Sure, you know all about the power struggles and other troubles that come with raising a preschooler. But ages 3 and 4 also bring exciting developmental milestones that are turning your child into one of the coolest, funniest, and smartest kids you've ever met. "Children's linguistic, motor, and social skills improve exponentially at this age," says Mike Assel, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Children's Learning Institute at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Your child is becoming a more expressive, independent, and caring person right before your eyes. So the next time you find yourself tempering a tantrum, remember these reasons why preschoolers rock.
"Children go through an explosion in verbal skills between ages 3 and 5," says Dr. Assel. While a 2-year-old child generally uses "Tarzan talk" ("Want juice!"), preschoolers begin to speak in complete sentences and are better able to describe their feelings, answer questions more appropriately, use new words, and say things that are truly funny. And rather than just repeating phrases they hear, they begin to demonstrate a deeper understanding of how the world works. Audrey Wang, of Pasadena, California, mom of 3-year-old Ciel, says: "I asked Ciel to finish her noodles, and she looked at her dinner -- actually shells -- and said, 'Those aren't noodles. That's pasta.' She's suddenly become very precise about things."
Fine motor skills are developing rapidly at this age. "Children can usually manage buttoning clothes, washing their hands, and using spoons, though they may still need some help," says Laura Stout Sosinsky, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University, in New York City.
While you used to have a child who was completely dependent on you, your preschooler is becoming more self-sufficient in a variety of ways. "A 3- or 4-year-old can pick up his toys, put his clothes in the hamper, and even clear dishes from the dinner table," says Dr. Assel. Your preschooler might not be perfect at these tasks, but he can definitely be more helpful and make your life a little bit easier.
"You'll see children this age start to label their own emotions and understand others' feelings, which makes them more empathetic," says Dr. Sosinsky. Leslie Aronson's 3-year-old daughter, Ruby, was so sad when her mom went to the hospital and she had to stay at her grandparents. Seeing her daughter in distress made Aronson cry. When Ruby saw how upset her mom was, she declared, "Mommy, I happy. I stay with Grandma, Grandpa." Says the Pittsburgh mom: "That made me realize for the first time that Ruby knew I was upset and she was trying to reassure me. It was a touching moment for me."
"Three and 4-year-olds are constantly asking questions and soaking up information," says Dr. Assel. The "why, why, why" phase that occurs at this age is their way of building a knowledge base and learning about their world. They'll even grasp facts and details that might catch you by surprise. At a recent doctor's visit, the pediatrician asked Jaclyn Glatzer's 3-year-old son, Sam, when his birthday is. "I was about to interrupt and answer for him, but he shouted, 'March 11th!' I wondered, 'When did he learn that?' " says Glatzer, of Mableton, Georgia. Your preschooler will also start learning the names of shapes, colors, and letters. He might recognize his name on a birthday card or be able to read "STOP" on a stop sign.
If you've had your share of tearful goodbyes, there's good news: Easier separation is often another benefit of this age. "Preschoolers become more comfortable being away from their parents," says Dr. Assel. "That's probably related to the fact that a child this age is starting to understand abstract concepts like time." When your child realizes you'll be back soon and can say goodbye more easily, you just might feel a little less guilty leaving her.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.