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Social Development in Preschoolers

At age three, your child will be much less selfish than she was at two. She’ll also be less dependent on you, a sign that her own sense of identity is stronger and more secure. Now she’ll actually play with other children, interacting instead of just playing side by side. In the process, she’ll recognize that not everyone thinks exactly as she does and that each of her playmates has many unique qualities, some attractive and some not. You’ll also find her drifting toward certain children and starting to develop friendships with them. As she creates these friendships, she’ll discover that she, too, has special qualities that make her likable—a revelation that will give a vital boost to her self-esteem.

There’s some more good news about your child’s development at this age: As she becomes more aware of and sensitive to the feelings and actions of others, she’ll gradually stop competing and will learn to cooperate when playing with her friends. She’ll be capable of taking turns and sharing toys in small groups, even if she doesn’t always do it. Instead of grabbing, whining, or screaming for something, she’ll actually ask politely much of the time. As a result, you can look forward to less aggressive behavior and calmer play sessions. Often three-year-olds are able to work out their own solutions to disputes by taking turns or trading toys.

However, particularly in the beginning, you’ll need to encourage this type of cooperation. For instance, you might suggest that she “use her words” to deal with problems instead of violent actions. Also, remind her that when two children are sharing a toy, each gets an equal turn. Suggest ways to reach a simple solution when she and another child want the same toy, perhaps drawing for the first turn or finding another toy or activity. This doesn’t work all the time, but it’s worth a try. Also, help her with the appropriate words to describe her feelings and desires so that she doesn’t feel frustrated. Above all, show her by your own example how to cope peacefully with conflicts. If you have an explosive temper, try to tone down your reactions in her presence. Otherwise, she’ll mimic your behavior whenever she’s under stress.

No matter what you do, however, there probably will be times when your child’s anger or frustration becomes physical. When that happens, restrain her from hurting others, and if she doesn’t calm down quickly, move her away from the other children. Talk to her about her feelings and try to determine why she’s so upset. Let her know that you understand and accept her feelings, but make it clear that physically attacking another child is not a good way to express these emotions.

Help her see the situation from the other child’s point of view by reminding her of a time when someone hit or screamed at her, and then suggest more peaceful ways to resolve her conflicts. Finally, once she understands what she’s done wrong—but not before—ask her to apologize to the other child. However, simply saying “I’m sorry” may not help your child correct her behavior; she also needs to know why she’s apologizing. She may not understand right away, but give it time; by age four these explanations will begin to mean something to her.

Actually, the normal interests of three-year-olds will help keep fights to a minimum. They spend much of their playtime in fantasy activity, which tends to be more cooperative than play that’s focused on toys or games. As you’ve probably already seen, your preschooler and her playmates enjoy assigning different roles to one another and then launching into an elaborate game of make-believe using imaginary or household objects. This type of play helps them develop important social skills, such as taking turns, paying attention, communicating (through actions and expressions as well as words), and responding to one another’s actions. And there’s still another benefit: Because pretend play allows children to slip into any role they wish—including Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, or the Fairy Godmother—it also helps them explore more complex social ideas.

By watching the role-playing that goes on during your child’s make-believe games, you’ll also see that she’s beginning to identify with her own sex. While playing house, boys naturally will adopt the father’s role and girls the mother’s, reflecting whatever differences they’ve noticed in their own families and in the world around them. At this age, your son also may be fascinated by his father, older brothers, or other boys in the neighborhood, while your daughter will be drawn to her mother, older sisters, and other girls.

Research shows that a few of the developmental and behavioral differences that typically distinguish boys from girls are biologically determined. For instance, the average preschool boy tends to be more aggressive, while girls generally are more verbal. However, most gender-related characteristics at this age are more likely to be shaped by cultural and family influences. Even if both parents work and share family responsibilities equally, your child still will find conventional male and female role models in television, magazines, books, billboards, and the families of friends and neighbors. Your daughter, for example, may be encouraged to play with dolls by advertisements, gifts from well-meaning relatives, and the approving comments of adults and other children. Boys, meanwhile, are generally guided away from dolls (although most enjoy them during the toddler years) in favor of more rough-and-tumble games and sports. Often, the girl who likes to roughhouse is called a tomboy, but the boy who plays that way is called tough or assertive. Not surprisingly, children sense the approval and disapproval in these labels and adjust their behavior accordingly. Thus, by the time they enter kindergarten, children’s gender identities are well established.

Children this age often will take this identification process to an extreme. Girls may insist on wearing dresses, nail polish, and makeup to school or to the playground. Boys may swagger, be overly assertive, and carry their favorite ball, bat, or truck wherever they go. This behavior reinforces their sense of being male or female.

As your child develops her own identity during these early years, she’s bound to experiment with attitudes and behaviors of both sexes. There’s rarely any reason to discourage such impulses, except when the child is resisting or rejecting strongly established cultural standards. For instance, if your son wanted to wear dresses every day or your daughter only wants to wear sport shorts like her big brother, allow the phase to pass unless it is inappropriate for a specific event. If he persists, however, discuss the issue with your pediatrician. Your child also may imitate certain types of behavior that adults consider sexual, such as flirting. If she’s very dramatic and expressive, you may be concerned by these “suggestive” looks and movements, but often the suggestions are just an adult way of looking at the situation, while the child is just playing and is not aware of her actions. At this age, she has no mature sexual intentions, and her mannerisms are merely playful mimicry, so don’t worry. If, however, she may have been personally exposed to sexual acts, you should discuss this with your pediatrician, as it could be a sign of sexual abuse.

By age four, your child should have an active social life filled with friends, and he may even have a “best friend” (usually, but not always, of his own sex). Ideally, he’ll have friends in the neighborhood or in his preschool that he sees routinely.

But what if your child is not enrolled in preschool and doesn’t live near other families? And what if the neighborhood children are too old or too young for him? In these cases, you’ll want to arrange play sessions with other preschoolers. Parks, playgrounds, and preschool activity programs all provide excellent opportunities to meet other children.

Once your preschooler has found playmates he seems to enjoy, you need to take some initiative to encourage their relationships. Encourage him to invite these friends to your home. It’s important for him to “show off” his home, family, and possessions to other children. This will help him establish a sense of self-pride. Incidentally, to generate this pride, his 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 his friends are not just playmates. They also actively influence his thinking and behavior. He’ll desperately want to be just like them, even during those times when their actions violate rules and standards you’ve taught him from birth. He now realizes that there are other values and opinions besides yours, and he may test this new discovery by demanding things that you’ve never allowed him—certain toys, foods, clothing, or permission to watch certain TV programs.

Don’t despair if your child’s relationship with you changes dramatically in light of these new friendships. For instance, he may be rude to you for the first time in his life. When you tell him to do something that he objects to, he may occasionally tell you to “shut up” or even swear at you. Hard as it may be to accept, this sassiness actually is a positive sign that he’s learning to challenge authority and test the limits of his independence. Once again, the best way to deal with it is to express disapproval, and you might want to discuss with him what he really means or feels. The more emotionally you react, the more you’ll encourage him to continue behaving badly. But if the subdued approach doesn’t work, and he persists in talking back to you, a time-out is the most effective form of punishment.

Bear in mind that even though your child is exploring the concepts of good and bad at this age, he still has an extremely simplified sense of morality. Thus, when he obeys rules rigidly, it’s not necessarily because he understands or agrees with them, but more likely because he wants to avoid punishment. In his mind, consequences count but not intentions. When he breaks something of value, for instance, he probably assumes he’s bad, whether he did it on purpose or not. But he needs to be taught the difference between accidents and misbehaving.

To help him learn this difference, you need to separate him—as a person— from his behavior. When he does or says something that calls for punishment, make sure he understands that he’s being punished for a particular act that he’s done, not because he’s “bad.” Instead of telling him that he is bad, describe specifically what he did wrong, clearly separating the person from the behavior. For example, if he is picking on a younger sibling, explain that it’s wrong to make someone else feel bad, rather than just saying “You’re bad.” When he accidentally does something wrong, comfort him and tell him you understand it was unintentional. Try not to get upset yourself, or he’ll think you’re angry at him rather than about what he did.

It’s also important to give your preschooler tasks that you know he can perform and then praise him when he does them well. He’s quite ready for simple responsibilities, such as helping to set the table or cleaning his room. When you go on family outings, explain that you expect him to behave well, and congratulate him when he does so. Along with the responsibilities, give him ample opportunities to play with other children, and tell him how proud you are when he shares or is helpful to another child.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the relationship with older siblings can be particularly challenging, especially if the sibling is three to four years older. Often your four-year-old is eager to do everything his older sibling is doing; and just as often, your older child resents the intrusion. He may be resentful of the intrusion on his space, his friends, his more daring and busy pace, and especially his room and things. You often become the mediator of these squabbles. It’s important to seek middle ground. Allow your older child his own time, independence, and private activities and space; but also foster times of cooperative play when and where appropriate. Family vacations are great opportunities to enhance the positives of their relationship and at the same time give each their own activity and special time.

Last Updated
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (Copyright © 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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