Four's Are Fabulous - 5 Ways to Work Better with your 4-Year-Old
20 May 2019
Time passes so quickly and before you know it, your child has turned four. You may find that your relatively calm child of three has now become a dynamo of energy, drive, bossiness, belligerence, and boundary-pushing behavior. You may be reminded of the earlier trials and tribulations you went through when your child was two, but by age four, your preschooler is growing in new, different and important ways. And although your four-year-old may seem to be chasing off in all directions at the same time, they are actually able to absorb and learn from all their experiences.
Because of this, four-year-olds can be a difficult age to handle. Each day there will be new and creative challenges to deal with. You can be better prepared by making yourself aware of the five major areas of development that are rapidly changing (and challenging you!) during your child's fourth year. So let's dive in:
1. Social Development - By age four, your preschooler should have an active social life filled with friends. They may even have a “best friend,” that’s usually, but not always, the same gender. Once your preschooler has found playmates they seem to enjoy, parents need to take some time and initiative to encourage their children's relationships. Encourage your child to invite their new friends to your home. It’s important for your 4-year-old to “show off” their home, family, and belongings to other children. This establishes your little one’s sense of self-pride. And your home needn’t be luxurious or filled with expensive toys, it needs only to be warm and welcoming!
It’s also important to recognize that at this age your preschooler’s friends are not just playmates. They also actively influence their thinking and behavior. Your four-year-old will want to be just like their friends, even during those times when their actions violate rules and standards you’ve taught your child from birth. So get ready! At this age, your child is beginning to realize that there are other values and opinions besides their families'. They may test this new discovery by demanding things that you’ve never allowed them before, say certain toys, foods, clothing, or permission to watch TV programs that they’ve never even seen.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that your child still has an extremely simplified sense of morality. For example, when your 4-year-old breaks something of value, they probably assume they’ve been “bad,” whether they did it on purpose or not. When your child obeys rules rigidly, it’s not necessarily because they understand or agree with them. It's more likely that your preschooler wants to avoid punishment. In a four-year-old's mind, the consequences count but the intentions do not. So, an important social learning that you can empower at this age is understanding the difference between accidents and misbehaving. For more background and ideas to foster your four-year-old’s social and ethical development, check out our article, Tell the Truth - A Preschooler's Idea of Honesty right here.
2. Emotional Development - Just as it was when your little one was three, your four-year-old’s fantasy life will remain very active. But now they're learning to distinguish between reality and make-believe. Your child will now be able to move back and forth between the two without confusing them as much.
As their games of pretend become more advanced, don’t be surprised if your child experiments with make-believe games involving some form of violence. War games, dragon-slaying, and even games like tag can fall into this category. You needn’t panic over these activities. This is not evidence that your child is “violent.” At the age of four, a child has no idea what it means to kill or die. For preschoolers, toy guns are an innocent, entertaining way to be competitive and to boost self-esteem. This idea is often learned from media like TV or movies that use violence as a sign of being a “good guy” (or girl). Remember, it’s up to you to help your preschooler understand and explain that violent make-believe play can sometimes be negative, scary or hurtful to others.
Speaking of self-esteem, if you want an indication of how your child is developing self-confidence, listen to the way your 4-year-old talks to adults. Instead of hanging back, as they may have done at two or three, your child now is probably friendly, talkative, and curious. And there is no filter for a four-year-old. Your child will not hesitate to say what they mean! Because of this, a four-year-old’s spontaneity will not be “politically correct,” but it will refreshing and often times, just plain charming. So be at-ready to politely apologize to those who-- and to explain to your 4-year old why-- some folks don't find this quite so charming.
Your 4-year-old is also likely to be especially sensitive to the feelings of others-- adults and children alike-- and will enjoy making people happy. When they see that someone is hurt or sad, they’ll show sympathy and concern. This is often expressed as a desire to hug or “kiss the hurt away," because this is what a child wants when they’re in pain or unhappy. Our article, Six Ways to Foster Gratitude in Young Children has more simple ideas to support your preschooler’s early learning about the emotions of others.
3. Movement. Your 4-year-old now has the coordination and balance of an adult! Watch your preschooler walk and run with long, swinging, confident strides, go up and down stairs without holding the handrail, stand on tiptoes, whirl in a circle, and go back and forth by themselves on a swing. Your 4 also has the muscular strength to perform challenging activities such as turning somersaults and can even do a broad jump forward from a standing position!
In your 4-year-old’s eagerness to prove just how physically capable and independent they are, they’ll often run ahead of you when walking outside. Keep in mind, your child’s motor skills are still way ahead of their judgment. So now you’ll need to remind your little one frequently and repeatedly to wait and to hold your hand when crossing the street. The same vigilance is important when your 4-year-old is anywhere near water. Even if your little one can swim, they probably can’t swim well, consistently, or for long periods of time. So never leave your child alone in a pool or in the water at the beach. Want more specifics about your 4’s physical abilities? Check out our Child Development Guide right here!
4. Small Motor Skills. Your four-year-old’s coordination and ability to use her hands and fingers are now almost fully developed. As a result, your preschooler’s becoming able to take care of themselves and their personal hygiene. Your child now can brush their teeth and get dressed with little assistance. They may even be able to lace up their shoes!
You’ll also notice when drawing, your four-year-old will use their hands with far more care and attention. Your child will decide in advance what they want to draw and then go right ahead with it. Their stick figures may or may not have a body or the legs may be sticking out of the head. But now they’ll have eyes, a nose, a mouth, and most important to your child ... these stick figures are definitely people!
Due to this growing control over their hands, many four-year-olds enjoy activities that involve creating with crayons, markers, painting with a brush, and modeling with clay or play dough. These kinds of activities will not only permit your child to use and improve many of their emerging small motor skills, but your little one will also discover the joy of creating! And because of the success your preschooler will feel during these activities, their self-esteem will grow. So put quick, creative activities like these designed especially for 4-year-olds on your short list! Our article, Scribbling Stages - Part 5 of 5 - Making Pictures has easy ideas for having fun with and fostering this exciting stage in your child’s drawing.
5. Language Development. Around the age of four, your child’s language skills will blossom! Your child will now be able to pronounce most of the sounds in the English language, with the following exceptions: F, V, S, and probably Z will remain difficult until midway through age five. They also may not fully master SH, L, TH, and R until the age of six or later. So be patient, these sounds will come in time!
On top of that, your child’s vocabulary will have expanded to around 1,500 words and it will grow by another 1,000 or so over the course of this year. Your four-year-old now can tell elaborate stories using relatively complex sentences of up to eight words. And your little one will tell you not only about things that happen or things they want, but also about their dreams and fantasies.
Don’t be surprised, however, if some of the ways your 4-year-old expresses themselves are not things you want to hear! After all, by now they’ve learned how powerful words can be. And they will enthusiastically explore their new power. If your four-year-old is like most others, they can be very bossy at times. Perhaps you find them commanding you to “Stop talking!” or telling their playmates to “Come here now!”
Another new challenge that comes with your 4's is swearing. Your child will likely pick up many, colorful yet inappropriate swear-words at this age. From a 4-year-old’s point of view, these are the most powerful words of all. Your child hears adults use these words when they are angry or emotional. Whenever your child uses them, the see they get quite a reaction too! The best way to stop this behavior is to make a conscious effort not to use these words around your child. Remember, they probably have no idea what these words really mean; they just enjoy their energy and effect. You can get more practical tips for working through this colorful phase in our article, Stop the Potty Talk - 6 Ways to Deal with Inappropriate Preschool Language.
Armed with this knowledge and a few simple ideas, I feel confident you’ll be better prepared to navigate the stormy waters of your child’s four-ness. Now go and enjoy the energetic charms of your dynamo four-year-old! And remember, this too shall pass!
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