When a Child Turns 4, You May as Well be Ready with Lessons About Social Behavior

As a child turns 4, they really start to grow in creativity. They have BIG ideas. They might start to ask “what if ” questions. Like “What if you had my head and I had your head?” They might ask, “Could we make my brother a girl?” They might come up with something clever, like a dance where the spin around then fall to the floor dramatically, and demand you “watch their moves!” They may become enamored with super heroes and how they can fly and lasso bad guys. They want to make things happen. This is the start of Preschool Milestone 14, which I’ve yet to name.

With all this new growth comes odd behaviors. In their desire to make things happen, they take more risks, and some of them aren’t healthy. They might slam doors. They might really, really aggravate their brother or sister. There is a big chance they will harass someone and won’t stop even when asked to “Stop.”

Even if you’ve already explained how to shut doors nicely and how to to respect others, you are likely to find yourself revisiting these issues again. I find 4 year olds are remarkably receptive to formal lessons and understanding rules. The idea is to teach them ideal behavior rather than admonish them about bad behavior. Four year olds respond really well to this educative approach. If you don’t have one, I would recommend a chalkboard or white board for impromptu lessons as they arise. My favorite way to teach social lessons is to recreate the conflict for them on a chalk board or white board.

This is one we did. My daughter kept hugging and tackling her brother to the ground. He kept saying “STOP” and she wouldn’t. So I drew this on the chalk board. I showed what happened. And then, and this is super important, show the ideal way of handling it first. The reason: as soon as you draw something, your child will do it. If you draw the unideal way first, they will copy that immediately. You want them to get hands-on practice doing it nicely. So I drew her stopping after he asked her to stop and showed how everyone was happy:


I do typically draw the unideal way as well. This is optional. I do think it’s nice to have things to compare to so the child knows what’s good and bad. Be prepared they will do the unideal way. This turned out to be a win for us, because I then got to coach my son about how he could handle it when this happens. I told him he could very forcefully tell his sister, “I don’t like that!”

I did another lesson like this where I showed my daughter what was happening when she kept trying to push her brother off the swing. In the moment, I admit I got very angry. Be prepared for this behavior so you can respond better than I did. Later, I did a lesson on the chalk board like this. She looked at it and said, “Oh. I’m sorry.” I really felt like our relationship was salvaged. Before I felt terrible for yelling but once I saw how she easily responded to the lesson, I was reminded of what an astute girl she is and how good she is at relationships. Seeing wins like this help me re-center and refuel.

Be prepared for this behavior if out in public. My daughter kept demanding her dance instructor, for instance, watch her cool, new moves. The director was not impressed, apparently. Oh how I wish more understood these stages!

Some other lessons you might do are showing them how to shut a door quietly or any other lesson about social behavior. You might also like the tools of Four Year Olds, If Needed, Can Handle More Rules and Restrictions and Preschool Milestone Conflict Tool: Family Meetings

I’d like to make a gentle suggestion to not see the child doing this as “testing boundaries.” I’d like to change it to “pushing their own limits” or “growing greatly in creativity” or “finding their inner super hero.” The idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth, is that we deal with the aggressive behavior (with educative means as described) but we see this as growth and use it to nurture what is growing inside them. So, what can I do to nurture this skill set? What BIG and IMPORTANT things can I get my 4 year old doing? Hmmmm…..

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years


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