little baby is a real kid now. You probably can't count the ways he's been showing you that he's his own person. His small world is expanding, and he's ready to welcome the outside world—people and places—into his life.

The big themes in development at this age are:

  Discovery—the "Who am I?" stage that continues on and off throughout a lifetime.

  Role Playing—the "How and where do I fit in with the family and the neighborhood?" stage.

  Gender Behavior—the "Boys do this and girls do this" stage.

  Relationships—the friendship and play stage that becomes more complicated, more "grown-up," over time.

  Increased Memory—the stage in which there's a buildup of new skills to write more, remember more, and tell longer stories.

Just what do these five development themes mean to you? Read on.


At 4, your child is carefully examining both family members and outsiders to discover the differences among them: their size, appearance, behavior patterns, and actions. She'll try out some of the behavior she observes to see what fits and what doesn't, as a way to locate her real self. Costumes, special ways of dressing, changing her name-they're all part of this process. Don't be surprised if her view of herself changes often at this age. Be ready to discuss the differences she observes, and be patient with the shifts in who she is each day and her questions about people and what they do.

You'll be getting a lot of questions about the past ("What was I like when I was a baby?") and the future ("What will I be when I grow up?"). And you surely will be reminded that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Don't be surprised to hear replays of your own phone conversations, complete with tone and inflection. It's always a startling moment when a parent realizes she's being imitated, but remember: This is one of the ways your child learns from you.

Role Playing

Now's the time to participate in family and community activities—both for fun and because your child can make a real contribution. Since he's heavily into imitation, expose him to activities that you believe in and ones you yourself want to do but haven't yet made a part of family life. If you belong to a community volunteer group, take him along. If you love chess, introduce it now. Bring him when you vote or participate in political activities. Keep in mind that your child will imitate not only your positive behavior but your negative behavior too.

You can also feel confident that the time is right to include your child in simple household chores. Show him the way you want things done—remember, imitation is a great teacher.

Gender Behavior

By the age of 2, girls and boys know that biologically they are girls and boys. But two years later they're still trying to figure out what that means. This isn't about sexual activity but about understanding the different roles and behavior of men and women in our society. It's not uncommon for either boys or girls to say they want to grow up to be a parent of the opposite sex. Genital exploration for both sexes is very common at this age as well.


These get more complex now, as kids really play games with each other instead of simply playing side by side. Their games have rules, but these rules are loose and likely to change each time the game is played or even moment by moment during the game.

This is the stage at which girls choose to play with girls and boys with boys, when given a choice, because the kinds of games they prefer and the ways they play them are different. This is also the age at which kids start developing best friends and special groups. But don't expect these choices to stick; they're bound to change often, and when they do, they're likely to be upsetting to your child. Your best bet is to stay out of the conflicts these shifting alliances create. The reason: Maturity is dependent upon learning to work out relationships—something you already know is essential.

Increased Memory

Four-year-olds fit the definition of preschoolers: Some of them may have learned to write a few letters and their name; counting is getting better all the time; and some show interest in early reading activities such as letter recognition and simple word identification. This is also the time for dinosaurs-that is, a time for specific interests. You'll sometimes wonder if your child will ever tire of his favorite subject, but in the meantime, his appetite for information will be consistently hearty.

Your 4-year-old can relate past events and talk more readily about things she anticipates in the future. She also understands that actions have consequences-both good and bad-so rewards can be a useful part of discipline. She grasps that if she earns five happy-face stickers for making her bed each day, she'll get a special treat. She also understands that when she goes out of bounds on her tricycle (wheeling into the street, for instance), the bike will be out of bounds to her for two days. Four-year-olds are moving out of the time-out age range into the stage of clear consequences for good and bad behavior.

On the road to self-awareness and knowledge, your preschooler is a thousand different people trying out new identities and roles. Your job is to enjoy the experiments and help widen his world. Your kid needs group activities, new experiences, and the opportunity to talk to you every day about all his adventures.  

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