Until about age four most children are pretty much oblivious to competition. They care little about being the best, the winner or the leader. Their lives revolve around themselves and the grownups who love them. And then suddenly they begin to notice the world out there. As their bodies and minds become stronger and more agile they revel in their growing strength, savvy and independence. Once they recognize what a great thing it is to be able to control your life (and other people, too) they naturally become obsessed with power-wanting as much of it as they can get. In fact, they want all of it. There are few creatures on earth more grandiose than a typical four-year-old. He both takes for granted that he is at the center of the universe, and deeply fears that this may not be the case. The result is that he may crumble and/or get extremely argumentative when fate intervenes with the announcement that somebody else won at Candyland, or big brother gets to climb into the car first today. The natural tendency when your child starts acting this way is to lecture him or her: don’t cheat, don’t be a sore loser, wait your turn. It’s certainly reasonable to offer up these pearls of wisdom-just don’t expect your child to accept them, yet. A four-year-old who only wants to play if he is declared the winner before the game even starts will not necessarily be devoid of scruples as an adult-or even as a six-year-old.
As necessary as it is to teach a young child good values, you also need to accept his overriding longing to believe in his own super powers. When his yearning to be number one infringes on other’s rights (when, for example, he cheats against a friend while playing Chutes and Ladders) you set him straight about the rules-and even suggest the game not commence if you know he’s not yet capable of being a gracious loser (or winner). But in the comfort of his own home, you can relax the rules. As difficult as it is for a young child to lose against a friend, it may be excruciating for him to lose against a parent. The tantrum that ensues if Mom gets to King Candy first is fueled by a deep sense of betrayal. So, either put the game away or let him win. If he wants to race you up the stairs or down the block, go as slowly as it takes to make sure he is victorious. Likewise, if he tells you he’s the best, fastest, smartest, tallest, and most adorable kid in his class/ day-care center or street , don’t venture a conflicting opinon. Just listen goodnaturedly. To point out his flaws or suggest he get a more realistic perspective of his place in the pecking order will just anger or shatter him.
At the same time, of course, you should clue him in to the rules of the real world. Let him know it’s okay to peek at and even reshuffle the cards when he’s playing against you (at four. As he gets older you don’t need to allow this). But if he gets creative with the rules when playing against a friend it’s called cheating and isn’t permitted. You should also point out that his friends long to be number one just as much as he does, so everyone needs to get a chance to be first.
Don’t worry that if you indulge him at home he’ll never learn sportsmanship. He’ll have plenty of opportunity in the years ahead to prove you wrong. But by indulging him now you’ll give him something else that will benefit him for a lifetime. Most of us have within us a little voice inside that pipes up when we’re feeling down or defeated, and insists that somehow we can prevail. This faith in ourselves is often what helps us to accomplish our full potential. That voice is the vestige of our four-year-old self. So if you want your child’s future to be triumphant, don’t silence that voice now. Let him crow.
If you’ve been raising your child to delight in making her own decisions, by now you probably have a highly opinionated preschooler. This is good-up to a point. You’ll know you’ve reached that point if your child is ready to conclude that everything is negotiable. You tell him he may have one piece of his Halloween candy-either a lollipop or a marshmallow. “Four!” he counters-holding up two lollipops and two marshmallows. You say only two. He holds out for three. You give in. Then he announces that, since the marshmallow is so small, it’s really okay for him to have another one, right? Congratulations. Your child has begun to master one of the hallmarks of civilization-the fine art of haggling. In the long run this is not a bad thing. By the time he is grown, you want him to be an expert in gracefully getting what he wants-or at least what he can live with-from you, his teachers, friends, and future loved ones, not to mention all of those “customer service representatives.” You can’t teach him this skill if you’re unilateral in your dealings with him. “My way or no way” pretty much sums up the typical four-year-old’s approach to life. But it is not the motto of a discerning parent.
For children to grow, you have to let them make choices. Over time, they are supposed to gradually erode your power base. You know all of this, which is why you respond with a chuckle of pride when Celeste starts to use her smarts to get more out of you than you were prepared to give. But soon things are getting out of hand. Little Celeste seems to be in training for a career in congress. She wants to dicker over what time you’ll be home from work, how much TV she can watch, when to leave the playground, etc. If your days are punctuated by your child’s wrangling with you over everything from what to wear to which book to read first, one of two things is true. Either you’re a softy who gives in to her so much that she’s losing respect for your rules. If so, frequent negotiations are sapping your parental power. Or you’re a hard-ass with too many trivial rules to begin with. In this case, you’re forcing your child to bargain with you over requests you should simply say yes to. You’ll know this is true if you find yourself drawn into ridiculous arguments with your four- year-old over whether she will wear the pajamas she took out of her drawer or the ones you chose for her. Remember that in order to remain powerful in your child’s eyes, you don’t have to make her feel powerless.
If you’re not sure how you feel about your child’s request, you don’t have to give an immediate answer. You can say, “Let me think about it,” rather than yes or no.
Not all parents are classic softies or hard-asses. Many of us fluctuate between these two extremes. We get disgusted with ourselves for lazily indulging our children, so we suddenly come down hard on a reasonable request-like getting to play a few extra minutes in the tub-which we otherwise would readily agree to. Or, we worry that we’ve been coming down too hard lately so we bend over backwards to be accommodating-in the form of allowing apple pie to serve as breakfast food or buying some ridiculous toy. Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, the way to move the power gauge between parent and child back to its rightful setting (in which you have most, but she gets enough) is simple: stop negotiating.
Where did this damaging misinformation come from? So many parents have come to expect that sandwiched between the “terrible” twos and “beyond terrible” fours will be the breezy threes–a twelve-month respite during which a child is suddenly rational enough not to bang his head on the sidewalk because you won’t allow him to drive the Camaro and blase enough not to care if he doesn’t get to do everything first. Don’t believe it. Every age and stage of childhood has its charms and its challenges and three is no different. Yes, some children do become more agreeable around their third birthday. But some become newly “terrible.” The irony is that parents have been so forewarned about the terrible twos that they await with dread the transformation of their darling infant into an impossible toddler. But sometimes the twos are delightful, which leaves the parents thinking they’ are home free. And then, around the third birthday, the tantrums, the orneriness, the penchant for throwing food finally arrive.
The worst of it is that compared with a two-year-old, a three-year-old has far more endurance and lung power, as well as better aim. There are some textbook differences between your standard two-year-old and three-year-old. At three a child is better able to separate from his mother. He is more aware of-and more interested in-the world outside his home. But sometimes this ability to separate gets exaggerated in parents’ minds. Many experts claim that “three” is the perfect age for becoming an older sibling, since you’re mature enough not to need your mommy constantly like a baby does, but young enough to grow up feeling a connection with your new brother or sister. But countless parents who spaced their children ”by the book” will tell you that their three-year-old wasn’t as ready as they had hoped to handle big sisterhood. Sometimes, having kids three years apart is a recipe for the most intense sibling rivalry.
I’m not making categorical recommendations for the spacing of children, but simply forewarning you not to expect too much from three-year-olds. They may indeed be potty-trained and able to form multi-word sentences. Some can happily wave good-bye to Mommy or Daddy at daycare without feeling unbearably homesick. But they are very new at being preschoolers. Subject them to stress and more often they react like toddlers, not like the bigger kids they are growing into bit by bit. So accept their limitations. Base your expectations on what your child can handle, not on what some textbook says she should be ready for.
Your daughter is fumbling with her zipper. “I can’t do it!” she whines, emphasizing each word with a total-body shake. You should say:
A) “Stop that whining! Don’t be such a baby!”
B) “I see you’re getting frustrated. That’s a tough zipper.”
C) “Here, let me help you.”
D) “Yes you can! Keep trying, you’ll do it.”
Obviously we can rule out A. But the other three are all respectful, loving choices. Which one is best? It’s fine to empathize with a child when she’s feeling frustrated (B), and there are times when the most expedient approach may be to help her (C), but the best outcome of the zipper episode is for her to learn she can work through something hard and succeed, which is why D is the best choice. Sometimes parents worry so much about putting undo pressure on a child that they forget the importance of instilling self-confidence. If a child feels like giving up, she’s much better off getting a pep talk than just having her frustration validated and/ or having you rescue her.
This policy only works if you have a reasonably clear idea of your child’s capabilities. If you overestimate your child you may end up being too tough on him, demanding he accomplish feats he’s not developmentally ready for. But far more often parents underestimate their kids because all children grow at warp speed. One day it’s a struggle for her to draw a square, you turn around and she’s writing her full name on every blank piece of paper she can find. One day he can’t get his thumb around his shirt snap-a week goes by and he can do it in ten seconds flat.
One sign that you are downplaying your child’s abilities is if he seems to be at very different stages at home and away. You are amazed when the preschool teacher tells you he goes to the toilet unaided-at home you are still the official pants puller-downer. You gape as he cooperatively takes part in the class cleanup, enthusiastically wiping the table. It never occurred to you that he might be ready to take on some chores at home. You watch cringing as your son climbs onto the monkey bars and attempts to swing across the overhead ladder. To your amazement he makes it. Last summer he couldn’t. But that was then and this, for one fleeting moment, is now.