boy coming down a playground slide, headfirst

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.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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