Rest assured, human parent: Your little one's no alien—that strange behavior is normal. We'll help you understand what's behind the odd logic that rules her world.
child wearing mask
Credit: Stephanie Rausser

If you're parenting a member of the 5-and-under crowd, you're probably familiar with those baffling episodes when your child seems to be operating in a universe with its own line of reasoning and conduct—for instance, when your 2-year-old gleefully stomps on his balloon from a birthday party and then demands that you un-pop it.

These cognitive lapses can be especially perplexing because your kid's mastery of life skills and language is constantly improving, so it's easy to forget how much he still doesn't get. "Children are great mimics who sometimes use complicated phrases even before they fully understand their meaning," says Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. And despite the fact that their brains are developing at a dizzying pace from birth to age 6, young kids aren't yet capable of fully organizing the vast pool of information they're accumulating, which explains some of the quirky things they say and do.

To learn more, we took a tour of life on Planet Kids to report back on how you can successfully parent your mini Martian.

PLANET-KIDS RULE Mom can fix anything!

REAL-WORLD RULE Do-overs aren't always possible.

You were trying to be helpful when you pulled the straw off the juice box and out of the plastic wrapper before handing it over to your toddler during a playdate. You had no idea she wanted to do it all by herself. Now she keeps screaming, "Put it back!" Does she really think you have the ability to re-create the original packaging? (Oh, yes. Most definitely yes.)

What's Going On in That Head "Toddlers believe adults are very powerful," says Doris Bergen, Ph.D., distinguished professor of educational psychology at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. "They don't doubt that if you want to change something, you can." From your child's perspective, you're not taking the problem seriously enough and, worse, you're choosing not to do anything to help.

How to Deal She needs to feel as if you "get" the magnitude of her disappointment, so try to use language that she'll understand. Stomp the ground and say, "Mommy moved the straw and Zoe got mad. Big mad!" Reassure her you won't do it again. Then grab some tape—seriously. "Tape works wonders on all kinds of things that go wrong, including reattaching a straw to a juice box or putting a ripped photo back together," says Dr. Lagattuta. Your clumsy tape job may look terrible to you, but from your toddler's perspective, you acknowledged a problem and made way for a do-over.

PLANET-KIDS RULE Everything that happened in the past was "yesterday."

REAL-WORLD RULE There's a difference between the immediate and distant past.

Your 3-year-old loves to talk about his favorite memories. His ability to call up details, like how his older cousin sprained her ankle the last time she visited, underscores his brainpower. But it concerns you that all of his reveries begin with "Remember yesterday when..."

What's Going On in That Head Your preschooler is rapidly grasping the basic sequence of before-now-after. (First we packed for vacation, then we went to the beach, and now we're home.) His mind, however, can't yet categorize between yesterday and last month, says Dorothy Singer, Ph.D., senior research scientist emeritus of psychology at Yale University and coauthor of A Piaget Primer: How a Child Thinks. The past truly is all yesterday's news to him.

How to Deal Casually plant the seeds for comprehending time. Sing the days-of-the-week song when you get dressed in the morning. Talk about how Monday through Friday are school or day-care days and Saturday and Sunday are home days. Make like a nursery-school teacher and hang a monthly calendar in your kitchen at eye level for your kiddo. Keep a marker next to it so that you or he can proudly mark off each day. When reading together, ask about time: "Was the mommy owl gone a long time or a short time?"

happy child
Credit: Stephanie Rausser

Two More Rules That Kids Believe

PLANET-KIDS RULE Things should always go my way!

REAL-WORLD RULE You can't always get what you want.

You've discussed with your 4-year-old that it's no fun to play with a sore loser. You've let her win on purpose to model how to appropriately handle a loss. But she still pitches a major fit when you beat her at Chutes & Ladders.

What's Going On in That Head Preschoolers have had enough encounters with games—from freeze tag to Zingo—to know they can't always come out on top, but this realization really upsets them, says Dr. Lagattuta. Sure, they're thrilled that they can play big-kid games, but they haven't had as much experience as school-age kids at keeping their disappointment and frustration in check.

How to Deal Nix trying to distract her with another game like Candy Land. (That quick-fix solution works only in the toddler years.) Instead, nudge her out of her meltdown and empower her by involving her in creative problem solving. Try, "Okay, so you didn't win this time. Let's figure out how you can make yourself feel better. Do you want to build an underwater kingdom for your mermaids with your blocks?" Later on, when her emotions are in check, bring up the incident and ask her to help you come up with solutions to prevent future outbursts. Keep the strategies light: "Maybe we should make a house rule that whoever loses a game gets to tickle the other player?" That way, everybody gets to have fun.

PLANET-KIDS RULE If I'm a boy, I can't do girl stuff.

REAL-WORLD RULE Girls and boys can have the same interests.

Your 5-year-old has always enjoyed his gymnastics class, but suddenly he refuses to go. He says gymnastics is for girls and he is into karate, which he's never even tried before!

What's Going On in That Head He's dividing up the world into clearly defined Boy Things and Girl Things. This developmentally appropriate distinction crops up at this age as children begin to form a sense of their identity that's influenced by input from their classmates, teachers, and parents, and by exposure to media, says Neal Horen, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Georgetown University Medical Center for Child and Human Development, in Washington, D.C. And kids create this sense of self by looking to external things, such as the toys they play with and the color of the clothes they wear to school. In other words, your child thinks he must ditch the somersaults for karate, wear a wardrobe that comprises mostly sports jerseys, and never show even a fleeting interest in dolls, to confirm to himself that he's a boy.

How to Deal Know when to let his declarations go and when to intervene. A good rule of thumb: Speak up if your child puts limits on what boys and girls can and can't do. So if your son says, "Only boys are strong," you can say, "All kids can have strong muscles." Or if he says, "Boys don't do dress-up," try, "All kids can play in pretend worlds." When you make these matter-of-fact rebuttals to his explicit rules you are reinforcing that he doesn't have to box himself into one identity. He's a boy, but he's also a dancer, a helper, and a writer. (If you have a girl, she can be a scientist, a basketball player, and a joke-teller.) When his intergalactic behavior grates on you, remember that soon enough he will blast off from Planet Kids to the real world, and you will miss your pint-size alien.

Welcome to Big-Kid World

Quirky, yes, but alien? Not so much! By age 6 or 7, a child's brain has developed enough to allow her to categorize things in ways that resemble the way adults think. Around first or second grade, your big kid should be able to:

Grasp Permanence. He's lived long enough to know that when a toy is wrecked or lost, there's no way to reverse the situation. "What's more, a kid this age is cognitively able to understand death, and the fact that a grandparent or the family dog isn't coming back," says Dr. Neal Horen. "That doesn't mean he's ready for this realization. Are we ever?"

Master Time. She may have started rattling off the days of the week a while back, but now she's able to think about the passage of time in useful ways, says Dr. Doris Bergen. "A 7-year-old is a more flexible thinker who can make logical connections, such as, 'I have dance class on Thursday, and that's two days from now.'"

Look Beyond How Things Appear. When he was a preschooler, your kid would insist he got less juice if you served it in a squat glass. Now, he gets that his short cup is also wider. He also knows that people and things have aspects beyond appearances, says Dr. Kristin Lagattuta. "While a younger child may label friends as, 'She runs fast,' or 'He has lots of race cars,' a 7-year-old will talk about personality traits, calling a pal 'smart' or 'funny.'"

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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