Childhood:  The User’s Manual



Chapter Six:   Not a Baby


Last week a childless friend of mine came to dinner and met a four-year old friend of mine.   She made efforts to relate, and he spoke with her at length (itself a big concession from a four year old to a grownup).  But as he was going home with his parents, and she was bidding him farewell, she made the fatal mistake of saying, “Bye, baby.”  Without pausing to draw breath, he fixed her with the kind of cold stare more frequently seen in a Board room or across a poker table, turned to me, and said with emphasis:  “I am not a baby.”  “No, no,” I muttered soothingly, “it was just a mistake.  She knows you are really big now.”   He was appeased, and went off happily on his father’s shoulders.

In the preschool years, it is key to remember that the child has just learned to walk, learned to talk, learned to restrain himself in public, learned to poop and pee at inconvenient places and times, and learned to use his words to get his needs met.  These are huge and quite difficult achievements, and deserve recognition and respect.  The fact that all the other babies in the world also get to this point eventually does not alter the fact that it is difficult and requires concentration and cooperation.  And one way to give the appropriate respect is to stop treating the child like a baby.

This is difficult for parents to remember because each kid cycles through different stages in maturity several times in an hour, much less a day.  A kid who was discussing the constellations in an interested way in one minute may be pulling buggers out of her nose and eating them, or wiping them on your friend’s couch, in the next minute.  A kid who has just entranced you by learning his alphabet may suddenly be scared to go to the bathroom because he has decided that there are monsters who live in the toilet and will grab his bottom if he sits down.

Books on child development seem to focus, during this age, on the slow but steady development of skills, particularly self help skills.  Yes, your kids will learn to drink from a cup with a spout and then a regular cup and will begin to take off and eventually put on their clothes with out help.  They will learn to hop and jump and skip and dance and sing.  They will learn all of these things better if you model them, comment on them, participate with them, cheer a lot, and refrain from nagging. 

Skill development works better if you can train yourself to “catch them being good.”  That is, when your kid is working on a new skills, notice when she makes progress and comment on it.  From the kid’s point of view, you spend an awful lot of time telling her all the things she is are doing wrong.  Make sure you spend time noticing, seeing her clearly, and telling her the good things that you see her do.

It is also important to remember that your role isn’t always that of the “superior”—the teacher and guide.  If she colors within the lines on the balloon, but doesn’t color within the lines on the box, you can say, “look, you really got all the color inside the lines on that balloon.”  It is not necessary to point out that the box looks like spaghetti.  She’s three.

But the real trick with preschoolers is that they will act like a three year old one minute, a one year old the next minute, and a five year old the minute after that, and so you need to be flexible in your approach.  When the child has regressed to infantile behavior, don’t shame her, but do regress to ways you used to parent her when she was younger.  When the child is acting unusually mature, praise her for it, and also converse with her, until she gets bored with being grown up and regresses again.

Playing.  The main way that a three or four year old relates with you is to play.  Initially they play and you watch and comment.  Then with you, but if other kids come over they do “parallel play” without much interaction.  Then, at about three or four they begin playing with one another and their games get more complicated and interesting. 

They learn language skills, imagination and humor, cooperation, math, science, and geography, all through play.   In order to play well with a preschooler, you need to discover your own sense of fun, of fantasy, and of absurdity.  The sillier the play, the better they remember it—and yet, with creative play, they are learning all the time.  Here are some ideas for games to play with preschoolers.  These games are all fun, though some of them have a secret educational purpose that you don’t even have to mention to the kid.

*  Messing with Food Color.   Get a standard set of food colors and get out a dozen small bowls.  (Wear old clothes or wait till a hot summer day and wear swimsuits.  Everybody gets pretty messy in this game.)  Everybody gets some food color with warm water on top of it in three separate bowls:  red yellow and blue.   Now, using three more empty bowls, mix red and yellow to get orange.  Mix red and blue to get purple.   Mix yellow and blue to get green.  Add some blue to the orange to make it brown.   Dye hard boiled eggs even if it isn’t easter and make them Very Silly.  You can also use a combination of food color, ice cream, juice, sodas, and a blender, to make weird drinks.  You will find that the kid learns her colors without noticing that it is occurring.

*  Volcano.   Take a three or four cups of flour and mix in quite a lot of salt and some water (the proportions don’t matter too much—you aren’t going to eat it) and make a sticky dough.  If you want you can dye some of it green with food color (are you getting the idea that I like playing with food color?)  Get a used can (fairly tall rather than squat) and mould your dough into a volcano shaped object with long sliding slopes, with the can as the center.  Let it dry for a while.  When the sides are dry, put some baking soda in the bottom of the can.  Now, separately, mix up some vinegar with red food color, and pour the mixture into the can.  A huge bubbling will occur and “lava” will come down the sides of your volcano.  (It is handy before doing this to read up on volcanos so that you can explain what is really going on in the earth.)  If you want to get really ambitious you can make a whole landscape with different colors of terrain and little lakes, but of course it is the blowing up part that is fun.

*  Map games.   Get a big map (or better still a big multi page atlas of the word) and make little tiny dolls out of bobby pins with dresses of kleenex, or I suppose you could use action figures, but they might be too big, and “explore” the map and build imaginary countries and have little mini wars.  (If you use the proper names of the countries, the kids will ultimately learn them, without ever knowing that you are teaching.)

*  Card Games.  All you need is a standard set of playing cards to play “War” or “Go Fish.”   In War, each person starts out with half the cards, face down in front of them.  Each draws a card, one at a time from the card at the top of their deck.  The highest card wins the lower card, and the winner takes both.  If there is a match, then each person deals three cards face down and a fourth one up, and the highest card takes ALL the cards dealt.  When you run out of cards you shuffle your deck and start again, but one deck will now be bigger than the other.  The game ends when one person has all the cards.    In “Go Fish” each person has a starting had of seven cards, and tries to make groups of four like cards.  They take turns, and each can either ask the other person for a card or cards that they might have (“do you have any sixes?”) or they can “go fish”—or draw from the deck.   Matched sets are put down on the table and the winner is the one with the most matched sets when all cards have been drawn.  (In both of these games the child is learning matching skills, the concept of  “higher” or “lower”  and—eventually—skills of cooperation and sportsmanship.  But don’t hold your breath for the latter two skills to emerge.)

*  Dress up.   I don’t sew well, but I still made successful “dress up” outfits for both boys and girls in pre-school.  Go to a fabric store and buy outrageous silk and satin fabrics in the remnant’s section.   For boys, take a light colored satin, and get a couple of yards of it.  Fold it in half and cut a  hole in the center.   Now you have a tunic.  Use indelible magic markers to draw a shield on the front.  Or a lion.  Or a castle.  Get three or four of them.  Now a whole play group of little boys can be knights in shining armor.  It takes a little sewing to turn a velvet remnant into a cape, because you need to get some ribbon and sew it on to make a tie at the top.  Slits in the side may be helpful to stick the hands out.  For girls, the same tunic (cut loose enough to go over play clothes) can be fairly easily decorated with bits of lace.  The thing to remember is that the kids could not care less whether the thing looks realistic.  Their imagination supplies that part.  Anything shiny or glittery, and decorated with magic marker, works.  And when they are through with it they can crumple it up and throw it right back in the toy box till next time.  My son and his friends played with those tunics literally from the time they were four until they were about eleven.  The tunics were in rags by that time, but each kid had “his” tunic that I had decorated for him personally and they would dig through the toy box till they found the right one.  (What is the secret educational purpose in this one, you may ask?  Well, frankly, not much, but I like playing dress up and it got them out of the house.  It turned out, incidentally, that many of those boys became active in drama in high school because they had practice with role playing as kids.)

Behaving Badly

Tantrums are, I’m afraid, worse at three and four.  At least I found them to be.  The problem is that the kid has a better memory, stronger ideas, and a bigger vocabulary for expressing concepts like, “Mommy I hate you and I’ll always hate you,” a phrase that is just devastating when tossed at you in a rage by your best beloved.   Fortunately, the kid is still small enough to pick up, and the same technique of isolating and at the same time loving and feeding him will settle him down.  But it doesn’t get any easier to keep your own temper from going over the edge. 

It is time, at age 3 and 4 to start making rather a big deal of certain anti-social behavior.  Don’t let your kid bite, kick, hit, or head butt you or anybody else.  Start making a distinction with the kind of wrestling and roughhousing that is tons of fun, versus behavior intended to cause pain.  A kid who is kicking and hitting you and getting away with it will be triggering countless calls from his kindergarten in a few years and will also lose friends.  It is tough to break ingrained habits so start now. 

First, look at your own behavior.  Is your kid behaving badly because that’s how he gets you to pay attention?  If so, then two things need to change.  You need to consciously give him attention if he asks for it nicely, even if you are not in the mood.  And you need to consciously deny him attention if he asks for it in an antisocial way.   “I’m sorry, Andrew, I know you want me to stop talking to Uncle Buz and come and play with you, but you asked me by hitting me, and you know we have a limit about hitting.  So you need to go sit down and have a two minute time out, and after two minutes if you use your words to ask me, then I will come and play with you.”

They hate it, but it works.

Detachment:  It is important to keep commenting on the behavior, not the child.  The behavior is to be changed, but the child is still loved.  This is something I learned from observing Mary, the Hill an’ Dale pre-school teacher, who was brilliant.  She adopted a detached and sort of pleasant tone, not sarcastic, not mocking, but just an “oops, there we go again” tone, to say things like, “Oh, look, Daniel is trying to bite Saxon.  Daniel, we have a limit about no biting.  Saxon doesn’t like it when you break the limit.  He doesn’t want you to bite him.  Daniel, we’re going to have to have a three minute time out here on this chair, because you forgot the limit about no biting.”  

I knew that Andrew had learned the lesson of detachment one day when he was three and he got very annoyed with his father.  I don’t remember the issue, but I vividly remembering him summoning all of his newly acquired self-management skills and saying very carefully, “Daddy, I still love you, but I am Very Very Angry With You.”   Peter instantly caved and became a better Daddy because it was so cute.

In general, doing discipline with a detached and often even humorous tone, and seeing the limits as separate from the overall goodness of the kids, is key.   It is also helpful to make sure that the limits apply to everybody.   If I did something that transgressed one of our limits, Peter or Andrew could say to me, “Mommy, that’s a limit” and I would stop.  One time Andrew had made some unintentionally funny remark and Peter totally broke up and couldn’t stop laughing.  Andrew’s feelings were hurt.  So I said, “Peter, you’re breaking the limit about mocking people so you better go to your room!”  Peter left gratefully, to recover in private, but Andrew felt his dignity had been upheld and got the concept that the rules applied Even To Daddy!

One thing I tried with (eventual) success was to make a clear distinction between when I was warning Andrew and his friends about their behavior and when I was over my own tolerance threshold and he was about to be carried off to his room for a time out.  I did this by developing a character called “Buffalo Mom.”   Regular mom was pretty patient and would remind a wayward child several times about the existence of a limit.  Buffalo mom, however, didn’t speak, but just swooped into the room, waving imaginary wings (I’m not sure why Buffalo Mom could fly, but she could) and would carry the transgressor off for a time out.  So when Andrew got close to my threshold, I could say, “do that again and Buffalo Mom is coming” without having to think of a specific penalty.  Andrew just knew he didn’t want to see Buffalo Mom, who didn’t ever talk, but sure did act.  When he was older, I could just stick my head into a room where fighting was occurring and whistle a few bars of “bufffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight?” and all the children would settle down.  It was gratifying.

Initially “Buffalo Mom” was called the “Death Mom” and was modeled on my own father’s imaginary character “Fearsome Eagle” (I guess that’s why she flew) who occasionally swooped in on our cat.  It started as a joke but slowly morphed into a semi-serious Figure of Discipline.  Eventually Andrew pointed out that calling her the “Death Mom” was sort of scary, and it would be better to name her something else, like, for example, Buffalo Mom.  So she remained Buffalo Mom until they all turned into adolescents.  (In middle school, when I had been unsuccessful at getting Daniel Perez to stop doing jumping jacks in my living room at four in the morning, she made a memorable but effective reappearance as the Death Mom, & Perez still talks about it 8 years later.)

Modeling:  It is also pretty important not to model any behavior that you don’t want your child to imitate.  If you don’t want your child to hit people, then don’t hit the child.  If you don’t want your child to lie to you in adolescence, then don’t lie to him now.  If you want him to share, then share with him and if you don’t want him to cheat, then be fair and just with him.  He will not do as you say.  He will definitely do as you do.  Eventually your kid is likely to model all the things you most dislike about yourself, so having a child is a good way to work on those things.

Andrew never hit anybody after he was three, but it was actually because of piece of pretty terrible parenting on my part, which happened, however, to be really effective.   We had just bought a new couch and a new chair for the play room.  Having previously always bought cheap used furniture, we were rather proud of having something that was brand new.  Andrew was a few months shy of three years old.  He had just that day discovered that there was a letter “A” and that “A” stood for “Andrew” and that it was a very easy letter to make, requiring only three strokes of a pen.  I made the mistake of going to the bathroom, and while I was out of the room Andrew took an indelible magic marker and made large, unwashable, capital A’s all over the new furniture. 

I came back into the room, saw the damage, and lost my mind.  I had one of those blinding rages that occasionally plague me and I quite simply wanted to strangle the little monster.  I didn’t, but I shrieked at him and said a number of things that are not recommended in this book.  Then I stood there quivering with rage and said, at the top of my voice, “I’m so angry that I want to hit you and I’m bigger than you and I could hit you and I am NOT going to hit you because Hitting is WRONG.”  I then hauled off and hit the wall as hard as I could and walked out of the room.  

Hitting, which had up to then been rather an issue with Andrew, ceased at that moment to ever be an issue again because he truly believed in his heart of hearts that I believed that hitting was Wrong.  He also never made red capital As with magic markers on the furniture again. 

I did, incidentally, apologize for going off my rocker, and we were friends again about ten minutes later.

Lying is a hard behavior to deal with at this age, & I think it’s better to be really gentle about lying at ages three and four, and get progressively sterner about it at ages five and six.  The difficulty from the kid’s point of view is that we tell them all sorts of fantasy stories and we make jokes and we tell them amazing things about science, and it is really hard for them to distinguish what is pretend and what is real.  What we tried to do is be clear with Andrew about which was which.  We’d start out a story by saying, “This is Pretend.”  Or we’d make sure if we were telling him an unlikely fact (like that the dinosaurs all got killed when a comet hit the earth) that dinosaurs were real but they don’t exist any more.   But if Andrew lied to us at this age I would tell him that lying was a limit and that we don’t tell lies at our house, but beyond that I wouldn’t get too upset about it.  At three and four, making up stories is normal.  But set the limit early, and make it clear that they get in less trouble for breaking a rule and telling the truth than they do for breaking a rule and telling a lie.

The problem with a no lying rule in the house is, of course, that it is lots of fun to have Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, all of which are based on the idea that lying to the kid is OK.  I have heard kid after kid talk about how traumatic it was for them when they “learned about Santa.”  And Andrew, being so verbal, started asking me about Santa when he was just turned three, which was way too early for me to give up Santa, regardless of how he felt.  Yet I was committed to not lying to him.  And he looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, is Santa pretend?”  And waited for the answer.

So, on inspiration, I said, “Santa is pretend but it is a pretend everybody plays, even grownups, which is almost as good as being real.  If you want to know more I’ll tell you, but it won’t be as much fun.”   He thought about that for a good long minute and said, “I don’t want to know anything.”   And dropped the subject.

The next year, we had Christmas on a Train.  We were going to be on the Train on Christmas morning.  The conductor came by for our tickets and Andrew asked the Conductor if Santa would have any trouble finding our compartment.  The Conductor gave me a terrified glance & I nodded at him and he said confidently that Santa would have no problem.  I had, in fact, not packed any clothes for that trip and my luggage contained a miniature tree, numerous tinsel ropes and a whole bunch of wrapped presents.  After Andrew and Peter went to sleep I decorated the compartment and the entire train came back to admire it.  Andrew said, “Now I know Santa’s real,” and looked at me questioningly.  I said, “Santa is a pretend that everybody plays, even grownups, and that’s almost as good as being real.”  He dropped the subject till next year.  He asked me every year, and I always gave the same answer till finally, when he was six, he said he really wanted to know, but would he still get presents?  I said yes, and I explained the whole thing and he was delighted—but he didn’t feel betrayed, because I had never lied to him. 



We started telling Andrew stories at bedtime before he could talk, and by the time he was two we had run out of stories to tell and began reading him stories from books.  As soon as he could understand longer stories, we abandoned Goodnight Moon (which I read him so often that I can still recite the whole thing) and began reading him chapter books.  This was something my husband took over, and he read Andrew a chapter from a book every single night without fail for the next nine years or so.  I think it is a wonderful tradition and that it did an enormous amount for our son.  We bought and read all sorts of children’s classics, Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Treasure Island, the Narnia books, the Tolkein books, the entire Redwall series.   When he got interested in science fiction and fantasy we switched and read him various long series by people like David Eddings, and eventually graduated him to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  (Andrew was the only kid in his fourth grade class who did his “favorite book” presentation dressed entirely in black and wearing a towel on his arm, because he was being Ford Prefect.)   The long practice taught him a great deal about reading aloud, gave him a wonderful vocabulary, and helped him out in school.  But he loved it because it was a time to bond with his father.



There is a huge range of opinion among parents of pre-schoolers about how much TV, how many computer games, and what sorts of games or programs should be allowed.  All of Andrew’s friends had different rule systems in their homes, and it is important to establish early on with the other parents that you all agree to disagree and not try to enforce six different rule systems during a play date.   We always permitted electronics, but we set limits on quantity of time and what programs or games were acceptable.  When he was little, the rule with TV and tapes was that he could watch if we were watching too.  When we were watching, then we could talk with him about what he was seeing and keep him from being a little zombie.  Since we don’t watch much TV, that naturally kept his time down.  We were pretty flexible, though, and I must have watched Lady and the Tramp with him a hundred times. 

We got him onto the computer as soon as he could understand simple threats, like “if you stick that lollipop in the disk drive you are going to be sleeping with the fishes.”  (Just kidding.)  I do have pictures of him wearing a diaper and playing on the computer, however.  There are great educational games on the market, and they are totally worthwhile and fun.  We didn’t get him non-educational games until he knew how to read, and we made it clear that it was a condition that he be reading fluently in order to get them.   He still talks lyrically about the Christmas where he got his first Game Boy.  We then had to work on time constraint systems (more about this later) in order to keep him from becoming a game junkie, but it seems to have been successful.


How do these preschool years relate to our three basic concepts?   At every step, we’re working to increase autonomy, and allow choices.  The difference is that now it is a two way street.  The kid gets choices, but they begin to observe and be held to limits.  Parents have rights too, and increasingly the kid needs to notice them and respect them.  But it is a negotiation that emerges where the kid feels free to voice his desires, the parent voices his own, and a discussion occurs about whose needs and desires are most important in the moment.

Since there were only the three of us, we made a rule that decisions that were about the safety of the family or the growth of the kid would be made by the parent, after the kid’s opinion was heard.  But decisions that were purely “wants” were discussed and made by vote.  For example, when Peter and I were discussing which color the new wall to wall carpet would be, we identified two that were acceptable to both of us.  Peter preferred one and I preferred the other.  So we showed both of them to Andrew and let him choose.  He was very excited about having the choice on such a big thing and gave it very serious thought.