The four year old year is one that contrasts sharply with earlier stages. Four year olds are very conscious of "boys vs. girls" and begin to feel the criticism or favoritism of their peers. This is a crucial time for developing additional social skills needed in Kindergarten. Four year olds learn that their own behaviors impact the way others see them and react to them, and they begin to mimic others in the classroom or in the media.
Four year olds know that the "marks" on paper and in books have meaning, and they seek out information about letters, the sounds that they make and the patterns of letters that make words. While these skills are developmental and should not be pushed, children are encouraged and surrounded by print – labels and signs that encourage communication. Four year olds love opposites, finding things that are alike or different, and searching for hidden pictures. They also understand the concept of rhyming, and once they become proficient, they go overboard, rhyming all the time!
The four year old child is also asserting his or her independence from Mom and Dad, refusing or negotiating about situations or issues that you thought were resolved a long time ago. They may change their eating, sleeping, or dressing habits, and things that were favorites are now no longer desired. This is a positive step even if it is sometimes painful for Mom and Dad.
The positive is in the increased self confidence they feel at making their own choices and being willing to accept the consequences of their decisions, merely because it is their decision! This is the perfect time to let children make mistakes. Preschool is a completely safe environment to learn about what is acceptable and what is not in our culture. Children who want to try a different hair style or dress in non-matching clothes are exploring their social realm. It is much easier to let a four year old experience some disappointment when their friends don’t accept their clothing style than it is for a 14 year old to learn the same lesson!
The key to making this a learning experience is how you as a parent see it and talk to them about it. If the parent allows the child to make some decisions, ask them to predict what will happen if they make a choice and are disappointed or mistaken. What will they do the next time? How will they know if they are successful? Once the decision is made, watch for the resulting consequence and then ask, how did you feel about that? What will you do next time? Try not to be the "all-knowing, I told you so." Let them express what happened in their own words – it is 100 times more powerful if it comes from them.
Four year olds want to do everything for themselves – dressing, fixing food, setting up their environment. A great outlet for this is further responsibilities at home – small jobs. Children who are four can set the table, help with cooking, grocery shopping, (look for this label or picture or letter of the alphabet) and they can help with the trash and recycling. For the four year old, if phrased appropriately, these are not "chores" to be disdained but opportunities to do things that older children and adults can do, and making it part of their daily routine helps them assert themselves as full members of the family – not babies who have to be continually cared for by others.