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Your Child's Social Development: 3 To 4 Years

Since he no longer sees other children as competing for his toys or for your attention, your child is finally able to cultivate true friends: taking turns and sharing, which lead to calmer play sessions. This cooperation won't happen all the time and may need some occasional encouragement from you.

Rather than just playing side-by-side with other children, your child now actively engages them in games. As other children his age take a liking to him, his self-esteem will get an important boost. But be aware of the flip side: Three-year-olds have enough vocabulary to exclude children they don't want to be with.

Disagreements with friends may still escalate into physical conflicts. If your child won't calm down quickly, remove him from the room. Then, use his growing sense of reasoning and language to help him see why hitting someone is unacceptable, perhaps by reminding him how sad he was when someone once hit him. Encourage him to apologize, but only if he understands what he did; otherwise, the meaningless words won't control his temper the next time around. It may also help to tell him how disappointed you are in his behavior--at this age children begin consciously wanting parental approval and will modify their behavior simply to please.

Retain Limits

Experts suggest that you give your child freedom to make choices, but at the same time keep firm control over his options. Children find great emotional comfort knowing that their parents still call the shots in big decisions. Encourage him to make selections by asking him what he wants to wear, eat, or play. It's best to limit him to two or three items so he won't be overwhelmed and frustrated by his inability to decide.

Learning About Reality

To a preschooler, your angry comment that you will leave him in the store if he doesn't come right now is a real threat. Your child doesn't yet see a distinction between fantasy and reality and can easily fall prey to fantastic fears. Using this method of managing his behavior can lead to worse results: your child ignoring you completely or retaliating with hurtful language or threats of his own such as, "If you're that mean, I'm going to run away."

Encourage your child in his fantasy-play games--which might include pretend playmates or humanlike dolls--rather than insisting that those playmates aren't real. Through this type of play, children see how others view the world and learn about all the options and roles open to them in life. Fantasies can also be used to help foster communication. Suggest, for instance, that his teddy bear is real and can talk about why he doesn't want to go out to play, and you may get better insight into your child's feelings than if you asked your child directly.

Sexual Identity

Because your child is attentive to what the world expects of him, this is an age where sexual identity becomes even stronger. He will pick up signals from TV shows, books, toys he gets from relatives, and from the comments of other children--one tease from another boy about how only sissies play with dolls can turn off a strong love for the activity. At this age, children often take their sexual identification to extremes: Girls may wear only party dresses, and boys might make weapons out of every object they encounter. This behavior will pass on its own, but you can help your child by commenting on the TV shows you watch with him, and by talking to him often about the wide variety of options open to people, regardless of their gender.

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