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Preschooler development

A less-rebellious age

Boys and girls around three have reached a Preschooler stage in their emotional development when they feel that their fathers and mothers are wonderful people and they want to be like them. The automatic resistance and hostility that were just below the surface in the two-year-old seem to lessen after three in most children.

The feelings towards the parents aren’t just friendly now; they are warm and tender. However, preschooler children are not so devoted to their parents that they always obey them and behave well. They are still real people with ideas of their own. They want to assert themselves, even if it means going against their parents’ wishes at times.

While I emphasize how agreeable children usually are between three and five, I ought to make a partial exception for 4-year-olds. A lot of assertiveness, cockiness, loud talk, and provoking comes out around four years in many children, when they come to the realization that they know everything—a misconception that mercifully soon fades.

Striving to be like the parents

At 2 years of age, children eagerly imitate their parents’ activities. If they are playing at mopping the floor or hammering a pretend nail, their focus is on the use of the mop or the hammer. By 3 years of age, the quality of their imitation changes. Now they want to be like their parents as people. They play at going to work, tending house (cooking, cleaning, laundering), and caring for children (a doll or a younger child). They pretend to go for a drive in the family car or to step out for the evening. They dress up in their parents’ clothes, mimic their conversation, manners, and mannerisms. Psychologists call this process identification.

preschooler
preschooler

Identification is a lot more important than just playing. It’s how character is built. It depends more on what children perceive in their parents and model themselves after than on what the parents try to teach them in words. This is how  preschooler children’s basic ideals and attitudes are laid down—toward work, toward people, toward themselves—though these will be modified later as they become more mature and knowing. This is how they learn to be the kind of parents they’re going to turn out to be 20 years later, as you can tell them from listening to the affectionate or scolding way they care for their dolls.

Gender awareness

It’s at this age that a preschooler girl becomes more aware that she’s female and will grow up to be a woman. So she watches her mother with special attentiveness and tends to mold herself in her mother’s image: how her mother feels about her husband (lord and master—or beloved partner) and the male sex in general, about women (confidantes or competitors), about girl and boy children (if the child of one sex is favored over the other or each individual is appreciated for herself or himself), toward work and housework (chore or challenge). The little girl will not become an exact copy of her mother, but she will surely be influenced by her in many respects.

A preschooler boy at this age realizes that he is on the way to becoming a man, and he therefore attempts to pattern himself predominantly after his father: how his father feels toward his wife and the female sex generally, toward other men, toward his boy and girl children, toward outside work and housework.

In addition to the predominant identification with the parent of the same sex, there’s a degree of identification with the parent of the opposite sex. This is how the two sexes come to understand each other well enough to be able to live together.

Fascination with babies

Preschooler boys and girls now become fascinated with all aspects of babies. They want to know where babies come from. When they find out that babies grow inside their mothers, they are eager to carry out this amazing act of creation themselves—boys as well as girls. They want to take care of babies and love them, the way they realize they were cared for and loved. They will press a younger child into the role of a baby, spending hours acting as father and mother to him, or they’ll use a doll.

It’s not generally recognized that little preschooler boys are as eager as girls to grow babies inside themselves. When their parents tell them that this is impossible, they are apt to refuse to believe it for a long time. “I will too grow a baby”, they say, really believing that if they wish something hard enough, they can make it come true. In a similar way, a preschool girl may announce that she is going to grow a penis. Ideas of this kind are not signs of dissatisfaction with being one sex or the other. Instead, they come from the young child’s belief that he or she can do everything, be everything, and have everything.

ROMANTIC AND COMPETITIVE FEELINGS

Wishes and worries

Preschooler boys become more romantic toward their mothers, girls toward their fathers. Up to this age, a boy’s love for his mother has been predominantly of a dependent kind, like that of a baby. Now it also becomes increasingly romantic, like his father’s. By the time he’s four, he’s apt to insist that he’s going to marry his mother when he grows up. He isn’t clear on just what marriage consists of, but he’s absolutely sure who is the most important and appealing woman in the world. The little preschooler girl who is growing in her mother’s pattern develops the same kind of love for her father.

These strong romantic attachments help children to grow spiritually and to acquire wholesome feelings toward the opposite sex that will later guide them into good marriages. But there is another side of the picture that creates unconscious tension in most children at this age. When people, old or young, love someone very much, they can’t help wanting that person all to themselves. So as a little preschooler boy of 3 or 4 or 5 becomes more aware of his possessiveness devotion to his mother, he also becomes aware of how much she already belongs to his father. This irritates him, no matter how much he loves and admires his father. At times he secretly wishes his father would get lost, then feels guilty about having such disloyal feelings. Reasoning as a preschooler child does, he imagines that his father has the same jealous and resentful feelings toward him.

The little preschooler girl develops the same possessive love for her father. She wishes at times that something would happen to her mother (whom she loves so much in other respects) so that she can have her father for herself. She may even say to her mother, “You can go away for a long trip, and I’ll take good care for Daddy”. But she imagines that her mother is jealous of her, too—a frightening thought. If you think about classic fairy tales like “Snow White”, you can see these fantasies and worries brought to life in the figure of the wicked stepmother.

Preschooler children try to push these scary thoughts out of their minds, since the parent, after all, is so much bigger and stronger, but they are apt to come to the surface in their play and dreams. These mixed feelings—of love, jealousy, and fear—toward the parent of the same sex can come out in the bad dreams that little children of this age are so apt to have: dreams of being chased by giants, robbers, witches, and other frightening figures.

Moving past possessiveness

This romantic attachment to the parent of the opposite sex in the preschool years is what you might call nature’s way of molding children’s feelings in preparation for their eventual life as spouse or parent. But it wouldn’t do for the attachment to go so far or become so strong that it lasts throughout life or even throughout childhood.

Nature expects that children by 6 or 7 will become discouraged about the possibility of having the parent all to themselves. The unconscious fears of the parent’s supposed anger will turn their pleasure in dreaming about romance into an aversion. From now on children will shy away from kisses by the parent of the opposite sex. Their interests turn with relief to impersonal matters, such as schoolwork and sports. They try now to be just like other children of their own sex, rather than like their parents.

A father who realizes that his young preschooler son sometimes has unconscious feelings of resentment and fear toward him does not help the boy by trying to be too gentle and permissive with him. It’s of no help, either, for the father to try to avoid making his son jealous by pretending that he (the father) doesn’t really love his wife very much. In fact, if a boy becomes convinced that his father is afraid to be a firm father and a normally possessive husband, the boy will sense that he has his mother too much to himself and will feel guilty and frightened. He will miss the inspiration of a confident father, which he must have in order to develop his own self-assurance.

In the same way, a mother best helps her daughter to grow up by being a self-confident mother who doesn’t let herself be pushed around, who knows how and when to be firm, and who isn’t afraid to show her affection for and devotion to her husband.

It complicates life for a preschooler boy if his mother is a great deal more permissive and affectionate toward him than his father is. The same is true if she seems to be closer and more sympathetic to her son then she is to her husband. Such attitudes have a tendency to alienate a boy from his father and make him fearful of him.

In a corresponding manner, the father who is putty in his daughter’s hands and is always undoing the mother’s discipline or the father who acts as if he enjoys his daughter’s companionship more than his wife’s is being unhelpful not only to his wife but to his daughter as well. This interferes with the good relationship that a daughter should have with her mother to grow up to be a happy woman.

Incidentally, it is entirely normal for a father to be a bit more lenient toward his daughter and a mother toward her preschooler son and for a son to feel a little more comfortable with his mother and a daughter with her father, since there is naturally less rivalry between male and female than between two males or two females.

In the average family there is a healthy balance among the feelings of father, mother, sons, and daughters that guides them through these stages of development without any special effort.

How parents can help

Parents can help preschooler children through this romantic, jealous stage by gently making it clear that they belong to each other, that a boy can’t ever have his mother to himself and a girl can’t have her father to herself, and that the parents aren’t shocked to realize that their children are sometimes mad at them on this account.

When a preschooler girl declares that she is going to marry her father, he can act pleased with the compliment, but he should also explain that he’s already married and that when she grow up she’ll find a man her own age to marry.

When parents are being companionable together, they needn’t and shouldn’t let a preschooler child break up their conversation. They can cheerfully but firmly remind her that they have things to talk over and suggest that she get busy, too. Their tactfulness will keep them from prolonged displays of affection in front of her, just as it would if other people were present, but they don’t need to spring apart guiltily if she comes into the room unexpectedly when they’re hugging or kissing.

When a preschooler boy is rude to his father because he’s jealous or to his mother because she’s the cause of his jealousy, the parent should insist on politeness. And the converse is equally true if a girl is rude. But at the same time, the parents can ease the child’s feelings of anger and guilt by saying that they know the child is sometimes cross at them.

CURIOSTIY AND IMAGINATION

Intense curiosity

At this age, children want to know the meaning of everything they encounter. Their imagination is rich. They put two and two together and draw their own conclusions. They connect everything with themselves. When they hear about trains, they want to know right away. ”Will I go on a train someday?” When they hear about an illness, it makes them think, “Will I have that?”

A gift for imagination

Preschooler children are virtuosos of imagination. When children of 3 or 4 tell a made-up story, they aren’t lying in our grown-up sense. Their imagination is vivid to them. They’re not sure where the real ends and the unreal begins. That is why they love having stories told or read to them. That is why they are scared of violent television programs and movies and shouldn’t see them.

You don’t need to scold your child or make him feel guilty for occasionally making up stories. You can simply point out that what he said isn’t actually so, although he may wish it were so. In this way, you’re helping your preschooler child learn the difference between reality and make-believe.

An imaginary friend who shows up now and then, perhaps to help with a particular adventure—daring to go into basement alone, for example—is a sign of a normal, healthy imagination. But sometimes a preschooler child who feels lonely will spend hours each day telling about imaginary friends or adventures, not as a game but as if he believes in them. When you help such a child to make friends with real children, the need for fantasy playmates often lessens.

Children need hugging and piggyback rides

They need to share in parent’s jokes and friendly conversations. If the adults around them are undemonstrative, children dream of comfy, understanding playmates as the hungry man dreams of chocolate bars. If the parents are always disapproving, the preschooler children invent a wicked companion whom they blame for the naughty things they have done or would like to do.

SLEEP ISSUES

Most preschooler children give up taking naps sometime before age 4 but may still need a period of quiet rest in the afternoon. If they sleep much less than ten hours a night, they’re bound to be overtired (although there is a wide range of normal sleep needs at this age, from about 8 hours to as many as 12 or 13). Sleep problems that began earlier in life, such as excessive bedtime stalling or frequent waking, often continue through the preschool years. But new sleep problems also often arise during the preschool years, even for preschooler children who have been good sleepers. Nightmares and night-terrors are common at this age.

Sleep problems can also develop out of the normal feelings of possessiveness and jealousy described above. The preschooler child wanders into the parents’ room in the middle of the night and wants to get into their bed because (without putting these thoughts into words) he doesn’t want them to be alone together. If he is allowed to stay, he might end up literally kicking his father out of the bed. It’s much better for him, as well as for his parents, if they promptly and firmly, but not angrily, take him back to his own bed.

FEARS AROUND THREE, FOUR, AND FIVE

Imaginary worries

New types of fear crop up fairly often around the age of 3 and 4—fear of the dark, of dogs, fire engines, death, crippled people. Preschooler children’s imaginations have by then developed to the stage where they can put themselves in other people’s shoes and picture dangers that they haven’t actually experienced. Their curiosity is pushing out in all directions. They want to know not only the cause of everything but what these things have to do with them. They overhear something about dying. They want to know what dying is. As soon as they get a dim idea, they ask, “Do I have to die?”

These fears are more common in preschooler children who were made tense by battles over such matters as feeding and toilet training, children whose imaginations have been over stimulated by scary stories or too many warnings, children who haven’t had enough chance to develop their independence and outgoingness, children whose parents are too protective. The uneasiness accumulated before now seems to be crystallized by the preschooler child’s new imagination into definite dread.

That is not to say that any child who develops a fear has been handled mistakenly in the past. The world is full of things young preschooler children do not understand, and no matter how lovingly they have been raised, they recognize their own weakness and vulnerability. Some children—about one in seven—have brains that are biologically programmed to respond to changes with anxiety. And all children, no matter how carefully they are brought up, are frightened by something.

Fear of the dark

If your preschooler child develops a fear of the dark, try to reassure her. This is more a matter of your manner than your words. Don’t make fun of her, be impatient with her, or try to argue her out of her fear. If she wants to talk about it, as a few children do, let her. Give her the feeling that you want to understand but are absolutely certain that nothing bad will happen to her. Naturally, you should never threaten her with monsters, policemen or the devil.

Avoid scary movies and television programs and cruel fairy tales. The preschooler child is enough afraid of her own mental creations. Call off any battle you’re engaged in about eating or staying dry at night. Keep her behaving well by firm guidance, rather than by letting her misbehave then making her feel guilty about it afterward. Arrange to give her a full, outgoing life with other preschooler children every day. The more she is absorbed in games and plans, the less she will worry about her inner fears. Leave her door open at night if that is what she wants, or leave a dim light on in her room. It’s a small price to pay to keep the goblins out of sight. Neither the light nor the conversation from the living room will keep her awake as much as her fears will. When her fear subsides, she will be able to tolerate the dark again.

Fear of animals

Preschooler children often develop a fear of one or more animals, even if they have never had a bad experience with them. It doesn’t help to drag a scared child to a dog to prove that nothing bad will happen. The more you pull, the more the child will feel he has to pull in the opposite direction. As the months go by, the preschooler child will try to get over his fear and approach a dog. He’ll do it faster by himself than you can ever persuade him to.

Fear of the water

It’s almost always a mistake to pull a child, screaming, into the ocean or a pool. It is true that occasionally a child is forced in finds that it is fun and abruptly loses the fear, but in more cases, it works the opposite way. Remember that despite the dread she feels, the preschooler child is longing to go in.

Questions about death

Questions about death are apt to come up at this age. Try to make the first explanation casual, not scary. You might say, “Everybody has to die someday. Most people die when they get very old and sick, and their body just stops working.”

You have to tailor your answer to your preschooler child’s developmental level. For example, “We lost Uncle Archibald,” can strike terror into the heart of any child who has himself gotten lost. Since this is the age when children take everything literally, it’s especially important not to refer to death as going to sleep. Many children will then become terrified of going to sleep and dying themselves, or else they’ll say: “Well, wake him up.”

It’s much better to explain as simply as possible—without sugarcoating the facts—that death is a state where the body stops working completely. You can then use the opportunity to discuss your family’s beliefs about death. Most adults have some degree of fear and resentment of death; there is no way to present the matter to preschooler children that will get around this basic human attitude. But if you think of death as something eventually to be met with dignity and fortitude, you’ll be somewhat able to give that same feeling to your preschooler child. Also remember to invite questions and to answer them simply and truthfully. Remember to hug her and remind her that you’re going to be together for a very long time.

Helping your child cope with fears

It is not your job as a parent to banish all fears from your preschooler child’s imagination. Your job is to help your child learn constructive ways to cope with and conquer those fears. In the eloquent words of Selma Fraiberg in The Magic Years: “The future mental health of the preschooler child does not depend on the presence or absence of ogres in his fantasy life. It depends on the child’s solution to the ogre problem.”

When a child has fears of dogs and fire engines and policemen and other concrete things, she may try to get used to the worry and overcome it by making up games about it. This playing-out of a fear is a great help if the preschooler child is able to do it. A fear is meant to make us act. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster and supplies sugar for quick energy. We are ready to run like the wind or to fight like wild animals (flight or fight). The running and fighting burn up the anxiety. Sitting still does nothing to relieve it. If children with a fear of dogs play games in which they become the masters of a toy dog, it partly relieves them. If your preschooler child develops an intense fear or a number of fears that cross over into other parts of his daily life, you ought to get the help of a children’s mental health professional.

WORRIES ABOUT INJURY AND BODY DIFFERENCES

Why these worries arise

Preschooler children at this age want to know the reason for everything, worry easily, and apply dangers to themselves. If they see a crippled or deformed person, they first want to know what happened to that person, then they put themselves in the person’s place and wonder if that injury might happen to them.

This is also the age in which there is naturally a great interest in physical mastery of all kinds (hopping, running, climbing), which makes body intactness very important and its being broken very upsetting. This explains why a child at the age of two and a half or 3 can get so upset about a broken cookie, refusing one that’s in two pieces and demanding a whole one.

Body and sexual differences

Children develop these fears not only about real injuries. They even get mixed up and worried about the natural differences between preschooler boys and girls. If a boy around the age of 3 sees a girl undressed, it may strike him as odd that she hasn’t got a penis as he does. He’s apt to say, “Where is her wee-wee?” If he doesn’t receive a satisfactory answer right away, he may jump to the conclusion that some accident has happened to her. Next comes the anxious thought, “That might happen to me too”. The same misunderstanding may worry the little girl when she realizes that boys are made differently. First she asks, “What’s that?” Then she anxiously wants to know, “Why don’t I have one? What happened to it?” That’s the way a 3-year-old’s mind works. Preschooler children may be so upset that they’re afraid to question their parents.

It’s wise to realize ahead of time that normal children between two and a half and three and a half are likely to wonder about things like bodily differences, and if they aren’t given a comforting explanation when they become curious, they’re apt to come to worrisome conclusions. It’s no use waiting for them to say, “I want to know why a preschooler boy isn’t made like a girl,” because they won’t be that specific. They may ask some kind of question, or they may hint around, or they may just wait and become worried. Don’t think of this as an unwholesome interest in sex. To them it’s just like any other important question, at first. You can see why it would work the wrong way to shush them, scold them, or blush and refuse to answer. That would give them the idea they are on dangerous ground, which you want to avoid.

On the other hand, you don’t need to be solemn, as if you were giving a lecture. It’s easier than that. It helps, first of all, to bring the child’s fear out into the open by saying that he probably thinks a girl had a penis but something happened to it. They you try to make it clear, in a matter-of-fact, cheerful tone, that girls and women are made differently from preschooler boys and men; they are meant to be that way. A small child understands an idea more easily from examples. You can explain that Johnny is made just Daddy, Uncle Harry, David, and so on and that Mary is make like Mommy, Mrs. Jenkins, and Helen (listing individuals the child knows best).

A little girl needs extra reassurance because it’s natural for her to want to have something she can see. (One little girl complained to her mother, “But he’s so fancy and I’m so plain.”) It will help her to know that her mother likes being made the way she is, that her parents love her just the way she is. This may also be a good time to explain that preschooler girls when they are older can grow babies of their own inside them and have breasts with which to nurse them. That’s a thrilling idea at three or four.

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