The brain development that enabled reasoning skills to evolve during months 24–36  continues this year. As well as learning how to be flexible and developing memory skills, your toddler also becomes more empathetic and starts to understand that not everyone sees things the way she does.

“As her imagination begins to develop, she is able to get a sense of how others are thinking and feeling.”

Only from the age of two onward is the brain sufficiently developed to be able to remember and recall information, and these skills continue to develop over the next 12 months. Even then, not all information will be remembered easily. We remember things by recognizing them, and by recalling information about them.

Your child has been able to recognize many of the important people in her world since she was two. This skill develops further now. Recognition is a less complex process than recalling information and develops much earlier. For example, Paula, aged 3, can recognize her cousin Hannah when she can see her, but will find it harder to remember and recall anything about her when she is not there. Recognition happens via a fast process of comparisons: “Here is a girl. I will compare her against all my stored memories of girls. Aha! The girl matches my memory of Hannah.” Accurate recall depends not only on your child’s reasoning skills (“I know I like playing with Hannah”), but also on her being able to remember the context of the information (“because we had fun playing on the swings”). The frontal lobes play a vital role in tagging memories with this kind of reminder. These memory “cues” help our recall. (In this case, Hannah is not with her, but Paula can recall her because the sight of a swing has triggered a visual memory.) The brain tags and stores information while making sure that the most useful memories can be retrieved easily when needed.

Social and emotional skills

By the age of three, your toddler will be starting to discover that other people may think and feel differently than the way she does. (“Mommy does not always know what I want. Sometimes I have to tell her.”) This shows in a toddler’s impulse to comfort another child who is upset. Over the next year, reasoning skills will develop so that, for example, Cara will not only understand that “Tommy is upset, don’t cry” but that “Tommy is upset because…” and will start to modify her behavior accordingly. This ability to empathize is vital in being able to recognize and respond sensitively to the reactions and behavior of others.

However, the ability to feel empathy cannot develop fully until the frontal lobes have begun to mature. Your child will gradually become more consistently understanding and you will notice that she begins to play more cooperatively, showing that she has expanded her emotional range and understanding. This early breakthrough shows she is well on her way toward developing rewarding relationships in later life.

All the functions of the frontal brain develop together and each is dependent on another; so your toddler won’t be able to understand her friend’s feelings or be able to see life from her perspective, until she can pay attention for long enough to read her reactions and be able to recall and understand them. As memory builds over time, so will your child’s sensitivity and understanding of the wider world and the people in it.

Development is rarely a steady line of forward progress. Under stress (having a tantrum, being asked to share a toy, a new sibling being born) it is possible that a child will revert back to being more egocentric and will abandon some of her compassionate skills. It is usual for skills to fluctuate in this way as they develop and become more established.

Social and emotional understanding

As the frontal lobes mature, individual personality and social behavior develop alongside more sophisticated thinking and reasoning skills.

Learning and flexibility

Doing or thinking about more than one thing at a time is a challenge for toddlers, who tend to be quite fixed and rigid in their approach. For example, Annie isn’t able to consider that her red crayon can easily replace her blue crayon. She might even get upset if anyone suggests it. In time and with encouragement, Annie will be able to become more flexible and will learn to choose an alternative option. “I want the blue one, and I want it now!” will gradually become, “I wanted the blue one, but it’s not here, so the red one will do just as well for now.” The thinking and reasoning part of her brain allows this more flexible approach.

Learning about Gender

Until now, your toddler was almost unaware of whether she was a girl or a boy. She may have been told she was a “girl,” but would not have understood what it meant, and may not have been able to recognize the differences between boys and girls.

“Knowing that ‘I am a boy’ or ‘I am a girl’ helps a child to develop a sense of identity and understand where he or she fits in with the world. These differences help children learn how to behave.”

Between the ages of 3–4, your child will become more aware of the differences between being male and female from her experiences at home, her broader environment, and via other children. Now that traditional male and female roles have become blurred, children have a more flexible interpretation of mommies’ and daddies’ roles, but this does not appear to affect their understanding of what it is to be a boy or a girl.

The differences between girls and boys are surprisingly small during the toddler years. Hormonal differences and differences in brain development may explain the tendency for some boys to enjoy more aggressive and active play and some girls to be more chatty and “girly.”

Generally speaking, however, childhood roles are fairly interchangeable. There is no need to worry or prejudge the situation if you find your son loves dressing up or playing with dolls, or your daughter is most at home “playing soldiers.”

Children tend to be attracted to the toys and games that offer the most excitement or that have the most sparkle and glitter. Some boys will prefer to play more gentle games and some girls will prefer to play rough, but this is just a part of who they are, and they will be influenced by what Mommy or Daddy enjoy when they are relaxing and playing, too.

We’re different

Children begin to realize some playmates are boys and some girls, and may begin to ask direct questions about their differences.

How differences develop

Social influences play the most important part in helping children learn male and female roles in life. Parents, caregivers, and other children will reinforce male and female roles and behavior. The process starts from the moment children are born with what color you painted your baby’s room, and what color clothes you bought.

Some of the messages we give our children are subtle and subconscious, and start very young (for example, “pink for a girl and blue for a boy”). Others are more obvious and may come out through play: “Let’s play tea party with your dollies, Jessica,” versus “Let’s play soccer in the park, Rob.” Often these messages reinforce the innate differences between the sexes. For example, we offer boys more active toys and more rough-and-tumble play, while social play and talking may be the domain of girls. This will be due to a combination of feedback from your child—doing what he or she likes doing, and what you most value—what you think little boys and little girls should be doing. There is nothing wrong with this. Boys and girls are different (although there are shades of male and female characteristics in all individuals). Our ideas about gender and behavior are influenced by our culture. Society’s norms affect the way we behave, our beliefs, and how we organize our lives.

Exploring differences

During this year children may start to show a preference for gender-related toys and have more interest in friends of the same sex. They may start to judge each other: “boys, yuk” or “girls, silly,” and do some personal exploring. Pretending to be a princess or a fireman is a normal and healthy part of development and a way for your child to explore boy-girl differences.

Do what you can to allow your child to lead in her choices and try not to judge. Comments such as “Big boys don’t cry”/“Tom, help Daddy in the garage”/“Mary, help Mommy get the lunch” will reinforce traditional roles.

There is a tendency to talk more to girls about feelings and more to boys about how to figure things out. The healthy approach is to give both genders the same toys and opportunities while acknowledging that differences between boys and girls do exist.

Real life

Hanif is closest in age to his sister Rana, who loves all things pink and fluffy. As a result, Hanif has learned to enjoy “girly” games and is just as happy wearing his sister’s princess costume as he is playing with his toy cars or learning to climb. “We don’t worry,” says his Dad, Raj. “They are just having fun! He has a fabulous imagination and they both enjoy play-acting. It will be interesting to see how their tastes change and develop as they get older and when Hanif meets new playmates at school.”

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