- Preschooler development at 4-5 years: what’s happening
- Helping preschooler development at 4-5 years
- Parenting a preschooler at 4-5 years
- When to be concerned about child development at 4 years
- When to be concerned about child development at 5 years
- At 4 years of age, your child can probably:
- The science of your 4-year-old
- Frequently asked questions about 4-year-olds
- How you can support your child’s development
- When to worry
- Table of Contents
- How To Be A Good Parent?
- Top 10 Tips On Improving Parenting Skills
- #1 Be A Good Role Model
- #2: Love Them And Show Them Through Action
- #3: Practice Kind And Firm Positive Parenting
- #4: Be A Safe Haven For Your Child
- #5: Talk With Your Child And Help Their Brains Integrate
- #6: Reflect On Your Own Childhood
- #7: Pay Attention To Your Own Well-Being
- #8: Do Not Spank, No Matter What
- #9: Keep Things In Perspective And Remember Your Parenting Goal
- #10: Take A Shortcut By Utilizing Findings In Latest Psychology And Neuroscience Research
- Final Thoughts On Parenting
- 16 Positive Parenting Tips for Your 3-year-old
- Additional tips to help you through the toddler years
- Being a Good Parent
- Don’t be fooled by their height
- Support the shy ones
- Live in the moment
- Tell them how they feel
- Slow down
- Limit distractions
- Be polite
- Remember, teenage tantrums are real
- The golden rule
- Stick to the basics
Preschooler development at 4-5 years: what’s happening
Feelings and behaviour
At this age, your child is exploring and learning to express his emotions. He’ll do this in many ways – for example, by talking, using gestures and noises, painting and making things.
Your preschooler also likes to be around people. She might want to please and be like her preschool-age friends. Imaginary friends could be important to her too. As part of getting along with others, you might hear her saying sorry, agreeing to rules and being pleased when good things happen to other people.
When it comes to cooperating, your child is likely to be more helpful but sometimes he might still be demanding. By the time he’s five years old, he’ll probably have more control over his behaviour and have fewer temper tantrums.
Your child might feel anxious about starting school. Talking to her about this and even visiting the school together can help her feel less worried.
In this year, your child might hide the truth about things sometimes, or even start telling lies. For example, he might say ‘I didn’t do it’ even when he did. This is a normal part of your preschooler’s development.
Playing and learning
Play is important because it’s still how your child learns and explores feelings.
When it comes to play, your child likes to sing, dance and act. She also loves make-believe play and is learning the difference between fantasy and reality. She’s more aware of her gender and might want to play gender-based games – for examples, girls might want to play at being ‘Mum’. Your child might also try different roles and behaviour, like being a doctor or getting married.
Your preschooler might be very curious about bodies – his own and other people’s. For example, you might find your child looking at his own and other children’s genitals. A combination of natural curiosity and role-playing is usually a normal part of childhood sexual behaviour.
Although sex play is normal at this age, if you’re concerned about a child’s sexual behaviour, it’s a good idea to talk with a GP, a paediatrician or another qualified health professional.
Your preschooler will understand more about opposites – for example, high/low – know the names of letters and numbers out of order, and count to 10.
Your child’s language develops a lot this year, and you’ll notice that she loves telling stories and having conversations.
Your child will start to tell you how he feels, talk about his ideas and say words that rhyme. He’ll ask lots of questions and want to know the meaning of words. This is part of how he learns more about the world he lives in.
At four years, your preschooler knows hundreds of words and can use 5-6 words or more in sentences. You’ll be able to understand what she’s saying all the time.
By five years, your child will speak more clearly and will know, understand and use even more words, often in more complex sentences of up to nine words.
Dressing himself is pretty easy for your child now. He can also use a fork, spoon and sometimes a knife – for example, to spread butter on bread. You still need to supervise him and help him sometimes, but he can go to the toilet, bathe and brush his teeth by himself.
Your preschooler loves moving and being active. She’s better at walking down steps (maybe using the rail) with alternating feet, throwing, catching and kicking a ball, running, climbing, jumping, hopping and balancing on one foot.
Your child might also develop some new gross motor skills – for example, skipping, jumping backwards or jumping while running.
Your preschooler’s fine motor skills are improving too. He can cut with child-safe scissors and write his first name and some letters. He might also be able to draw a circle and make detailed drawings of people with body parts and clothes.
At this age, your child might also:
- say her own name, address and telephone or mobile phone number
- know her left from her right
- explain how some objects work – for example, how to screw the lid onto a jar
- work out which object is heavier
- name four colours
- talk about events in the past, present and future – for example, know the difference between things she has done, is doing and will do.
Helping preschooler development at 4-5 years
Here are some simple things you can do to help your child’s development at this age:
- Give your child lots of playtime: play helps preschoolers express feelings like joy, excitement, anger or fear. Your child might like messy play in sand or mud, pretend play with puppets or toys, and outdoor play with plenty of running, tumbling and rolling.
- Make time for imaginative and creative play: this might be painting, drawing or dress-up games. Musical play is another idea – your child might like to dance, jump around or make music with simple instruments.
- Read with your preschooler: reading together, telling stories, singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes all encourage your child’s talking, thinking and imagination.
- Do some cooking with your child: this helps your preschooler to get interested in healthy food, learn new words and understand maths concepts like ‘half’, ‘1 teaspoon’ or ‘30 minutes’. You can give him simple things to do, like tossing a salad or putting together sandwiches.
- Play games with your child that involve learning to share and taking turns. When you play, say things like, ‘Now it’s my turn to build the tower, then it’s your turn’, or ‘You share the red blocks with me, and I’ll share the green blocks with you’. Sharing is still hard for children at this age, so give your child lots of praise when she shares.
You might want to think about sending your child to preschool. At preschool your child can learn through play, make friends, and develop responsibility, independence and confidence. Preschool can support and encourage your child’s amazing development – and it can be a lot of fun too.
Parenting a preschooler at 4-5 years
As a parent, you’re always learning. Every parent makes mistakes and learns through experience. It’s OK to feel confident about what you know. And it’s also OK to admit you don’t know something and ask questions or get help.
With all the focus on looking after a child, you might forget or run out of time to look after yourself. But looking after yourself physically and mentally will help you with the understanding, patience, imagination and energy you need to be a parent.
Sometimes you might feel frustrated or upset. But if you feel overwhelmed, put your child in a safe place or ask someone else to hold him for a while. It’s OK to take some time out until you feel calmer. You could also try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.
Never shake a young child. It can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.
It’s OK to ask for help. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the demands of caring for your preschooler, call your local Parentline. You might also like to try our ideas for dealing with anger, anxiety and stress.
When to be concerned about child development at 4 years
See your child and family health nurse or GP if you have any concerns or notice that your four-year-old has any of the following issues.
Seeing, hearing and communicating
- has trouble seeing or hearing things
- doesn’t use sentences of more than three words.
Behaviour and play
- can’t understand two-part commands like ‘Put the doll down, and pick up the ball’
- doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t pretend to be mum or dad
- has very challenging behaviour – for example, has big tantrums over very small things or still clings or cries when you leave
- seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time.
Movement and motor skills
- is clumsy – for example, trips over a lot when walking or running
- finds it hard to handle small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon
- has trouble drawing shapes – for example, a circle or cross
- has difficulty eating, dressing or using the toilet.
When to be concerned about child development at 5 years
See your child and family health nurse or GP if you notice your five-year-old has any of the following issues.
Seeing, hearing and communicating
- has trouble seeing or hearing things
- isn’t developing conversational skills – for example, doesn’t understand how to talk, listen and respond.
Behaviour and play
- can’t understand three-part commands like ‘Put the doll down, get the ball from under the chair and put it in the box’
- doesn’t play with other children or acts in a very aggressive way
- seems very afraid, unhappy or sad a lot of the time
- is easily distracted and can’t concentrate on any single activity for more than a few minutes
- doesn’t pretend during play – for example, doesn’t play doctors and nurses, construction in the sandpit or cooking.
Movement and motor skills
- is clumsy – for example, trips over a lot when walking or running
- finds it hard to use small objects – for example, a pencil or crayon
- has trouble drawing shapes – for example, a circle or square
- has difficulty eating, dressing or using the toilet.
You should see a child health professional if at any age your child experiences a noticeable and consistent loss of skills she once had.
Children grow and develop at different speeds. If you’re worried about whether your child’s development is ‘normal’, it might help to know that ‘normal’ varies a lot. But if you still feel that something isn’t quite right, see your child and family health nurse or GP.
Your 4-year-old is likely making great strides toward independence as he learns to complete certain tasks solo. As he masters new skills, it can be difficult not to hover and offer assistance, especially since a five-second chore all too often transforms into a 10-minute endeavor when young kids are left to their own devices. While there are likely times when you will be rushed and just need to put their shoes on for them (for the love of all that is holy), let your child help out whenever you can.
The skills your child learns at home are essential for school readiness. While many 4-year-olds attend preschool or have even been in structured day care from infancy, children who have not yet adjusted to being dropped off and left with “strangers” will likely benefit from school-like activities.
Image CreditJing Wei
At 4 years of age, your child can probably:
Run, jump and catch: Gone is the awkward gait of the toddler. At this age your child should run quickly, jump forward from a standing position and hop a few times on one foot. She should begin to catch a ball bounced to her partway through this year.
Get ready for bed: Your 4-year-old’s increasing dexterity allows her to help out in ways not possible before, by undoing buttons, opening toothpaste and even going to the toilet unassisted.
Tell stories: Your child’s speech should now be understood most of the time, even by strangers. She will be able to organize her thoughts to tell stories, even describing how an event made her feel.
Recognize letters and numbers: Though your child may not be ready to read for a few more years, she will likely start to recognize symbols such as letters and numbers, or even the sign at your family’s favorite restaurant.
The science of your 4-year-old
At this point, your pediatrician will still rely heavily on your own observations of your 4-year-old’s development, since many children will not reliably perform a task when asked until closer to 5 years of age. When watching your child play, you’ll likely notice he is starting to run faster and climb higher on playground structures than he did even a few short months ago. His newfound agility stems from increased muscle strength and improved balance. The right and left sides of your child’s brain have formed connections that allow him to walk up and down stairs with alternating feet more quickly than at 3 years of age. His daring on the playground also stems from increasing confidence and comfort separating from parents and caregivers for longer periods of time.
At home, your child’s nimble fingers have started to help with tasks like unscrewing the cap on the toothpaste tube and (slowly) buttoning or unbuttoning clothes. The increased detail in her drawings is thanks to this new control over the small hand muscles, allowing her to manipulate a pencil or crayon with greater precision, as well as her ability to concentrate and recall details of things she has seen. For example, when asked to draw a person, your 4-year-old should include more body parts than she did at 3 years of age, usually around four to six (head, body, arms, legs, mouth, eyes).
As your child spends more time drawing, you should notice a preference for which hand she uses when holding a crayon (or fork or toy). In fact, some children display signs of handedness even as infants. When children were followed over time, those who showed a consistent preference for holding a toy in their right hands during infancy had more advanced language skills at 2 years of age than those who developed handedness later, possibly due to enhanced development of the left side of the brain.
Your 4-year-old should be able to speak fluently and be understood by strangers. He can tell true stories about something that happened to him, but only some 4-year-olds will be able to make up a story when shown pictures of characters. The latter skill becomes more fully developed closer to 5, when children can typically tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Children this age process stories told orally differently than those read to them from books and seem to understand stories better when they are told rather than read aloud, suggesting that some exposure to both books and made up storytelling is likely beneficial.
Though some children read and recognize words at a very young age, most will not be ready to do so until closer to 6 or 7. Nevertheless, early literacy skills are certainly present in your 4-year-old and you should see him start to recognize letters, numbers and signs, all of which are tools he will need in kindergarten and first grade as he begins to read. Children who are more frequently read aloud to at home demonstrate an increased vocabulary in first grade, while those whose parents spend more time teaching them letters, words and how to write their name prior to entering school demonstrate greater ability to read sight words and spell when they reach grades 1 and 2, suggesting that both activities are important to school success.
Frequently asked questions about 4-year-olds
I can’t drop my child off at preschool without triggering an epic meltdown. What do I do?
Many children have difficulty separating from their caregivers at this age and some tears are to be expected. While it may seem cruel to walk away from your screaming child, prolonging the goodbye process often makes leaving more difficult, both for your child and for you. When you say your goodbyes, do so quickly and remind your child that you will be back shortly to pick her up. Give a hug and walk away. Once you are out of sight, it will be easier for your child to calm down and start playing with friends. If your child has greater difficulty separating from one parent than the other, consider adjusting your drop-off routine accordingly.
I’m worried my child is turning into a bully. How do I help her get along with others?
As your 4-year-old starts to engage in more imaginative and structured play with peers, there is bound to be some conflict. When the rules at home differ from the rules at a friend’s house or at preschool, your child may lash out in response to feeling confused and threatened. Time outs are an excellent way to give your child a chance to calm down. If the fighting continues to get out of hand even after taking a break, try discussing the rules for a given game with your child and her playmate before they start, so everyone is on the same page.
My child can’t sit still. How can I help him get ready for school?
At this age, you’ll likely find your child can concentrate on a task like coloring or building with blocks for longer than before, but all 4-year-olds, and boys especially, need to move around. Your child’s teachers understand this. Integrating movement into lessons and activities helps concentration and improves behavior. Rather than expecting your child to sit still for longer than is developmentally appropriate, acknowledge when he’s feeling fidgety and encourage him to get his sillies out by dancing or jumping. Let your child’s teachers know what strategies work at home to redirect his energy and let your child know it’s O.K. to ask for a break when he needs one.
How you can support your child’s development
If your child has not been attending day care, consider signing him up for a preschool program for a few hours a day a few days a week to acclimate to separation from his usual caregivers. This will make the transition to kindergarten easier and will allow your child to grow in independence and make friends.
Though public school won’t start until kindergarten in many districts, the educational services provided by Early Intervention stop when your child turns 3. If your child qualifies for additional help at age 4, it may be provided by the school system. This can be confusing to access, especially for parents whose child is not yet in school. Talk to your pediatrician about what services your child needs and how to maximize your resources.
Continue to encourage your child to play outside whenever possible. Local parks often have nature programs for preschoolers that provide a structured learning environment and can help with school readiness.
Swim lessons are an excellent way to teach your child a potentially life-saving skill. At this age, parents are usually not required to be in the water, so your child will also have the opportunity to learn from an adult who is not a family member.
Read to your child daily to promote a love of books and increase his vocabulary. Consider labeling common household items such as “door,” “table” and “chairs” when your child begins to demonstrate an interest in words.
When to worry
At this age, your child’s friends and adult strangers should be able to understand her when she talks. If your child is unable to communicate with playmates or preschool teachers, this is likely to be frustrating for her and may even lead to behavioral problems if not addressed. If you or your child’s teachers have concerns, consider having your child evaluated by a speech therapist.
Your child should be able to follow instructions with several steps (take your shoes to the closet, put them inside and bring back your boots). Let your pediatrician know if your child has difficulty with this, as it may signal difficulty understanding and processing language.
If your child has difficulty scribbling and holding a crayon, alert your doctor.
If your child cannot run or jump from standing, let your doctor know.
Meghan MacLean Weir, M.D., is a mother of two and a pediatrician with a degree in medical anthropology from Oxford University.
Table of Contents
- How To Be A Good Parent?
- Top 10 Tips On Improving Parenting Skills
- Final Thoughts
Parenting is not easy.
Good parenting is hard work.
How To Be A Good Parent?
What makes a good parent?
A good parent strives to make decisions in the best interest of the child.
A good parent doesn’t have to be perfect. No one is perfect.
No parent is perfect.
No child is perfect either … keeping this in mind is important when we set our expectations.
But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work towards that goal.
Set high standards for ourselves first and then our children second. We serve as a role model for them.
Here are 10 tips on learning effective parenting skills.
Many of them are not quick nor easy. And probably no one can do all of them all of the time.
But if you can keep working on them, even though you may only do part of these some of the time, you will still be moving in the right direction.
Top 10 Tips On Improving Parenting Skills
#1 Be A Good Role Model
Walk the walk. Don’t just tell your child what you want them to do. Show them.
Human is a special species in part because we can learn by imitation1. We are programmed to copy other’s actions to understand them and to incorporate them into our own. Children, in particular, watch everything their parents do very carefully.
So, be the person you want your child to be — respect your child, show them positive behavior and attitude, have empathy towards your child’s emotion — and your child will follow suit.
Related: 6 Highly Effective Ways To Teach Kids Respect
#2: Love Them And Show Them Through Action
Show your love.
There is no such thing as loving your child too much. Loving them cannot spoil them2.
Only what you choose to do (or give) in the name of love can — things like material-indulgence, leniency, low expectation, and over-protection. When these things are given in place of real love, that’s when you’ll have a spoiled child.
Loving your child can be as simple as giving them hugs, spending time with them and listening to their issues seriously.
Showing these acts of love can trigger the release of feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, opioids, and prolactin. These neurochemicals can bring us a deep sense of calm, emotional warmth and contentment, from these the child will develop resilience and not to mention a closer relationship with you3.
#3: Practice Kind And Firm Positive Parenting
Babies are born with around 100 billion brain cells (neurons) with relatively little connections. These connections create our thoughts, drive our actions, shape our personalities and basically determine who we are. They are created, strengthened and “sculpted” through experiences across our lives.
Give your child positive experiences. They will have the ability to experience positive experiences themselves and offer them to others4.
Give your child negative experiences. They won’t have the kind of development necessary for them to thrive.
Sing that silly song. Have a tickle marathon. Go to the park. Laugh with your child. Ride through an emotional tantrum. Solve a problem together with a positive attitude.
Not only do these positive experiences create good connections in your child’s brain, but they also form the memories of you that your child carries for life.
When it comes to discipline, it seems hard to remain positive. But it is possible to practice Positive Discipline and avoid punitive measures.
Being a good parent means you need to teach your child the moral in what is right and what is wrong. Setting limits and being consistent are the keys to good discipline. Be kind and firm when enforcing those rules. Focus on the reason behind the child’s behavior. And make it an opportunity to learn for the future, rather than to punish for the past.
Related: How To Deal With Toddler Tantrums
#4: Be A Safe Haven For Your Child
Let your child know that you’ll always be there for them by being responsive to the child’s signals and sensitive to their needs. Support and accept your child as an individual. Be a warm, safe haven for your child to explore from.
Children raised by parents who are consistently responsive tend to have better emotional development, social development, and mental health outcomes.
#5: Talk With Your Child And Help Their Brains Integrate
Most of us already know the importance of communication. Talk to your child and also listen to them carefully.
By keeping an open line of communication, you’ll have a better relationship with your child and your child will come to you when there’s a problem.
But there’s another reason for communication — you help your child integrate different parts of his/her brain.
Integration is similar to our body in which different organs need to coordinate and work together to maintain a healthy body.
When different parts of the brain are integrated, they can function harmoniously as a whole, which means fewer tantrums, more cooperative behavior, and more empathy.
To do that, talk through troubling experiences. Ask your child to describe what happened and how he/she felt.
You don’t have to provide solutions. You don’t need to have all the answers to be a good parent. Just listening to them talk and asking clarifying questions will help them make sense of their experiences and integrate memories.
- The Whole-Brain Child
- The Whole-Brain Child Workbook
#6: Reflect On Your Own Childhood
Many of us want to parent differently from our parents. Even those who had a happy childhood may want to change some aspects of how they were brought up.
But very often, when we open our mouths, we speak just like our parents did.
Reflecting on our own childhood is a step towards understanding why we parent the way we do.
Make note of things you’d like to change and think of how you’d do it differently in a real scenario. Try to be mindful and change your behavior the next time those issues come up.
Don’t give up if you don’t succeed at first. It takes practice. Lots of practice.
- Parenting from the Inside Out
#7: Pay Attention To Your Own Well-Being
Pay attention to your own well-being.
Often times, things such as your own health or the health of your marriage are kept on the back burner when a child is born. If you don’t pay attention to them, they will become bigger problems down the road5.
Take good care of yourself physically and mentally. Take time to strengthen your relationship with your spouse. If these two areas fail, your child will suffer, too.
#8: Do Not Spank, No Matter What
No doubt, to some parents, spanking can bring about short-term compliance which sometimes is a much-needed relief for the parents.
However, this method doesn’t teach the child right from wrong. It only teaches the child to fear external consequences. The child is then motivated to avoid getting caught instead.
Spanking your child is modeling to your child that he/she can resolve issues by violence6.
Children who are spanked, smacked or hit are more prone to fighting with other children. They are more likely to become bullies and to use verbal/physical aggression to solve disputes. Later in life, they are also more likely to result in delinquency, antisocial and criminal behavior, worse parent-child relationships, mental health issues, and domestic violence victims or abusers7.
There are a variety of better alternatives to discipline that have been proven to be more effective8, such as Positive Discipline (Tip #3 above) and positive reinforcement.
#9: Keep Things In Perspective And Remember Your Parenting Goal
What is your goal of raising a child?
If you’re like most parents, you want your child to do well in school, be productive, be responsible and independent, enjoy meaningful relationships with you and others, be caring and compassionate, and have a happy, healthy and fulfilling life.
But how much time do you spend on working towards those goals?
If you’re like most parents, you probably spend most of the time just trying to get through the day. As authors, Siegel and Bryson, point out in their book, The Whole-Brain Child,
instead of helping your child thrive, you spend most of time just trying to survive!
To not let the survival mode dominate your life, next time you feel angry or frustrated, step back.
Think about what anger and frustration will do for you or your child. Instead, find ways to turn every negative experience into a learning opportunity for him/her. Even epic tantrums can be turned into invaluable brain-sculpting moments.
Doing these will not only help you keep a healthy perspective, but you are also working on one of your primary goals in parenting — building a good relationship with your child.
#10: Take A Shortcut By Utilizing Findings In Latest Psychology And Neuroscience Research
By shortcuts, I don’t mean shortchanging your child. What I mean is to take advantage of what is already known by scientists.
Parenting is one of the most researched fields in psychology.
Many parenting practices or traditions have been scientifically researched, verified, refined or refuted.
For good scientific parenting advice and information, here is one of my favorite science-based parenting books, The Science of Parenting.
- The Science of Parenting
Using scientific knowledge is of course not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Every child is different. Even within the best parenting style, there can be many different parenting practices you can choose according to your child’s temperament.
For example, besides spanking, there are many better alternatives, e.g. redirection, reasoning, removing privileges, time-in, etc. You can choose the non-punitive discipline method that works best for your child.
- No-Drama Discipline
Of course, you can also choose to use “traditional” or “old school” philosophies (e.g. spanking) and may still get the “same” outcome.
According to the Diathsis-Stress Model, people who have vulnerabilities to suffer from a psychological disorder are more likely to develop one when they experience stress.
The diathesis, i.e. vulnerabilities, can be biological or environmental.
So, perhaps your child may be lucky and don’t have such vulnerabilities. They may be resilreient and prevail no matter how tough you parent.
But they may be not .
Why risk the damages some of the sub-par practices may create while there’re well researched, better ones?
Taking these “shortcuts” may require more work on your part in the short-term, but can save you lots of time and agony in the long run.
Final Thoughts On Parenting
The good thing is, although parenting is hard, it is also very rewarding. The bad part is the rewards usually come much later than the hard work. But if we try our best now, we will eventually reap the rewards and have nothing to regret.
Hi Dr. Laura,
You have helped me here and I frequent your website but/and I have been having a really, really tough time with my (just) 4 year old. I will try to make this short. I do my best to let her have feelings and be there and be flexible and creative but I need more examples or more complete examples of what to do.
Here are somethings that happened recently-
1. She was playing with her dad’s special scrub mop thing and she threw it and it broke. She did not throw out of anger or even for me to see. I was out of sight. She threw it out of experimenting or exuberance or something. What should I have done when that happened? She doesn’t understand waste or money. She understand respect a bit and a bit of not being careful. This type of thing happens a lot
2. We had some of our chickens’ eggs on the table outside in a basket. I told her one day to not touch because I had them in order of age. I probably told her three times that day because she kept touching. THEN the next day she was outside and I realize she took one and smashed it into a basin and was playing with it. OK, fine, she loves to play with eggs when we bake. Then I said something like I wasn’t sure I wanted her to take another but I let her have a second because she wanted one ad I like to not get in the way of her enthusiasm and experimentation.. Then I said to take no more. THEN I see her in that area and say loudly “NO! Don’t take another” And I quickly walk over to stop her but she grabs one quick as lightning and runs to the basin and squishes it. I didn’t even know what to say! This type of thing happpens over and over where I tell her to NOT do something and right away, sometimes even before I finish saying it she does it. ” Don’t step on that” Don’t open that” etc. She is not being sassy. It is like she doesn’t think what I say is important or it doesn’t register in her mind.
3. We never had a problem at bedtime until about two months ago. Now she runs away, hides etc. I talk about how I know she doesn’t want to go to bed and doesn’t want to sleep yet but we need to anyway. Sometimes I say we can read a second book if bedtime is quick and smooth (which helps for a minute or if I say it about a million times). I also say if she doesn’t do what I am asking she will lose pages of her book. That doesn’t actually work because she falls asleep. I usually have to physically get her into the bathroom by picking her up or holding her hand all the way and closing the door. Generally once I start brushing her teeth she settles in, and often then starts saying how she is tired. But is is very stressful for both of us.
This type of thing happens a lot, where I have to physically get her to do what I ask. This type of thing happens so much whenever we are out,she never ever wants to leave. I have to control her physically by picking her up or holding her hand. It is so emotionally stressful for me. Maybe I am not giving her a moment of being upset. She isn’t crying when she is told over and over we have to leave she just says “please, one more minute” But even that would be physical, I have to stop her from exploring or swinging etc.
Basically what do I do when she IS misbehaving without man-handling her. AND so can learn to manage frustrations at being told no but also be able to think about and stop her own behavior.
Thank you SO much!
I hear that your daughter is strong-willed, impulsive, and challenging. She is also just barely 4 years old. This is when she begins to learn to manage her emotions. Until she can manage her emotions, she won’t be able to manage her behavior. So everything you do in response to her “misbehavior” is shaping her brain, her emotional intelligence, and her ability to think about and manage her own behavior. So it’s great that you try to be flexible and accepting of her emotions!
First and foremost, you should know that children develop self discipline when they give up something they want for something they want more. In other words, if your daughter wants to smash an egg, but she wants more to stay in positive connection to you, then she may be able to stop herself from smashing the egg. But this is not an ability that is already in existence in a three or four year old. It is developed through practice, over and over again, in making that choice between something she wants and something she wants more. That’s how the pre-frontal cortex develops the neural pathways and neural memory for the child to exercise self-discipline in the future.
But here’s the rub. If you FORCE your child to not smash the egg, she is not making this choice. Instead, she feels like a victim who was pushed around. And she loses that opportunity to develop self discipline. That’s one of the reasons why parents who punish actually raise kids who have less self-discipline.
You also have to remember that strong-willed kids are experiential learners. They can’t take your word for things; they need to test it out for themselves. They can’t do something just because you say so. That would be a compromise to their integrity. They have to CHOOSE to cooperate; you can’t make them do what you want.
But you can’t just sit back and do nothing while your girl smashes all the eggs and breaks all her dad’s tools. You do have to set limits. With strong-willed kids, you will find yourself setting limits constantly. Other kids may learn after you set a limit three times. Strong-willed kids need to test your limit ten times.
So what should your general approach be, to guide your daughter in such a way that she develops self-discipline and learns to manage her emotions and behavior?
1. Make empathy your “go-to” reaction to her, even — or especially — when you’re setting limits.
Even if her behavior seems completely out of line to you, she has a reason for it. So, for instance, you see her throw the mop — “out of experimenting or exuberance or something.” You exclaim in dismay “Oh, no! Daddy’s special mop!” You probably can’t help yourself, and besides, this lets your daughter know that this is serious. But instead of turning to her in anger, you take a deep breath and remind yourself that she doesn’t understand waste or money. She didn’t know the mop would break. She was experimenting to learn, which is, after all, how we learn. What do you want her to learn here? If you punish or yell, she will go into “emergency” mode — fight or flight — and her brain’s learning centers will shut down. All she will retain is that you are unpredictably scary, and when she experiments she should be sure to hide from you.
So instead, you go over to her and get down on her level and put your arm around her and say calmly “You were playing with Daddy’s mop and you threw it. Was that fun? (You can smile wryly here. You are being empathic, not punitive.) Yes, I understand. You love to throw. And lots of things are good to throw — balls, bean bags, even rocks if you throw them in the water. But Daddy’s tools are not for throwing, because they CAN break…Let’s go see what happened to the mop.” Take her by the hand or pick her up — lovingly — and take her to the mop. Explore the mop, showing her the results of the throw. “See? Here’s where it broke…Too bad…This was a good mop and now it is broken…I don’t think we can fix this…too bad.”
What happens next depends on your daughter. If she is crying, you hold her and empathize: “You didn’t mean to break the mop. You wanted to see what happened when you threw it. I know.” Let her cry as long and hard as possible.
If she is laughing, don’t assume that she doesn’t care. Laughter is a sign of anxiety and she is probably trying hard not to feel the guilt that would make her cry. You might say “You’re laughing….But I know you didn’t mean to break the mop….This is a hard thing… We need a mop, and this one is broken and we can’t fix it.”
More likely, she will simply be somber, looking to you to know what to do next. Now you want to introduce the concept of repair. “Sweetie, Dad will be sad that his mop is broken…..what can we do to make things better? You’re right, we could buy him a new one, but that will cost money. So yes, we can plan to go to the store, so Dad won’t have to make that trip. But maybe we should do some special chores for Dad, to help him, so he has time for other work? What do you think? Maybe for instance we could work together to sweep up in here, so Dad won’t have to…What do you think? Could we sweep together?” Pick some chore that she can actually help with. Make it immediate. Don’t present this as a punishment, but as a reparation. You are empowering her to make a repair.
Notice we haven’t lectured her. She doesn’t need a lecture to learn that breaking things has a cost. She’s learning by seeing your concern, and by participating in the conversation and in the repair. Coupled with her desire to please you, all this will eventually will help her want NOT to break something even more than she wants to throw it.
2. Use play to help your daughter explore, laugh and connect with you.
Later, once everyone is calm, do some throwing with your daughter. You can get a bucket and some bean bags, and have a throwing session. Make this a really fun time with a lot of joking and laughing. You might consider every object in sight. Is that good for throwing? If it really wouldn’t hurt something, let her throw it. So, for instance, she might learn that dish towels are okay to throw, but then need to be washed afterwards, and they don’t go very far. Blenders really are not okay to throw, they would certainly break. Pans can get dented. Rocks might be okay to throw at the creek or in the field if no one is nearby, but are dangerous otherwise. Etc. The point is that you are helping her get this experimentation out of her system, so she doesn’t have to experiment on her dad’s tools.
Even more important, you are connecting with her by laughing, which helps you both release oxytocin, the bonding hormone. The more you laugh together, the more she will want to please you, so the more she will listen to you at other times.
Finally, roughhousing and laughing helps your daughter express and evaporate any anxiety that is driving her behavior. Your description of her often acting impulsively could indicate some anxiety, and laughter is the best way to address anxiety and help her get it out of her system. All young children have some tears and fears stored up, and anxiety is just another word for fear. So all kids need daily roughhousing and laughing just to clear out the anxieties of the day, so they can be more grounded, happy and cooperative.
3. Set limits when you need to, even when that means you have to pick her up — and do it with empathy.
You say that now at bedtime , she runs away, hides etc. No child in their right mind wants to go to bed. So this is a predictable development. Have a sense of humor about it, but calmly, kindly, firmly, retrieve her and carry her to the bathroom. There is no reason to be mean about it. You can say, just as you do now, “It looks to me like you don’t want to go to bed, Sweetie, AND it is time now.” Then, give her her wish in fantasy, which the brain hears, pictures and reacts to as if it were real. So you might say “I bet when you grow up you’ll NEVER go to bed! I bet you’ll play all night every night, won’t you?”
You say that once you “start brushing her teeth she settles in, and often then starts saying how she is tired. But is is very stressful for both of us.” So I would suggest that this is stressful because you think things should be different. You can eliminate the stress by looking at it differently. It is her job to test your limits so she knows which ones are firm. It is your job to keep a sense of humor while you hold your limits. Just accept that this is a stage — she is testing to see if bedtime is firm — and that you will almost certainly need to pick her up or hold her hand to get her into the bathroom. If she cries, that’s okay, she’ll be more cooperative once she gets it out of her system. If she laughs, that’s even better. Either way, she learns that bedtime is firm and you mean it. Soon, she won’t bother to run away. And she learns something even more important. She can’t always get what she wants, but she gets something better — a mom who understands why she doesn’t want to go to bed, and who loves her through her resistance–without getting upset at her.
4. Support her to cry when she needs to by setting limits in a kind way.
Sometimes children will do something they know is against the rules just to pick a fight so they can cry. So while it is fine to be flexible and let her smash some eggs, it is also fine to decide that she has smashed enough. Often kids are looking for the limit. Ideally, when you decide to set the limit for her not to take any more, you need to be prepared to stop her physically. Then you can take her in your arms and kindly say “Okay, enough egg smashing, we need those eggs — I won’t let you do that” and hopefully she will burst into tears. Crying is what helps her get those tears and fears out that are driving her out of control behavior.
In this instance, you were too far away, so you were headed toward her but used your voice to say “NO! Don’t take another” That’s totally appropriate. But it is also true that she does not yet have a lot of impulse control. So when you say something, if she is already grabbing the egg, it is really hard for her to stop. That will change as she gets older, of course. In this instance, if you can think quickly enough, you can call her name to get her to look up at you, and say “WAIT!” as you rush over. She still might not wait, but it is easier for her to pause, than to stop.
So what if she grabs the egg and smashes it anyway? You get down on her level and look her in the eye and say “I said NO! But you smashed the egg!” Hopefully, she cares enough about your dismay to begin crying. If she doesn’t cry, you can say “I can’t let you be in here because it is just too hard for you not to break the eggs.” And take her out. At that point she will almost certainly begin crying. You hold her and resist the urge to lecture. You say “You smashed the egg, even though Mommy said No….It was hard for you to stop, wasn’t it? We will try again tomorrow.”
You did mention that she seems not to think what you say is important. If you set a lot of limits, it may be that you are setting too many and she just tunes you out. If you talk all the time, she may also tune you out. And, finally, if she is not feeling very connected to you, she may tune you out. Why would she feel disconnected? If she doesn’t get to cry, she may have some big feelings stored up. That takes kids out of their hearts and disconnects them from us. So you might find that after she cries, she’s more connected to you.
And that brings me to my last recommendation. Be sure that you are solidly connecting to your daughter. Listening to her. Spending some time every day engaged with her where you follow her lead, act as her assistant, and just pour your love into her. The only thing standing against your daughter’s impulse to break everything in sight — just to see what happens — is pleasing you. Make sure that her relationship with you is the most important thing in her life, so that she gets practice choosing it above her other impulses. These days will pass, soon. Make sure you come out of them with a stronger relationship with your daughter, even if you leave a few broken eggs along the way.
You’ve made it through the baby years, the terrible twos and the threenager stage, and you’re still standing. You deserve a pat on the back. But parenting is the exhausting gift that keeps on giving, so before you breathe too big a sigh of relief, welcome to the frustrating fours.
But don’t just slump on the floor and wail (although if you do, know that we’ve been there), because there is good news. And that’s the fact that most of the time 4-year-olds are pretty awesome. They’re leaving toddlerhood behind; getting ready for school; and are full of energy, curiosity and hilarious chatter. Expect a whole lot of love — along with 64,386 “Why?” questions every day.
Like every age, being 4 years old comes with its ups and downs — and that’s just for the kid. Parenting a 4-year-old can be a challenge at the best of times. Every child is different, of course, but here are some of the things you can expect from your 4-year-old along with some expert tips on how to help them.
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What should my kid be able to do at 4 years old?
At the age of 4, most children are able to exhibit certain developmental milestones, says Kandace Herring, educational director at Varsity Tutors who has a master’s degree in education with an emphasis on early childhood education.
- Taking turns in line on the playground or in a board game
- Sharing toys
- Introducing themselves
- Asking questions
- Following basic directions
- Exhibiting self-control
Fine motor skills
- Grasping a pencil/scissors
- Zipping a coat
- Writing their own name
Gross motor skills
- Pedaling a bike
- Kicking a ball
- Expressing their feelings with their own words
- Using four- to five-word sentences
- Responding to questions
- Understanding responses to questions
How can I encourage my 4-year-old to love learning?
Every day with your 4-year-old brings so many opportunities to help them learn, says kindergarten teacher Taylor Doyle. “Ask your kid questions that make them think, and encourage them to ask questions as well,” she suggests. “For example, when on a walk, ask questions that increase thought — like, ‘Why do you think trees are tall?’ and ‘Where do you think clouds come from?’ These types of questions push children to start thinking a little bit deeper, and this encourages wonder, which is huge for learning down the road. Skills like this create a ‘thinker’ rather than just a ‘learner.’”
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Reading books and playing board games together are other ways to encourage a love of learning, says Herring. She also recommends involving your child in everyday activities like grocery store planning and cooking. “Simple cooking activities are a fun and important way to help children learn about measurements, mixing, temperatures and discussions about solids vs. liquids,” she says.
Should my 4-year-old get screen time?
Ah, the trusty iPad — every parent’s savior when multitasking is impossible or patience is thin. But does technology help or harm your 4-year-old? With the right apps, it can be useful for short amounts of time, says Doyle. “Playing learning games on electronics can be beneficial to 4-year-olds and can help with their fine motor skills as they are touching specific points on the screen,” she says. “But know what they are doing, limit the time they are doing it, and ask them questions about what they are learning; if they are getting nothing from it, they need a different activity.”
How can I help build my 4-year-old’s self-esteem?
According to therapist Lakiesha Russell, you can boost your 4-year-old’s self-esteem in three different ways.
“Parents are quick to jump to the rescue of our children, especially when they are young,” says Russell. Instead of sweeping in to assist with getting dressed or putting on shoes, stop and wait for your child to ask for help. This helps them learn how to problem-solve and want to do things on their own first, which helps them grow up feeling confident in their own abilities to navigate the world. “When we hover over our children and don’t allow them to assert their independence, they feel inadequate in their abilities,” she adds.
Increase your own self-esteem
Your child will imitate how you react to things and what you value, so a positive self-image is crucial, says Russell. Part of this is acknowledging when you have done something well and celebrating your own small victories, which can motivate your child to do their best as well.
Encourage positive release of emotions
Encourage your child to use words to share how they feel. This shows them their emotions are important. You can also show them constructive ways to release those emotions, such as expressively coloring when they are angry, using breathing techniques when they are anxious and building things (with Legos or blocks) when they are sad. These techniques can help them express and validate feelings they may not be able to articulate.
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Don’t beat yourself up if you feel as if you spend your days completely baffled by your 4-year-old (What do they want? What do they mean? Why are they having another tantrum?). Kids at this age are challenging — some more so than others. “A 4-year old may have a limited vocabulary or even be nonverbal,” says educator Lemi-Ola Erinkitola, founder of The Children’s Reading Foundation of Greater Chicago and The Critical Thinking Child. “It’s important to remember that children have different learning styles — and what works for one child may not work for another,” she adds. “The more patient and flexible you are, the more effective a teacher you’ll be for your kid.”
In a family home in picture-pretty Oxfordshire, four women and seven toddlers are, respectively, drinking tea and causing chaos. The children, aged between 13 months and four years, are doing what children of those ages do: quarrelling over toys and bellowing for their mothers. The women are discussing the kinds of things modern mothers discuss: the evils of sleep training, the joys of hypnobirthing. Rebecca, whose house we are in, sets cake down for her friends just as her 19-month-old son toddles up to demand some milk.
“You’re hungry again? OK,” she says, shifting in a large armchair as she lifts her boy across her body and unbuttons her top. “You don’t wake up and think, I’m going to breastfeed a toddler,” she tells me. “You just keep feeding your newborn. Sometimes I’ll go somewhere and other people will look at me strangely. They’ll make comments about him always hanging off me, but then they say what a happy boy he is,” she adds, as her son drinks contentedly, pausing only to switch sides. Fifteen minutes later, he is back for more.
These women, who meet every week, refer to themselves as a tea-and-cake group, but they are also an attachment parents’ group. An offshoot of “natural parenting”, also known as gentle or off-grid parenting, or intensive mothering, this is the approach of the moment, just as Gina Ford’s more scheduled method (strict bedtimes, an unbreakable routine) was a decade ago; to a certain degree, it is the reaction of a new generation of parents against Ford and her ilk.
Attachment parenting harks back to the baby-focused 1970s, only with a more 21st-century, anti-authority bent. Mothers are urged to trust their instincts over the advice of professionals, and to shun developments such as sleep training (in which babies are left to cry to encourage them to sleep for longer) and, occasionally, vaccinations. Whereas parents were once encouraged to fit the baby into their schedule, an attached mother is led by her baby, responding to their demands immediately, or “respectfully”. The approach combines an attitude of enlightenment (“We don’t do things the old way”) with veneration of the distant past (vague anthropological references to the practices of ancient tribespeople, never mind the improved mother and infant mortality rates). If you are a woman aged between 25 and 45, you will almost certainly have seen people lauding this approach on social media; Facebook will soon have as many groups devoted to attachment parenting as it has gifs of cats.
Like the trend for “wellness” and clean eating, attachment parenting posits that the modern world has corrupted what was once pure, through scientific intervention. Rejecting modernity has become the ultimate aspirational signifier, from fetishising cycling over driving to praising farmers’ markets over supermarkets; after all, in order to reject something, you not only need access to it, you have to have so many options, you don’t even need it. It also has about it a touch of anti-intellectualism, an increasingly popular stance in everything from politics to nutrition.
Attachment parenting was developed in the 1980s by the American paediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha, a registered nurse, now in their 70s, and starts from the inarguable position that loving parental interaction is beneficial to a child. The Sears’ underlying contention is that, through a combination of modern life, misguided experts and selfishness, we have become emotionally detached from our children; parents need consciously to rebuild that attachment. “Babies who are deprived of secure attachment do not grow well,” the Sears write in The Attachment Parenting Book, first published in 2001. “They seem sad. It’s as if they’ve lost their joy of living.” Children raised the attachment way, by contrast, are “caring and empathetic”. Attachment is “a special bond… the mother feels complete only when she is with her baby”. (Despite its seemingly inclusive name, attachment parenting literature is always directed at the mother.)
Followers stress that attachment parenting isn’t about rules, but about creating a special relationship – though it’s a relationship that’s built by following specific tenets, including baby-wearing (carrying your baby in a sling or holding them as much as possible); long-term breastfeeding; co-sleeping (sharing the parental bed with your baby); always responding to your baby’s cry, no matter how tired you are. You don’t have to follow all the rules, but the Sears warn that you will then have to work harder.
I first encountered attachment parenting when a handful of friends started following it a few years ago. Not yet having children myself, I nodded vaguely when they talked passionately about breastfeeding and co-sleeping. To be honest, I thought the whole thing sounded unhinged. But when I had twins last year, I understood the appeal more.
Parents have never before been subjected to so much advice from so many unqualified quarters, thanks largely to – of course – the internet. When all around you is hormonal fog and existential fear, attachment parenting offers clarity and promise: follow these steps and you will bond more quickly with your baby, and they will be happier. It puts its thumb right on the maternal pressure point, by asking how much of yourself you are willing to give up for your child, mixing things most mothers already know (babies need human interaction) with their worst fears (anything less than constant devotion will cause your baby emotional harm).
I wondered whether attachment parenting had actually helped anyone – and whether this was really about parenting, or something else. So I detached from my own babies and spent two months meeting women and advocates around the country, in an effort to find out.
Mothers are urged to trust their instincts, and to shun developments such as sleep training. Styling: Rachel Jones at Terri Manduca. Photograph: Felicity McCabe/The Guardian
Since the 1980s, attachment parenting has evolved into a fully fledged school of thought, with official organisations spreading its word: Attachment Parenting International (API) in the US, established in 1994 by Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson, with the blessing of the Sears; and Attachment Parenting UK (APUK) in Britain, established in 2012 by Michelle McHale, a mother of two. And while it is still sufficiently niche in the UK to consider itself, a little proudly, offbeat (followers refer to other methods as “mainstream parenting”), the approach is fast gaining traction. There are now 70 groups like Rebecca’s across the country, with an average of 15 mothers attending each. Lest anyone think this is largely a metropolitan trend, the biggest group is in Wantage, also in Oxfordshire. Derby has a thriving group, too, while those in London are relatively small. Most people who follow attachment parenting do not attend groups; they just know they don’t want to do things the Gina Ford way.
It is easy to see why attachment parenting is being embraced in Britain. It takes adages familiar from NHS leaflets and gives them extra oomph: breast is best – for years and years; share your bedroom with your baby for six months – share your bed for as long as your baby wants. Two years ago, APUK won a grant of £9,988 from the national lottery to “improve the wellbeing of families who access its services”. British companies such as sling or reusable nappy manufacturers, and publishers of approved books – all of which have benefited from the trend – provide APUK with sponsorship; further money comes from the groups, which pay a one-off fee of £200 for affiliation. When I speak to McHale on the phone, she tells me she plans to apply for another lottery grant, and to use the money to set up free workshops around the country, teaching parents “to connect with their innate wisdom”.
McHale, a full-time mother, discovered attachment parenting in 2007, when her first daughter was born. “She wouldn’t go down and I researched baby-wearing and found it soothed her.” She later learned her daughter had two heart defects that eventually required medical intervention, but believes the baby-wearing helped. “It really worked. My second daughter didn’t exhibit those behaviours, so I might not have come to it if I hadn’t had my first daughter.”
So why did she take the same approach with her second daughter? “Because it was just so easy,” she says. “It felt right and natural.” Since she established APUK, which now offers courses for parents wanting to apply the principles with older children, McHale says she has been regularly consulted by local social services about problem children. I ask if she has a background in this area. No, she says, but she has done an online course with the US attachment parenting branch to qualify as a peer support group leader.
McHale is keen to stress that AP is not “this extreme thing”. How would she describe it? “It encourages practices like breastfeeding and co-sleeping,” she says, “but I’d never say you have to do something. It’s not dogmatic. It’s about the quality of the relationship.”
But isn’t the underlying argument that the parents who don’t do this, don’t have good relationships with their children? “I think a lot of mothers have become disconnected from their instincts,” McHale says. “AP supports women in what they instinctively want. They want to carry their baby and wake up to them and feed them from the breast. So let’s support them, and let’s support women who aren’t doing it, but aren’t happy with what they are doing.” Like all parenting theories, this one generalises about what people want, but with an added essentialist kicker: it assumes a woman’s instincts are to be attached.
A few weeks after our phone conversation, I go to Exeter to meet McHale in a hotel restaurant, with four other mothers and their children. The five of us talk over tea while the toddlers breastfeed and play in the sunshine.
I ask McHale if she doesn’t think some women just want to put their baby in the cot at the end of the day while they have a glass of wine, instead of holding them for hours until they fall asleep. She looks puzzled: “Well, I’ve met mums who were told by their friends not to pick up their crying babies, even though their instinct was shouting at them to do it. But they doubted themselves, and later felt the sadness of not responding the way they wanted to.” (The Sears have gone much further than this, suggesting in their books that the only reason a woman might struggle with attachment parenting is because “your marriage was shaky going into pregnancy, or if you and your husband were not really ready”. They also suggest that “women with a history of sexual abuse may find it difficult”.)
There is no doubt that babies thrive when they are loved. But attachment parenting also suggests that children who aren’t loved in their prescribed way may develop serious problems. Barbara Nicholson, founder of API, tells me on the phone that she and Lysa Parker were inspired to co-found the organisation when “we realised that kids with so-called learning disabilities actually suffered from neglect, even from parents who deeply cared but were following the wrong advice. And when they got to school, they were given labels like ADHD .”
Does she think their ADHD was caused by not having an attachment? “I think the diagnosis stemmed from that. So we started giving parents simple advice, like, sit down with your children after dinner and read to them. They need the connection with you.”
Later, by email, Nicholson suggests I write about how attachment parenting can help with the “prevention of violence”, referring specifically to Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people in Orlando last month. “It’s so disheartening to hear reports like this and not go more in depth about what happens to kids who are marginalised and bullied and perhaps not receiving the support and love they need in the home.”
At times such as these, AP mutates into a form of parent-blaming – the downside of a theory that promises parents total control, and full responsibility, over how their child turns out.
Julie, Sylvie and Martha are members of an attachment parenting group in north London. They are all warm and sparky, and the loving bond they have with their babies is obvious. Sylvie and Julie both opted for attachment parenting because they liked it, or, more specifically, hated the alternative. For Martha, it was a reaction against her upbringing: she did not have a close relationship with her parents and this, she says, “prevented me from forming attachments with other people until I found AP”.
Like everyone else I meet, these women say they don’t care what other parents do, while at the same time describing sleep training as “abusive”. For Julie, co-sleeping is as much for her as her eight-month-old son. “He’s not ready to go into his own room, and I’m not ready, either. I like hearing him breathe and knowing he’s safe. I find it difficult to mix with people who do sleep training, because they get defensive. The judging goes both ways.”
She’s right: there isn’t a parent who hasn’t sought validation for their own choices by denigrating others’. But, at worst, “mainstream” parents will look at attachment parenting and think it appears overindulgent, exhausting and unscientific. Attachment parenting, on the other hand, can invest its techniques with not just efficacy, but morality: if you don’t do this, you are committing something tantamount to child abuse.
In my experience, most mothers regard their parenting skills with a mix of nervy insecurity and “That’ll do, I guess” weariness; AP mothers, meanwhile, radiate a certainty that is either extremely seductive or a tiny bit annoying, depending on your mood. There is no doubt they feel they have a special relationship with their children, one Martha describes as “beautiful and amazing”. Then there is the bond they form with each other: McHale had told me mutual support was one of the main appeals of attachment parenting, and this was clear in every group I met. “Every time I met with other mothers they were talking about their routines and it just didn’t make sense to me,” Julie says. “So I followed my instincts and it seemed to work, but I felt I was doing it wrong. When I discovered other people were doing it this way, that was a huge reassurance.”
But there are times when attachment parenting seems to have made some women feel worse. Julie hadn’t been able to breastfeed her baby, so bottle-fed him formula instead. “It’s not traditional attachment parenting, and it does bother me,” she tells me. “When I give him powder, I feel like I’m letting him down.”
She was about to return to work, with great regret. “I feel like I’ve done all this work, building my attachment with him, and now I’ve got to hand him over to someone else and it makes me feel sad,” she says, looking down at her baby. While many women feel conflicting emotions when they return to work, for Julie there is the extra guilt about what it will do to her “attachment” – something at once more tangible and fragile than the general, amorphous experience of maternal love. Of the dozens of mothers I spoke to, only one had returned to work full-time; Julie was the only one with a small baby considering it.
I ask Julie, Sylvie and Martha if they feel attachment parenting is a rejection of feminism. Absolutely not, they say, with the weary eye rolls of women who have heard this criticism before. “To say that you have to go to work to be a feminist would be like saying being a feminist depends on being a man, completely denying the fact that we’re different,” Martha says.
When I raise the issue with API co-founder Lysa Parker, she tells me she sees her approach as innately feminist. “When women who choose to stay home with children are criticised, it’s another way of keeping them down. So we see this as a maternal feminist issue. We should be able to stay home for three to five years, without being ostracised by fellow feminists and the culture at large. What’s best for the mother and child is what’s best for society, because if children feel loved, they’ll grow up to be adults who feel that way. People aren’t looking at the big picture – it’s all about the quick fix.”
Sylvie had told me: “Feminism is about having choices, and that includes choosing to spend time with your baby.” But I wasn’t sure if, with all the strictures AP puts on mothers, they felt they were exercising much choice. There are times when the underlying message sounds more like emotional blackmail: subjugate yourself to your baby or else. It is absolutely right to argue that a woman who wants (and can afford) to stay at home with her children should do so; but to suggest the children of working mothers will grow up to be a threat to society moves this beyond “maternal feminism”, and into rightwing demagoguery.
Although attachment parenting now appeals to the liberal, middle-class woman, it started from an anti-feminist place. As obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Amy Tuteur details in her punchy new book Push Back: Guilt In The Age Of Natural Parenting, the Sears are fundamentalist Christians with eight children; attachment parenting is modelled on their deeply religious view of the family, with the father at its head and the mother the devoted caretaker. In The Complete Book Of Christian Parenting & Child Care, the Sears write that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything… God has placed within mothers both the chemistry and the sensitivity to respond to their babies appropriately.” (API’s Parker says the Sears have since moved on, with the latest edition of their Attachment Parenting Book including a guide to being a working mother – even if it still suggests women find “employment that allows you maximum time to mother”, and should perhaps “step off the career track”.)
Tuteur tells me why she thinks AP is uniquely retrograde. “This is a movement that says, forget about educating yourself or working – all that matters is pushing a baby out and devoting yourself to it. Women, for so long, only had birth and breastfeeding, and no one felt empowered. If you want to take power from women, convince them they want to go back to that.
“The irony is that it appeals to accomplished women looking for another means of getting validation. Children don’t look up and say, thanks for disciplining me or teaching me how to sleep. Attachment parenting gives parents a recipe they can tick off and say, “OK, I did it, I’m the best, now they’re fine.” There is this idea that children are products and if you make the right input, they’ll become upper-middle-class successes.”
Tuteur also objects to the way AP speaks to a limited demographic. “Attachment parenting says a single Latina woman who works in Walmart can’t be a good mother. So if only wealthy white women can be good mothers, there’s something wrong with this definition of being a mother.”
A mother of four, Tuteur initially worked nights so she could be with her children during the day, then switched from medicine to writing, again to be with them more. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to be around your children. But there is something very wrong with making your children your identity. That is not healthy for anyone, and it appears we are raising a generation that is helpless; their mother did everything for them, because that was her identity.”
Back in Rebecca’s home in Oxfordshire, the cake is half-eaten and more tea is being made. Rebecca, “an evidence-based hippy”, has always wanted to do better. She worked hard at school and university, and after having her baby, dialled back her work at a veterinary practice to two days a week. She sharply corrects me when I say “part-time”: she works full-time, because she’s a mother.
Her little boy sleeps half the night in her room and half in his. She still breastfeeds him at 1am. Isn’t she exhausted after a year and a half of broken sleep? “You just do what’s best for them, don’t you? I mean, that’s parenting.” She shrugs.
Styling: Rachel Jones at Terri Manduca. Photograph: Felicity McCabe/The Guardian
The talk turns to co-sleeping. “My husband sleeps on the sofa, and that’s his choice,” says Liza, a baby-wearing consultant and mother of four who shares her bed with her two-year-old daughter. “The sound of my daughter whining in the night woke him and we realised that, when he slept on the sofa, everyone slept better.”
This cuts to one of the biggest criticisms family psychologists have of AP: that it urges parents to privilege their children over each other. AP websites are full of advice about how parents can maintain their sex life despite sharing a bed with their children, usually involving alternative rooms and other times of day. (Several women tell me about the slogan “AP parents do it on the kitchen table”.)
But family psychologists say this is not the point. Andrew G Marshall, a marital therapist and author of books including I Love You But You Always Put Me Last, points out, “When the dad is sleeping on the sofa, the mother is telling him she has left him for the kids, and she is telling her children that they are more important than their father. I’ve noticed more and more couples struggling with this, but they’re happier changing their partner than their parenting. It’s the one thing that’s non-negotiable. Attachment parenting tells women to strive for a balance in family and personal life, but everything it then says undermines that. It definitely has more of an impact on couples than other kinds of parenting.”
Anyone who claims their relationship didn’t suffer when they had a baby is someone whose pants are on fire. But AP is especially intense: if both partners are fully signed up, fine; if one isn’t, that can be a problem (and it’s invariably the father; I did not encounter a single family in which AP was his idea). “My husband found it hard in the beginning, when I was making decisions he wasn’t expecting,” Rebecca tells me, “and he wasn’t always happy with the sleeping arrangements. We went through a period of struggling to communicate. But, with hindsight, he can see all the decisions have paid off.”
Of my five friends who attachment parent, three have separated from their partner. Obviously you can’t blame AP for this; there were other factors. But I ask McHale, herself recently divorced, how she thinks AP affects parents’ relationships. “I think mothers are often drawn to AP because they are reconnecting to their instincts in a new way, and an inextricable by-product of this is the crystallisation of values. Parenting invites adults to know their values. This isn’t unique to AP, but part of every couple’s challenge to find a common ground.”
Marshall sees it differently: “Attachment parenting is driven by a woman’s enormous fear that she won’t be a good enough mother. But these women need to feel reassured that they will bond naturally with their baby, to have the humility to compromise with their partners and to remember they don’t need to prove themselves all the time to other people. There’s nothing more destabilising for a child than their parents getting divorced.”
If the focus of attachment parenting is the children, in the end the real issue is how it affects them. Their approach, the Sears write, “builds kids who care. Because these children are on the receiving end of sensitive parenting, they become sensitive… I often watch AP children in playgroups. When friends are hurting, these children, like Good Samaritans, rush to help.”
Over the past few months, I have also spent a lot of time watching AP children in groups. They were all – no question – happy, healthy and confident little people. Critics like to dismiss AP parents and their children as “needy mothers and clingy kids”, but the kids didn’t seem especially clingy to me. Nor did they strike me as significantly more confident and happy than children raised the more mainstream way. Far from being paragons of empathy, I saw children kick each other, steal each other’s toys and generally behave as all toddlers do. For all the extraordinary effort these mothers made, the end result looked pretty much the same.
So who is attachment parenting for: the mother, the child, the conservative ideologues? I asked Liza in Oxfordshire. She is 37 weeks pregnant, has a nine- and an 11-year-old whom she raised the mainstream way, including sleep training, and a four- and a two-year-old being raised the AP way. The older ones, she says, do sleep better than the younger ones. “But sleep training just felt wrong to me and I wouldn’t do it again. Although I’m so tired now, I could sleep on a clothesline.”
Does she see a difference between her non-AP and AP children? She thinks for a minute, shifting her two-year-old, who rests in a sling on her front, over her pregnant belly. “Well, some people would say this one is more clingy,” she says, nodding down at her daughter, “but I don’t like that word. Perhaps carrying her made her clingy, or maybe that’s who she is – I don’t know. But no, not really. All my children are confident and vocal.”
To outsiders, the attachment parent’s overt display of effort – the nonstop breastfeeding, the constant self-sacrifice – can seem an ostentatious declaration that they care much more, a kind of performative motherhood. But increasingly, I saw something else, something more akin to female masochism in the pursuit of maternal perfection, a quiet belief that maybe feminism had sold them a pup and staying at home with the baby wasn’t just what they could do, but should do.
The idea that any one approach will ensure a perfect lifelong relationship with one’s child will make all parents of moody teenagers snort, let alone those with children who have more serious problems. All children, even those with loving parents, even those with attachment parents, will fall down occasionally, feel sad, be insecure, get angry, and that’s not because they had bad parents – it’s because they’re human. That parents should be involved goes without saying, but the choice should not be between being an attachment parent and raising a failure. After all, as Amy Tuteur says to me, “There are a lot of excellent ways to raise children and it isn’t the details that matter – it’s the love.” Names and some details have been changed.
Tired of the power struggles and battles over everything? Unsure how to discipline your toddler without using timeouts? Use these 16 simple reminders to bring the joy back to parenting your 3-year-old!
Some say the 2’s are terrible.
But for many parents, it’s the 3’s that really challenge a parent’s ability to stay cool under pressure.
Then meltdowns. The boundary-pushing. The fierce independence (followed by intense frustration that they actually cannot complete the task they wanted to do alone).
It’s a lot to handle.
Let’s take a deep breath and step back from the daily battles and power struggles for a few minutes and imagine what your toddler would say if they could give you a few parenting pointers.
16 Positive Parenting Tips for Your 3-year-old
- I’m little: I know you want me to grow up, but you can’t rush this. Even if my vocabulary is huge and I can keep up with the big kids at the park, my brain still has a lot of growing up to do.
- I need connection more than correction: You want me to listen and follow your directions, and the best way to do this is by making me feel safe, supported, and attached to you.
- I need gentle guidance, not time out: Instead of separating me when I struggle, take time to teach me a better way to handle my big feelings or work through difficult situations.
- Your description of me matters: I internalize the words you use to describe me, plus, when you see me in a positive light, you are more willing to be patient and empathetic to me!
- I can handle responsibilities: I love to help and there is a lot I can do! Please make my environment easy to access and give me lots opportunities to work side by side with you.
- Let me struggle: Wait before you rush in and rescue me from a difficult situation, sometimes I just need to try a few more times – and just watch how proud I will be when it’s done!
- I cannot self-regulate 100% of the time: Some days are going to be harder than others, especially when I’m tired, hungry, overstimulated, or feeling disconnected from you.
- Tantrums are normal: Don’t be afraid when I show big feelings. It’s normal for me to feel things with a deep intensity. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or are doing something wrong.
- Your support matters: When you stay calm and in control, I know that I can count on you to keep me safe. I know that you will still love me, even when I show big feelings.
- Exploration is good: Save the word “no” for big things. Offer me an appropriate alternative, and give me lots of time to and space to play, run, touch, smell, taste, and investigate my world.
- Play with me: Be silly, sing, play games, wrestle, laugh. This makes me feel connected to you, it gives me a way to process big thoughts and feelings, and shake off anxiety and frustration.
- Change can be scary: It takes me awhile to get used to new people, new places, or new routines, so even if it seems small to you, be patient and empathetic while I adjust.
- I get overwhelmed easily: Lights, sounds, activities, running errands, and playing with other kids is a lot for my little brain. Step in and give me time to decompress before I meltdown.
- Pushing boundaries is part of learning: You don’t have to give in our get tough, just be there. Hold the limit with kindness, supporting me through my big feelings without getting upset.
- Enjoy this stage: I’m more than my ability to sit still, wipe my nose, say thank you, share, sleep through the night, or eat veggies. Embrace where I’m at, rather than wishing for more.
- I love you: You are my favorite person! Even if you lose your cool once in awhile, forget that I’m little, or give me the red cup, I love you SO much. Thank you for caring for me!
Next time your toddler refuses to get in their car seat or demands that they wear a striped shirt with plaid pants, take a deep breath.
Additional tips to help you through the toddler years
10 Tips for Parenting Your 2 Year Old
5 Benefits of Using Positive Parenting with Toddlers
Crunch Time Discipline: Getting Out The Door in the Morning
What to do When Your Child Prefers One Parent Ove the Other
How to Help Your Aggressive Toddler or Preschooler
Believe it or not, this stage will be over in a heartbeat.
It won’t be long and you’ll be thinking back to the “good old days” when your child would run into your arms and say, “I wuv you, mommy!”
Print These Reminders!
Download your FREE printable reminder of these 16 tips, plus you’ll also receive weekly parenting tips sent to your inbox from Nicole Schwarz, LMFT & Parent Coach.
Being a Good Parent
A father and son bond over kite-flying. (Image credit: Sergej Khakimullin, )
There are many ways to raise happy, well-adjusted kids, but science has a few tips for making sure they turn out okay. From keeping it fun to letting them leave the nest, here are 10 research-based tips for good parenting.
Don’t be fooled by their height
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No matter how tall they get or how grown-up they look, your kids are still just that … kids. And parents of older children especially need to remember this fact, according to Sara Johnson, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The developmental period known as adolescence lasts about 10 years — from ages 11 to 19 — and it’s regarded as a critical time for brain development. So it’s important to keep in mind that, even as kids grow into young adults, “they are still in a developmental period that will affect the rest of their life,” Johnson told Live Science in March 2016.
Support the shy ones
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A little bashfulness is one thing, but kids with behavioral inhibition — a trait that refers to shyness and also extreme caution in the face of new situations — may be at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, according to researchers. And parents who shelter kids demonstrating behavioral inhibition (in effect, encouraging this inhibition) may actually make the situation worse.
So how do you support shy kids? The key is to get them out of their comfort zones without trying to change their nature, said Sandee McClowry, a psychologist at New York University. Why not just break them of their shy habbits? Research has shown that shyness is a part of some children’s character and a very difficult trait to change. In other words, it’s better to work with shyness than against it.
“That acceptance of the child is a huge, huge thing,” McClowry told Live Science in September 2016.
Live in the moment
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Adults tend to constantly think about the future, but kids — especially preschool-age kids (ages 2 to 5) — live in the here and now, scientists say. To get on a kid’s level, parents need to learn how to live in the moment, too, said Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York City.
This is especially true when it comes to communicating verbally with a young child, said Klein, who is also the author of “How Toddlers Thrive” (Touchstone, 2014).
Instead of telling a 3 year old that it’s time to get ready for some future action, like going to school, parents should give their child a set of instructions, Klein told Live Science in August 2016. Replace ambiguous statements like “it’s almost time for school” with clear, simple explanations and directions, such as, “We need to leave for school. It’s time to get your coat.”
Tell them how they feel
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While older kids are widely regarded as the kings and queens of self-expression, young children often lack the vocabulary to properly label their own emotions, according to researchers who study child development.
Kids ages 2 to 5 are just starting to understand emotions like fear, frustration or disappointment, according to Klein.
You can help your kid express herself by calling out such emotions when you see them. For example, a parent might say, “It’s disappointing that it’s raining outside, and you can’t go out to play,” Klein said.
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The hectic schedule of adulthood doesn’t always vibe with the relaxed pace of childhood, according to Klein.
“Children move at a slower rate,” and parents should try to match that pace, Klein said. By scheduling extra time for the little things, like a bedtime routine or a trip to the grocery store, parents can turn hectic chores into more meaningful time with their children, she said.
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Do you check emails or scroll through your social media feeds while spending quality time with your kids? Because you shouldn’t, Klein said.
It’s hard to be really engaged with your kids if you’re distracted by a bunch of other things. And this distracted presence can take a toll on children, who might feel like you’re not really there for them when you’re attention is divided, Klein said
“Children don’t need their parents’ attention 24/7 and 100 percent of the time,” she said. But when your kids do need your full attention, you should give it to them without any caveats.
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Want to raise polite children? Try adding the words “please” and “thank you” to your own vocabulary. Kids learn how to interact with others mainly by observing how grown-ups do it and then modeling that behavior themselves, according to Klein. So if you treat everyone — from cashiers and bus drivers to teachers and family members — with respect and politeness, chances are your kids will, as well.
Remember, teenage tantrums are real
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Just when the tantrums of your child’s toddler years seem like ancient history, you can expect such emotional outbursts to make another appearance.
Adolescent kids (ages 11 to 19) deal with a lot of social, emotional and mental stress that they don’t yet have the ability to process or cope with, according to Johns Hopkins’ Sara Johnson. This can result in some serious tantrums, which might surprise the unwary parent.
In such situations, parents should stay calm and listen to their children, said Sheryl Feinstein, author of “Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.) Modeling levelheaded behavior is a good way to teach your teen the proper way to deal with all that stress.
The golden rule
Using harsh words with teens may actually lead to worse behavior, a new study finds. (Image credit: Dad and teen photo via )
We’ll keep this one short and simple: Thou shalt not yell at your teenager. Seriously, just don’t do it. The more you yell at a teen, the worse they’re likely to behave, according to a study published in 2013 in the journal Child Development.
Stick to the basics
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“There are a lot of different ways to raise kids, and there’s not one formula that works for every kid,” said Amy Bohnert, a psychologist who researches child development at Loyola University Chicago. But surely there’s some kind of recipe for success when it comes to parenting, right?
Kind of: Bonhert said the first basic rule of being a good parent is fostering a secure and warm attachment with your kids. That way they know their needs will be met and that they’ll have a place to go when they need comfort. And as they get older, kids need freedom to explore their own identities and make mistakes, but in a safe and age-appropriate way, Bonhert told Live Science in 2011.