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 the tale, 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.
Of course, there are still ups and downs in that fourth year. Your 4-year-old is full of energy, talkative and curious. They're eager to show you what they can do, and you will both be excited by their accomplishments. They constantly test their environment and will veer 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 that 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.
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. Timeouts are an effective form of punishment for this age. Usually it's recommended one minute per year, so try a four-minute timeout. Be patient and remember that they are still learning their place in the world — and looking to you to help them learn.
Originally published March 2010. Updated August 2017.
Parenting your 4-year-old to love learning
Michelle LaRowe is an author and career nanny who received the 2004 Nanny of the Year award by the International Nanny Association. Her books include Nanny to the Rescue!, Working Mom's 411 and A Mom's Ultimate Book of Lists. LaRowe says, "Parents can best encourage their 4-year-olds to love learning by providing lots of natural learning moments. For young children, the best learning is often done through play. Get rid of the battery-operated toys and shut off the TV. Set aside times for arts and crafts, singing songs, reading and creative, hands-on play." While it may seem like a great idea to set your 4-year-old up on the couch with the iPad, it shouldn't be her go-to activity at this age.
LaRowe continued, "Capitalize on what they love and incorporate it into playtime. Does your child love flowers? Plant a garden together. Chart the growth of the flowers. Draw pictures of the garden and label the different types of flowers you planted. Doing so will encourage a love of learning and teach them that learning is indeed fun!"
Give your 4-year-old specific tasks
Mother of three children and educational consultant, Sara Lise Raff says, "Early childhood is a crucial time and can make or break a child's love of learning. As a mom, I try to provide wonderful opportunities for learning and I know it is very important for my 4-year-old daughter to receive encouragement from both my husband and myself. Children at this stage are looking for purpose. I try to give my daughter opportunities to be independent and practice real skills that have meaning."
Raff says, "I have made it a point to teach her how to make her bed, set the table and give her other tasks that demonstrate to her that what she knows and learns has an impact on our family. We try to choose schools and teachers that bring out the best in all of our children and make a conscious effort to reflect those learning techniques at home."
This is a critical age for building self-esteem. Let your preschooler know you're proud of his learning. Providing a warm, supportive environment is the key. As your child discovers that learning is fun, he will be self-motivated. Your 4-year-old is building a foundation for school days, which are coming sooner than you think. You want that foundation to be strong and filled with exciting learning opportunities that your child will embrace.