My son, Austin, won't be getting his driver's license for at least 13 years, but he's obsessed with cars. He wakes up with auto-shaped impressions on his cheek after a night nuzzled up to Lightning McQueen. He refuses to wear anything but cargo pants that have roomy Hot Wheels-size pockets and can only be convinced to eat broccoli if I drive bits into his mouth with an enthusiastic "Vroom."
"Austin's devotion to cars is absolutely normal," Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, assured me. "Three- and 4-year-olds are becoming aware that their world is a lot bigger than just home and family. There's so much that's unfamiliar that they need to balance this out with things that they know well." So while I'm relieved to find out that fixations are actually to be expected, it's smart to grow your child's interests as well as respect his beloved pastime.
A huge array of choices isn't always a good thing. "Too many toys can overwhelm your child," says Jennifer Esterly, Ph.D., lecturer in psychology and child development at California State University Stanislaus, in Turlock. Narrow down the options for your Frozen-obsessed child and display them where they're easily accessible. This way, she'll be more likely to pick up a new activity such as coloring -- even if it's just a picture of Olaf.
Instead of fighting your child's tendency to choose trains, try squeezing in a caboose here and a locomotive there while engaging in other activities, suggests Joyce Harrison, M.D., a child psychiatrist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. This way, you can expand his interests and build his skills while remaining in his comfort zone. For example, use Legos to build a track for the trains or scatter a few choo-choo-related books (recent favorites include Locomotive and Steam Train, Dream Train) around his toy area.
Three- and 4-year-olds like to feel in charge, so give your pony-obsessed kid a say in how she'd like the two of you to spend playtime while still ensuring that she's exposed to a variety of areas. Offer her a few choices of activities to do together, making sure you include her equine addiction in at least one of them. For instance, you might suggest playing My Little Pony, going to the park, and doing arts and crafts. Let her pick the order of the activities.
If your child is gaga for dinosaurs, play along. The reason: Children respond to their parents' boredom by locking into an activity, making it harder for them to switch gears. Dr. Cohen suggests setting a timer for 15 minutes and giving the game your full energy. Then, your kid will be more flexible about moving on.
As much as you want your child to have multiple interests, most kids this age don't have the mental flexibility to jump seamlessly from one activity to another. Your job is to be patient while your child gets through her soccer frenzy or Doc McStuffins mania. That way, she can make sense out of it before finding new interests and opportunities. It's true: I'm impressed when Austin rattles off the name of every vehicle in Cars while I can barely tell Doc Hudson from Mater. So for now, I guess that I better fasten my seat belt and enjoy this car-filled ride.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Parents magazine.