There's no doubt it's cute when your preschooler wants to dress in trendy clothes like those her big cousin wears, or that she's more masterful with the iPad than anyone else in the family. Like many parents, though, you probably have moments when you hope your child isn't growing up a little too fast.
Of course, many kids can't wait to jump into the fray. "Young children naturally want to become more competent and capable, which is a completely healthy desire," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential. Plus, big kids seem cool and exciting -- no wonder preschoolers want to be like them! The challenge for modern parents: Children are encouraged to "age up" before they're developmentally ready. Whether they're watching colorful cable channels with tween TV stars and themes or participating in nail-biting sports-team "tryouts" at younger ages, it can seem like preschoolers are getting pressured to be more than just, well, kids. We'll help you set reasonable boundaries without holding your child back.
As you make tricky judgment calls -- is a little body shimmer when playing dress-up okay, but not eyeshadow? -- your comfort level will be your best guide. Lincoln and Page Hoppe, of Los Angeles, let their 4-year-old daughter, Miriam, experiment with mom's makeup in the house when she's playing princess. But the rule is that Miriam can't wear it outside until she's 12. That said, a little nail polish isn't going to harm anyone. "Kids this age do enjoy dress-up, and they won't turn into a pumpkin if they put on high heels while playing at home," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "But there is a tremendous amount of pressure in our society for girls to look a certain way, and too much emphasis on makeup could promote an unhealthy focus on appearance." If your child's classmate is having a makeover party and you feel uncomfortable about it, feel free to politely decline and choose another activity for the day.
Your preschooler might ask to play his big brother's video games or stick around for a scary-movie night. But if you think the theme is too violent or frightening, you should feel justified saying no. "Your guiding question shouldn't be just 'What does my child want?' but 'How do I think this will affect him, based on who he is now?'" points out Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Similarly, if he likes watching a certain big-kid show and you begin to notice that he's using snarky phrases he's heard, he's probably too young to resist the influence of poorly behaved TV characters. It might take a little extra effort to distract him from shows his sibling is watching, but it's important to make sure his influences are developmentally appropriate.
Gymnastics classes or peewee tennis lessons -- in moderation -- are fine, as long as they focus on play, exploration, and fun rather than on rules and serious drills. "Children are wired to face challenges and try things they haven't attempted before," says Travis Wright, Ed.D., assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But if an activity is too much for a child, she can become anxious. Preschoolers need lots of unstructured play, and they don't require too much formal instruction. So if your child expresses an interest in sports, start by playing catch or kicking a soccer ball around the backyard. You'll provide opportunities for fun and preschool-level learning and she'll get to practice what interests her in a pressure-free environment.
April Wescott's 4-year-old son, Bobby, is a technological whiz and is itching to download as many apps as he can click. "Whenever I let him play on my iPad, he says, 'Mommy, give me your password,'" says the Massapequa, New York, mom. Wescott knows that giving him free iPad rein is risky, so the rule is that Bobby can search for apps, but he has to ask his mom to download them. "He knows he'll have more access when he's older," she says. Telling your child he can play particular games or watch certain shows when he's bigger offers him something to look forward to and lets him know that being 8 is very different from being 4, says Dr. Wright. Although a preschooler won't completely understand how far away he is from a particular age, he'll get the point that you don't believe this activity is right for him now.
Your child will inevitably be exposed to some grown-up influences, but an episode or two of a tween show he watched at a friend's house isn't likely to have long-term consequences. As an aware parent, you'll make the right calls about when to let him enjoy big-kid privileges -- and when to insist on child's play.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Parents magazine.