Focus on the Family

Preschoolers

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

For a number of reasons, the two years leading to the fifth birthday are a unique and critical period during which you can shape the entire gamut of your child's attitudes and understanding. Developments in his intellect and speech will enable you to communicate with him in much more so­phisticated ways. He will still be intensely curious about the world around him and is now better equipped to learn about it.

More important, he will also want to understand how you see things both great and small and what is important to you. Whether the topic is animals, trucks, the color of the sky, or the attributes of God, he will be all ears (even though his mouth may seem to be in perpetual motion) and deeply concerned about what you think.

This wide-eyed openness will not last forever. While you will greatly influence his think­ing throughout childhood, during the coming months you will have an important window of opportunity to lay foundations that will affect the rest of his life. No one can do this job perfectly; therefore generous doses of humility and much time in prayer are definitely in order for this phase of parenting.

The third birthday is a good time to begin recording your child's growth milestones in a way that everyone in the family can follow. A poster marked with numbers to measure height can be attached to the wall of his room, or you can even make some marks on the back of his door if you're careful not to wash them off or paint over them.

You can enlist your child's eager cooperation by making the measuring process a special event twice a year — on each birthday and then six months later. As he grows, he will take special pleasure in seeing how much he has changed from year to year.

Don't be surprised when your preschooler decides to charge ahead of you in the park, church, mall — or at the end of the sidewalk. At this age enthusiasm and the desire for independence are far more abundant than are wisdom and judg­ment. Keep your eyes peeled and a good grip on your child's hand when you are approaching traffic, playing near a pool, or walking through a crowd.

You may have to deal with peer pressure for the first time as your child's social skills and interests in other children begin to blossom. A child who normally is cautious about taking risks may suddenly decide he wants to climb on, jump off, or crawl under something that is off-limits — in response to the tempting, teasing, encouragement, or example of other children.

As a result, during the coming months you will need to begin teaching your child, in very simple terms, the "why" of your rules, along with the "what and where" (or more often the "what not" and "where not").

At this age it is likely that he will push you a little or even wear you out with "Why . . . ?" questions. This isn't necessarily an attempt to start an argument but more likely a sign of growth and simple curiosity about the "whys" in his world — includ­ing your limits and ground rules. Try to use the reason "Because I'm the mom, that's why!" sparingly. You are now building your child's value system, precept upon precept, as well as his ability to link actions with consequences.

At this age, he is beginning to understand and is capable of appreciating the reasons for your rules. Take advantage of his openness by explaining them whenever you can.

Budding three- and four-year-old artists also delight in using brushes, clay, paste, and finger paints — materials that are much more fun for everyone if clothes, furniture, and carpets aren't in jeopardy. Wearing grubby clothes and setting up shop in the yard (or laying down lots of newspaper indoors) is a good idea. Kid-safe, blunt-ended scissors are also a big hit with this age-group, but be sure everyone is clear on what is to be cut and what is to be left alone.

Whatever arts and crafts your child works with, be sure to relax, enjoy, and most of all show interest in what he is producing. Groaning over the messy hands and clothes, trying to "correct" what he creates, or plunging headlong into lessons for the genius-­in-the-making are less worthwhile at this age than asking some open-ended questions ("What's happening in the house you drew?"). You'll have plenty of time to get him involved in formal training in later years if he really has a knack for a particular craft.


Mealtimes

How to manage nutrition, manners and picky eaters

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

During the coming months, your child will continue to show wide variations in her desire for food. A ravenous appetite one day followed by picking and dawdling sessions the next won't be at all unusual. In the coming months, you will want to pay more attention to the patterns of your child's food intake than to the details of what she eats at any particular meal. Specifically, keep the following in mind:

Emphasize variety and freshness. The average North American supermarket contains a dazzling selection of vegetables, fruits, grains, and meats — available in any season. Children should be exposed to this rich diversity at an early age, whether or not they partake of it.

In general, fresh foods are more nutritionally intact than frozen items (though not by much), and both fresh and frozen foods are better nutritionally than canned foods. Dishes prepared using raw ingredients are more likely to be more whole­some and economical than prepackaged microwave concoctions — although time pres­sures for many families have made meals from scratch increasingly uncommon.

Resist the encroachment of sugary, salty, fatty, and otherwise low-quality enticements. Your child may be getting the good stuff at home, but advertising and slick packaging are working desperately to woo her taste buds in other directions. A few trips to the local Burger Ecstasy franchise or a bowl of Double-Cocoa Frosted Mega-Flakes at a friend's house may create a long-term enthusiastic customer.

At this point, you have control over what lands on her plate, a responsibility and opportunity that will not last long. Do what you can to mold her tastes, and don't let her manipulate you into buying products that are short on nutritional value.

Don't allow food to become an accompaniment to a whole gamut of other ac­tivities. Eating is a good thing to do when she's hungry or when the family sits down together for a meal. Period. It should not become a cure for boredom, a pacifier for a stubbed toe, or a bribe for doing something you want.

Don't turn meals into power struggles. If you provide a wholesome selection of foods at a meal and she isn't interested, don't fight over it, make it the main subject of conversation, or force her to sit for hours at the table until she eats it. Put her plate in the refrigerator, and take it out again when she's hungry.

Don't be badgered into preparing something specifically for her at every meal, and don't allow her to become stuck in a rut of three or four foods that are "the only things she ever eats." She won't starve if you hold your ground.

A preschooler is old enough to learn some basic table manners: keeping the volume of her voice reasonable, chewing with her mouth closed, saying please and thank you, using a napkin, and waiting until everyone is seated and a blessing is offered before beginning to eat. If she is done with her meal and conversation among the adults is extending beyond her interest and attention span, don't insist that she sit indefinitely.

But before she gets up, she should ask to be excused. After she departs, don't let her crawl around under the table with the family pets.


Bedtime Routines and Fears

How can you make bedtime a more peaceful and less fearful event?

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Most three- and four-year-olds will sleep about twelve hours each night. A daytime nap may continue to be part of your child's routine, but don't be surprised when it is phased out during the next several months.

Remember that bedtime should be early because your child needs the sleep and you need time with other children, your spouse, or yourself. During the middle of summer, this can be a challenge. The sun may still be shining, and all sorts of activity may still be going on outside at what is normally bedtime.

You will need to decide how much to bend your routines to match the seasons, or perhaps invest in heavy window shades if you need to darken your child's room at this time of year. You may also need to exercise sensible flexibility to accommodate family work schedules.

Routines

The activities that surround getting tucked in should become a familiar and quieting routine. At this age, bedtime can be a delightful, enlightening experience. You can introduce your child to some wonderful stories, including books with several chapters that can create eager anticipation for the next night's installment. Your child's desire to keep the lights on and you in the room as long as possible will usually cause her to be remarkably transparent and receptive.

Expect to hear some of her private thoughts ("I think I know what Buster is saying when he barks . . .") or to tackle some riddles of the universe ("Where is heaven?"). Without being manipulated too much, allow enough slack in your day so you can relax during these wide-eyed sessions.

You will probably have many more opportunities at bedtime to talk about God and the values you care about than during family devotions or even at church, Sunday school, or other formal religious teaching sessions.

Nighttime Fears

You will also need to deal with some childhood fears when it's time to tuck in. Monsters in the closet, under the bed, or outside the window may need to be banished.

Be sure to ask what your child has in mind — is the creature something from a book or video, or perhaps a tall tale spun by an insensitive adolescent next door? Are we talking about space aliens, Brothers Grimm concoctions, or something from the nightly news that is in fact a reality somewhere in the world or the community? Are there tensions at home creating a need for reassurance?

Very often the beast in question doesn't exist except in someone's imagination. In this case it can be tempting to give a lighthearted, direct inspection ("I don't see any monsters in your closet — just a lot of junk!"), but you may leave the impression that there are monsters or aliens running around somewhere — they just don't happen to be here at the moment. For these fears, more decisive reality checks are important ("Bigfoot isn't under your bed or anywhere else").

When the issue is burglars or other villains who actually do exist out there, you will need to be more specific about the safeguards in your home: You are present (or if you are going out, someone you trust will be there), the doors are locked, and perhaps you have a dog or an alarm system that adds to your home's security.

In addition, remind your child that God is keeping watch over her twenty-four hours a day. What your child really wants is reassurance and confidence that things are under control.

If a fearful bedtime resistance persists or escalates, take time to find out if something else is bothering her. Did your child see a disturbing image on TV or a video? Did she hear an argument the other night? Did something else frighten her?

Once you have spent time exploring the problem, it's okay to make some minor adjustments to reduce the anxiety level: leaving a light on in the hallway or the door open a little wider, for example.

But don't get pulled into more elaborate or manipulative routines, such as her insisting on falling asleep in your bed or on the living-room floor when she claims that she's afraid of something. She needs to know that she will be just as safe and sound in her own bed as anywhere else.


Bed-Wetting

It's unrealistic to expect that every child should be completely dry, day and night, by the age of three.

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Gaining consistent control of bladder and bowel functions during daytime hours is a significant milestone for a toddler or preschooler. For many children, keeping the bed dry at night is a more elusive goal, one that might not be reached until quite a bit later in life.

Children who still wet the bed at night well into their grade-school years too often take an emotional beating (and in some sad cases a physical beating) because of this problem — which is not under their conscious control. One of the greatest problems faced by bed-wetting children is a parent with unrealistic expectations that every child should be completely dry, day and night, by the age of three.

Causes

In 99 percent of children with enuresis, the problem may involve one or more of the following, but clinicians are not in complete agreement about the relative importance of each of these factors:

Management

Remember that for the vast majority of children, bed-wetting will eventually resolve on its own as the central nervous system matures. (Each year after the age of six, 15 percent of children who still have enuresis will spontaneously stop wetting at night.)

Bed-wetting is not a sign of disobedience or weakness of character. The child who wets the bed is already embarrassed and uncomfortable about it; ridicule or punishment for bed-wetting, including teasing by siblings, is cruel, unjust, and ineffective. Not only will it cause additional emotional problems, but it might actually delay the resolution of enuresis.

Steps can be taken to eventually achieve one of two satisfactory goals: Your child holds his urine through the night and then voids into the toilet or potty-chair in the morning, or your child awakens during the night when his bladder is full and voids into the toilet or potty-chair.

The following measures may help a bed-wetting child:


Sexual Curiosity

Ongoing curiosity about body parts is common and quite normal in young children.

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

During or before toddler days, your child undoubtedly discovered that touching the genital area felt good, and you may have been dismayed to see little hands exploring inside the diaper zone (whether clean or otherwise) on a number of occasions.

This type of exploration and ongoing curiosity about body parts is common and quite normal in young children. Questions about where they (or their siblings) came from are part of the same package. When it comes to dealing with such sensitive areas and topics, you have a number of important assignments:

Make it clear that you are the prime source of information about these matters — and not the kid next door or some other unreliable source. Be levelheaded, honest, calm, and straightforward when you name body parts and explain what they do. Using actual terms (penis and vagina) and not more colorful vocabulary may save some embarrassment later on if your child happens to make a public pronouncement. This information by itself doesn't jeopardize your child's innocence.

Instill respect for the body your child has been given, the Creator who made it, and the functions it performs. This means that you should not communicate a sense of shame or repulsion about any part of your child's (or your own) anatomy. It also means that you need to teach what, where, when, and how it is appropriate to touch or talk about these areas.

Your child needs to know that these are things to discuss at home with Mom and/or Dad and not with other kids in the neighborhood. If you discover him and a playmate checking out each other's pelvic area, don't panic. This is also normal curiosity at work, and he just needs a brushup on the ground rules.

Remind him that these areas of his body are just for himself, his parents, and his doctor to see, and not other people. Tell your child that if someone else tries to touch those areas, he should protest noisily, get away, and tell you as soon as possible. He must know that you will not be angry or upset with him if this should happen.

Release information on a need-to-know basis. Your child does not need to hear everything about reproduction in one sitting and will be overwhelmed (or bored) if you try to explain too much at once.

Respond forthrightly with a minimum of fluster when your child cuts loose with offensive language that he didn't hear from you. Our culture is flooded with off-color messages and images that degrade the beauty and wonder of sexuality, and you will not be able to keep your child completely insulated from such negative input.

As a result, he may pick up some R-rated expressions in the neighborhood, even at this young age. (Be sure, by the way, that what you say or the language you allow in your home isn't in any way inspiring this unpleasant verbiage.)

If this occurs, stay calm. It is unlikely that he even understands what he just said, as a simple quiz ("Do you know what that means?") will often confirm. He is far more likely to be interested in the power of words to create a stir than in actually expressing some specific sexual or crude sentiment.

Without sounding alarmed or flustered, explain that the words he just used are not ones that you use in your family and that he needs to stop saying them in your home or anywhere else. You should emphasize that such words and expressions put down other people and can make them feel upset or even afraid.

If your child's new expressions include casual or inappropriate use of the words God or Jesus, a simple explanation about the importance of respecting those names will be needed as well.

Once you have stated your case, be sure to take appropriate action if you hear a repeat performance. If he persists after one or two reminders, let him know that a consequence will follow next time, and then carry it out if needed. If your child begins using harsh or obscene language, you need to not only retrain his vocabulary quickly and decisively but also have a frank conversation with whomever you determine to be the source.


Social Developments

Part of your preschooler's social development will include imitating, playing pretend and making friends.

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

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:

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.


Spiritual Development

You have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to teach and demonstrate the spiritual principles that are the foundation of your family life.

from The Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Some parents have bought into the idea that their child's spiritual development is such a personal matter that no attempt should be made to influence the direction the child chooses. This is a serious mistake.

While your child must ultimately decide on her own whether or not she will begin and nurture a relationship with God, you have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to teach and demonstrate the spiritual principles that are the foundation of your family life.

So how do you communicate spiritual truths and moral values to a three- or four year-old? Can she conceive of an infinite God or understand theology or sit through a religious service? Both Old and New Testaments address this quite plainly:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:16-17)

First, we are to talk to our children about God as we go about our daily business. As important as regular observances can and should be, spiritual matters shouldn't be confined to a specified religious time slot once a week. Conversations about God should be as routine and natural as those about any other subject. Our children should see us pray about the issues of our lives, give thanks for our food (and everything else), and acknowledge God's leadership in our decisions.

In dealing with more formal teaching or family devotions, simple stories will communicate volumes to preschoolers. The Scriptures are filled with them, and Jesus often told stories to get His point across.

Second, small children appear uniquely qualified to understand intimacy with God in ways that may elude them later in life. Perhaps it is their utter trust in their earthly parents (which can be expanded to include a heavenly Father) or their lack of cynicism or their openness or their uninhibited joy and enthusiasm for the objects of their love that draw them to the God they cannot see.

Whatever else parents and the other adults who care for children do, they must not hinder children from trusting in God, which seems to come naturally to them.

Truth Versus Make-Believe

One important job for parents who care about the spiritual lives of their preschoolers is to help them distinguish not only right from wrong but truth from fantasy. This means that you will have to make some careful decisions about dealing with a few popular traditions in our culture.

The crux of the matter is this: If your child is going to take you seriously when you talk about the God who made heaven and earth, you don't have the luxury of deliberately bending the truth in other matters. Whatever else you do, never mislead your child when she asks you point-blank for the facts about mythical personalities or anything else.

On a day-to-day basis, you will also have a responsibility to help your preschooler understand the difference between truth and make-believe in her own life. At an age when there is so much to learn about the world and so much imagination at work in your child's head, the boundaries between reality and fantasy will wear thin at times.

If you hear a breathless report that there are giant spiders crawling around her room, and it appears that her main interest is in gathering attention or reassurance, explain what can go wrong if she makes up alarming stories. A brief recounting of the fate of the boy who cried wolf may be in order.

If she tells a whopper of a tale to explain why her dollhouse is now caved in on one side ("A big gorilla climbed through my window and jumped on it!"), you will need to coax the truth out with some finesse. In particular, she must understand that telling a lie to escape punishment is far more of a concern than the actual misdeed itself.

The first offense in this area should be treated more with explanation than with punishment, but repeated episodes will require specific and meaningful consequences. Otherwise a habit of lying will eventually undermine every relationship in her life.

You cannot afford to demonstrate any "white lies" of your own. If your child hears you say, "Tell him I'm not here" when an obnoxious caller is on the phone, for example, whatever you are trying to teach about truth and lies will be wasted breath.

Building Familiarity With the Bible

This is an appropriate time to present your child with her own Bible (age appropriate and containing lots of pictures), which can provide a rich source of input and topics for conversation. Tell her stories of Old and New Testament heroes, and above all, talk about the life and deeds of Jesus again and again.

Should your preschooler memorize Scripture? Some are able to commit Bible verses to memory quite easily before their fifth birthday, and for these children the words will be "hidden in their hearts" for the rest of their lives. For others, attempts to memorize are like pulling teeth, and if you force the issue, you may create a distaste for Scripture rivaling that for their least favorite foods.

A more effective way to hide the Word in a child's heart when she doesn't memorize easily is to use songs. Many tapes, CDs, and videos communicate spiritual principles and Scripture verses to children (and their parents) through music. The best of these not only teach and entertain but leave both parent and child humming uplifting tunes — sometimes for years to come. Few investments pay such rich dividends.


Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources on raising preschoolers

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