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August 2011

Testing, Talking, Trying It All

Your Freewheeling Four-Year-Old

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing and guidance. Each child is unique. Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times. These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age. If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm. However, discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

Where’d he go? The 4-year-old dashes past, cape flying, on his way to save the world from invisible foes. He is a whirlwind of energy. A force to be reckoned with. In his own opinion, he is the fastest runner, the highest jumper and the best at whatever he sets out to accomplish. And don’t accuse him of being tired. That’s an insult.
Testing, Testing

“I can jump from two steps!” “I can jump from three steps!” You can see where this is heading.

Behavior challenges happen to be par for the course with a 4-year-old as he defies his known limits and yours. This is often called “boundary testing.” He needs safe challenges and solid rules. If there is no enforcement, he will break a rule even more readily. A perfect example happened on a class field trip to the city dock in Annapolis. A line in the pavement was pointed out to the children as the furthest point their feet could come toward the water. A 4-year-old stepped on the line—toes in the forbidden zone—and looked at the nearest grown-up. We pulled a couple of sets of toes back from the line before they all got the idea that the rule meant business.

I once observed a 4-year-old at the easel in her classroom. The first flick across the edge of the paper appeared to be accidental. She had been painting a picture of a flower and a petal crossed the paper’s edge onto the easel. She paused and looked around the room until she spotted her teacher busy with a small group in the block corner (I was watching unobtrusively). With no one to stop her, she “crossed the boundary” of her painting with short outward strokes onto the bare easel across every inch of the edge of the paper.

When I Grow Up, This Afternoon

One of the common themes in 4-year-old dramatic play is to pretend “power” roles to express extremes of masculinity or femininity. Little boys are often firefighters, construction workers and, of course, such cultural epitomes as rock stars and equally larger-than-life comic book superheroes. Little girls are ballerinas, princesses, brides and, to your credit for a job well performed, mothers and teachers. Research suggests that when parents and other adults serve as less traditional models of what men and women are “supposed to do” with their power, their children are also less traditional in their play. For example, the young relative of a female rabbi, a towel for a prayer shawl over her head and shoulders, would reverently open and close the folding doors of her closet as the ark for her Torah—an inverted brown grocery bag.

A playmate, or two, or at most, three, will add to the make believe. You can support their imaginations and their pretend triumphs with a few props and costumes. A towel is also a cape, a veil or a flying carpet. An empty box—large enough to climb in—is any edifice or form of transportation they happen to need. Stay close in case their pretend play, and the power each child is trying to wield, gets out of hand.

Yackety Yack

Expect nonstop talking as he shares his opinions, feelings, experiences and creative ideas. At age 4, he has about 1,000 words and by his 5th birthday his working vocabulary will have doubled. That’s almost three new words per day. Of course, the language he hears becomes the language he uses. Well-chosen story books and other media will enrich his vocabulary, just as swear words and “bathroom talk” can quickly infect his speech. Best to ignore what you’d rather he not repeat. Giving attention, and worse, giving consequences, only increases his fascination with the power of certain words and phrases. Remember, a 4-year-old loves power and will abuse it when he can. If language must be addressed, for example if a playmate or Great Aunt Charlotte has been the victim of his impolite speech, you can help him, in a private moment, to categorize words that make him (and perhaps other people) uncomfortable, sad, angry, etc. Help him to list other words and phrases that would have a more positive effect. Putting things into categories happens to be a developmentally appropriate intellectual skill.

Books, as mentioned, can have a wonderful influence over his burgeoning intellect. Read for information (to answer some of his endless questions), for humor (Doreen Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type), for fantasy (Judi Barrett’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs) and for rhyme. With pre-reading skills emerging, he will enjoy predicting the rhyming word when you stop short reading the verses of Mother Goose, Bill Martin, Bill Peet, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Nancy Shaw and other beloved authors.

Same Old Same Old

Though he’s still inching up in height, at 4 his growth rate and appetite have slowed. He has the power now to stave off hunger if he wants to. Food jags—demanding the same food, served in the same way over several weeks or months­—can also be the cause of a power struggle between adult and child. If you offer only healthy choices, you can avoid pitting wits and throwing fits against each other. (Rhyme intended for humor.) This requires that you know more about nutrition than a 4-year-old. Junk is simply not one of the available choices, which is settled when you do the shopping.

A healthy diet should include: whole grains (brown rice, rolled oats, whole wheat, corn chips), vegetables and fruits (fresh is best if recently picked, frozen is better than canned), calcium sources (includes dairy products and leafy green veggies) and some protein (about 1 ½ tuna fish sandwiches, 2 oz. cheddar cheese, 1 ¼ cups cooked lentils or split peas, ¾ cup roasted peanuts, 2 cups yogurt and granola, 4 whole eggs, 4 oz. of fish, or 3.5 oz. of chicken) per day. If he eats the same protein, or vegetable, or calcium source each day, and takes a multivitamin, his body is probably getting what it needs. Pediatricians often recommend looking at a weekly rather than a daily intake so you don’t stress out over meal-to-meal fluctuations.

My son was particularly picky at age 4, but we averted battles by using nutrition as the law of the land (see categories above). If he wasn’t hungry at dinner time, he was offered a nutritious snack before bed. Popcorn with parmesan was popular (whole grain plus a calcium source), as was peanut or almond butter on apple slices. Proving that peace is often achieved through creative means, on his very short list of acceptable green veggies was frozen peas, still frozen. Supplying power for another day of saving the world.


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.