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The weird and wonderful mind of a 4-year-old finally makes sense

Beth Stewart is a married Canadian freelance writer with three grown children and a granddaughter Isabelle whom she adores. She lives on a river, watches soaps, goes camping, loves to dance, collects Mickey Sorcerers' and is in the proce...

What you've wanted to know about your 4-year-old but have been too afraid to ask

If you've made it through the baby years, the terrible twos and that dreaded threenager stage, and you're still standing, you deserve a glass of wine and a big pat on the back. According to other parents who have been in the trenches and have lived to tell about it, the best may be yet to come. Rumor has it that 4-year-olds leaving toddlerhood and entering the preschool age are kind of awesome. They live right there in that sweet spot where they can talk and interact and love on you, and they might also listen to reason.

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Of course, there are still ups and downs in that fourth year: Your 4-year-old is full of energy, talkative and curious. He’s eager to show you what he can do, and you will both be excited by his accomplishments. He constantly tests his environment and will waffle between feelings of security and insecurity. Your 4-year-old may also be a bossy little tyke who feels the need to be in charge. You will experience emotional highs and lows with this age and each day will be a new challenge — for both of you.

We know each child is different — and what one child does at 4 might be quite different from another. However, there are some benchmarks that you will find your 4-year-old reaching this year.

4-year-old developmental milestones

Social skills for 4-year-olds

  • shows more independence — able to brush his teeth and get dressed by himself
  • demanding but also eagerly cooperative
  • may be rude, or even tell you to shut up — the more you emotionally react, the more he will misbehave
  • wants to be liked and to please his friends and perhaps has a best friend which could be of either sex
  • understands about everyday things like food, money and appliances and the concept of time
  • has little sense of ownership — possession means he views all things as his
  • has learned sympathy and sadness when someone or something is in pain — that is what he wants when he is in the same situation
  • has become aware of sexuality and has a natural curiosity about it
  • shows a high degree of interest in singing, dancing and acting
  • brims over with imaginative ideas
  • tries to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality
  • may like telling "tall tales" and making up stories

Motor skills for 4-year-olds

  • jumps up and touches line 3 inches above standing reach
  • hops forward on one foot
  • uses an overhand toss to hit a target from 5 feet
  • throws small ball underhand 10 feet
  • can use a fork and a spoon
  • pedals a tricycle
  • able to handle going up and down stairs fairly well without help
  • loves movement — climbing, swinging, somersaulting and skipping
  • enjoys writing, painting, modeling, cutting, pasting and building structures
  • draws a circle, square and sometimes triangle
  • hand-drawn pictures will contain all of the essential elements like body, eyes, nose and mouth — although they won't look like people to you

Language skills for 4-year-olds

  • can count to 10 or more
  • can name at least four colors
  • has a vocabulary of more than 1,000 words
  • may recognize some letters, even be able to spell his name
  • speaks more clearly and puts together sentences of four or five words
  • asks the most questions of any age
  • be able to follow two- to three-part commands, like "Put your shoes in the closet, then come downstairs with your soccer ball."
  • enjoys using the four-letter words he has heard and particularly enjoys the look on your face when he says them — don't overreact.

Parenting survival tips

Learning about the world. Your 4-year-old is at an important learning stage. Let him set his own pace as you provide opportunities to encourage his enthusiasm and creativity. Take him to the zoo, museums and don't forget the art gallery. There are many good books which illustrate the spatial concepts he needs to learn like over and under, and opposites like big and small. You can reinforce these concepts with everyday objects, like balls and cups.

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Friends are important. Encourage your child's relationships with his friends. However, you will find that with this exposure, he will realize there are other values and opinions besides yours. Use these friendships as a way to start conversations about different rules for different families and teach your 4-year-old to follow the rules when he is visiting a friend's home.

Safety first. Physical safety is still a big issue as motor skills have increased substantially but judgment is lacking. He will need to be reminded to wait and hold hands before crossing the street and although he probably loves water and wants to swim, never leave him unattended. If you haven't already tried swimming lessons, this is a good age to introduce them so your child can learn water safety.

Relax about sexual questions. As he expresses his normal curiosity about sexuality, don't scold or punish. Answer his questions with short age-appropriate answers. These questions and observations come at the oddest times, so be ready and armed with answers.

Make the punishment fit the crime. Don't overreact to unpleasant behaviors. 'Time-outs' are an effective form of punishment for this age. Usually it's recommended one minute per year, so try a four-minute time-out. Be patient and remember that they are still learning their place in the world — and looking to you to help them learn.

Next Up: Brain-boosting activities for 4-year-olds

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