Sure, you know all about the power struggles and other troubles that come with raising a preschooler. But ages 3 and 4 also bring exciting developmental milestones that are turning your child into one of the coolest, funniest, and smartest kids you’ve ever met.
“Children’s motor, linguistic, and social skills improve exponentially at this age,” says Mike Assel, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at The Children’s Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Your child is learning to become a more expressive, independent, and caring person right before your eyes. So the next time you find yourself tempering a tantrum, remember these reasons why kids this age rock.
1. They’re becoming real conversationalists. Kids’ verbal skills take off between ages 3 and 5, says Dr. Assel. While a 2-year-old generally uses “Tarzan talk” (“Want juice!”), preschoolers begin to speak in complete sentences and are better able to describe their feelings, answer questions more appropriately, use new words, and say things that are truly (and even intentionally) funny. And rather than merely repeating phrases they hear, they begin to demonstrate a deeper understanding of how the world works.
Audrey Wang, of Pasadena, California, mom of 3-year-old Ciel, says, “I asked Ciel to finish eating her noodles, and she looked at her dinner -- actually shells -- and said, ‘Those aren’t noodles. That’s pasta.’ She’s suddenly become very precise about things.”
2. They master new tricks. Fine motor skills are developing rapidly at this age. “Three- to 4- year-olds can usually manage buttoning clothes, washing their hands, and using a spoon, though they may still need some help,” says Laura Stout Sosinsky, Ph.D., senior research scientist in early-childhood development at Child Trends, in Bethesda, Maryland. While your child used to be completely dependent on you, she’s becoming more self-sufficient in a variety of ways. “She should be able to pick up her toys, put her clothes in the hamper, and even clear dishes from the dinner table,” says Dr. Assel. Your preschooler might not perform these tasks perfectly, but she can definitely be helpful and make your life a little bit easier.
3. They’re like thirsty little sponges. “Three- and 4-year-olds are constantly asking questions and soaking up information,” says Dr. Assel. The “why, why, why” phase that commonly occurs at this age is their way of building a knowledge base and learning about their world. They’ll even grasp facts and details that might catch you by surprise. At a recent doctor’s visit, the pediatrician asked Jaclyn Glatzer’s 3-year-old son, Sam, when his birthday is. “I was about to interrupt and answer for him, but he shouted, ‘March 11th!’ I wondered, ‘When did he learn that?’ ” says Glatzer, of Mableton, Georgia. Your preschooler will also start learning the names of shapes, colors, and letters. He might even recognize his name on a birthday card or be able to read “STOP” on a stop sign on his ride home.
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4. They aren’t so clingy. If you’ve had your share of tearful goodbyes over the years, here’s some happy news: Separating more easily from you is often another benefit of this age. “Preschoolers become more comfortable being away from their parents,” says Dr. Assel. “That’s probably related to the fact that your child is beginning to understand abstract concepts like time.” When she realizes you’ll be back soon, she can say goodbye more easily, and you just might feel a little less guilty leaving her.
5. They tune in to others’ feelings. Preschoolers can often start to identify their own emotions and even pick up on other people’s feelings. “That makes them more empathetic,” says Dr. Sosinsky. Ruby, Leslie Aronson’s 3-year-old daughter, was very sad when her mom went into the hospital and she had to stay at her grandparents’. Seeing Ruby in distress made Aronson cry. But when she saw how upset her mom was, Ruby declared, “Mommy, I happy. I stay with Grandma, Grandpa.” Says the Pittsburgh mom, “That made me realize for the first time that Ruby knew I was upset and she was trying to reassure me. It was a touching moment.”