By age three or shortly thereafter, your child has come to understand that he is an individual separate from you. By now he should know — without any doubt whatsoever — that he is deeply loved and respected, that his welfare is your highest priority, and that he doesn't rule either the universe or your family.
With this foundation firmly established, your child is free to launch out into the world and learn about it with curiosity and confidence rather than with fear and trembling. Taking part in conversations within the family, asking questions, and falling in love with books are important basic components of his exploring process. Other components include:
Mimicry and imitation. If you are working in the garden, he'll want to dig and rake along with you. If you're sorting laundry, he may be surprisingly good at finding the matching socks. If you're setting the table, he is quite capable of learning what goes where and eventually can carry out this everyday task on his own.
Try not to look at his efforts to participate as a hassle that will bog you down. Rather, see them as giving you an opportunity to chat with him during everyday activities and giving him practice in some basic skills in the process.
Don't forget that imitation can include negative behaviors as well. If you use harsh or unkind words when there's a disagreement, guess who is learning a nonproductive way to solve problems.
Your child really is taking in the flavor of your habits and conversations at home. They form the foundation of his expectations and assumptions about life: what he is used to, what he considers normal, what he will carry with him throughout his life (including the family he starts himself in another twenty or thirty years). Believe it or not, your attitudes are being caught.
Therefore, you need to not only demonstrate virtues but teach them as well, including "lab exercises" when appropriate. Saying please and thank you (and later understanding a depth of meaning in these words), waiting one's turn, and telling the truth need to not only be observed but also talked about and practiced on an ongoing basis.
Role-playing and fantasy. Whether in your home, at a play group, or among other children in the neighborhood, you can bet the children will play variations on "let's pretend" with great fervor. Your child will undoubtedly try everything from copying domestic roles to trying out occupations, setting up play situations, or assuming the roles of characters he has seen in books or videos.
In general, this is not only normal but healthy. Pretending to be Moses or Cinderella, setting up a store or a ranch on the back patio, and devising their own adventures will exercise language and the imagination far more than staring at a TV screen. Children can learn to plan, solve problems, and cooperate with one another during these projects.
You can generally allow these make-believe sessions to proceed with a minimum of parental intrusion, but keep your eyes and ears open for a few situations that might need some revision of the script:
- Inappropriate characters. While someone may want to play Captain Hook or Goliath to round out the characters in a make-believe story, role-playing options shouldn't include serial killers, vampires, or other relentless evildoers. Suggest more heroic or more neutral characters.
- Destructive scenarios. Action and conflict drive many adventures, from knights in armor to Wild West and outer-space fantasies. But if your child's pretend characters do nothing but ninja-kick, wave laser sabers, fire toy guns, and generally inflict make-believe (if not real) damage, you may want to suggest some less violent alternatives. If he is allowed to watch TV, he's probably reenacting some rough (and dumb) stuff from the tube. Do everyone a favor and muzzle the electronic beast.
- Toxic fantasy. This is a tough call in some cases because fantasy elements of many stories (such as C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia) can serve to convey some very positive values. But role-playing that involves "pretend" occult practices (such as séances or Ouija boards) or elaborate spell casting could whet young appetites for more hazardous practices later on.
- Hurt feelings. When the pretending is orchestrated by older children, younger or less popular participants may become stuck with roles no one else wants or receive lots of "make-believe" abuse that starts to feel like the real thing. If you see that someone regularly seems to be getting the short end of the stick, suggest alternative casting as well as caution about the kinds of things that are said, even when pretending.
- Too much of a good thing. Preschoolers can become so enthused about pretending to be Superman or Pocahontas that they may not want the game to end, or they may try to use their character to gain power or attention. When your call to get into the tub is met with a resounding refusal ("X-wing pilots don't need baths!"), you'll have to decide whether to have your way by playing along ("Your bath orders come directly from your squadron leader!") or by calling for an intermission.
- Early adolescence. Little girls love to play "lady dress up" with old hats, costume jewelry, and gloves. However, if your four-year-old insists on putting on nail polish and frilly dresses for every occasion or becomes overly infatuated with the teenage social life of a popular doll, you might encourage her to broaden her horizons.
Making friends. Preschoolers are usually ready for some genuine cooperative play. The concepts of sharing and taking turns can now be understood and usually put into action, but reminders and supervision will still be necessary.
Some children enter a bossy phase during this period, which can make things unpleasant for younger or less assertive children in their vicinity. If your child begins to sound like a miniature dictator, take her aside for a gentle reminder about basic kindness and manners. Also be sure to give her lots of praise when she plays well with other children. Specific information helps: "I like the way you let Megan have the ball so nicely when she asked for it."
Before long, your child will enjoy inviting a friend over for playtime or a meal and will most likely receive a similar invitation in return. You will, of course, already have some idea of the ground rules of the other family, and vice versa, before this "cultural exchange" takes place. Obviously, your child can't live in a glass bubble, but it would be desirable if the basic standards and values you hold dear aren't undermined by playmates at this young age.
If she brings home words or attitudes from a friend's house that rub you the wrong way, talk to her about what you find troublesome, and then see if you can influence the other child and her family in a more positive direction. If you can't make any headway with a playmate who is having a negative impact on your child, you may need to direct your child's attention to other children.