Months 36–48 may be more peaceful than the previous year, as your child gradually leaves toddlerhood behind. During the months ahead, she will start to want to please you more, rather than just wanting to meet her own needs, but the year will present its own distinct challenges.

“There is nothing like having a three-year-old for improving your own manners, behavior, and attitudes. Every time I hear my daughter announce, ‘My daddy says…’ my nerves jangle!”

—“There is nothing like having a three-year-old for improving your own manners, behavior, and attitudes. Every time I hear my daughter announce, ‘My daddy says…’ my nerves jangle!”

“You are your child’s eyes and ears during these years. She will see the world as you see it, believe what you believe, and act as you act.”

“By now, your child’s speech will be quite clear and she will be able to chatter to new people and make herself understood.”

Your relationship with your toddler will change significantly during the year ahead, in ways that are both lovely and fascinating. Her imagination is developing rapidly now. She will be able to disappear into a world of fantasy that will help her to explore different roles and behavior. This is also the time when fears begin to develop and nightmares may make an appearance.

With her new reasoning power comes the realization that she is separate from and different than you; she will start to understand that her actions have consequences which means she will also begin to understand the difference between “right” and “wrong.” She will have an ever-increasing number of questions as she tries to make sense of the world.

Your toddler will now have a far better understanding of the guidelines that you give her and will be able to remember them more easily. She will still need you to remind her of what is needed, though, since she can’t hold too much information in mind at any one time. She is not only aware of you as being separate from her; she is also much more in tune with your emotions and needs. Toddlers from age three and onward are much more motivated to please their parents because they want to make them happy. It is at this age that your toddler will start to look up to you as a role model and will start to insist that “Mommy says” or “Daddy says.”

You will notice that your toddler will now look to you far more frequently for guidance on how she should act and behave and she will echo your words and phrases more than ever. These early years play an important part in developing your child’s attitudes and beliefs about how the world, the self, and other people act. For that reason, it is important to try to hold a balanced view of the world and to hold back on unfair criticism of others on the basis of looks, creed, race, or gender. Each time you set an example that your child follows, you are giving her a message for life.

The months ahead will also see a change in your child’s self-regard. She will start to respond more and seek out your praise and appreciation, and will also begin to praise herself. This is the ideal age to begin to encourage her to help to make simple choices for herself: encourage her to make decisions by giving her two equally feasible choices. Her budding sense of achievement is crucially important for the development of her self-esteem and confidence.

This growing self-awareness is partnered with the beginnings of an understanding of both the consequences of her behavior and reasons why certain behavior might not be acceptable. She still won’t be able to manage if you give her lengthy reasons for why she shouldn’t do something, but short explanations will be okay. This increase in understanding and reasoning really kick-starts the development of her moral ideas and beliefs.

Moral development

Our moral awareness develops as we begin to reflect on what we hear and learn, observe the behavior of others, and weigh the “rights and wrongs” of a situation as we perceive it. Until now, your toddler has had very little understanding of right and wrong. Behavior-shaping has been less about explanation and more about diversion and distraction. From about 36–42 months onward, however, you will begin to notice a subtle change in her abilities.

As your child’s reasoning skills improve, not only does she begin to understand that her behavior has an effect, she also learns about the consequences of that effect on others, and develops empathy. This ability to see and feel things from another person’s point of view is crucial to her emerging understanding of the difference between “right” and “wrong.” There are differing views about the age at which children develop a sense of guilt or a sense of justice about behavior . Your child shows signs of understanding what is “fair” by the time she is four.

Modeling behavior

Alongside the development of moral beliefs and understanding, it is important for children to learn how to behave according to these beliefs. That is, there is a difference between a child’s belief—knowing how she should behave—and her behavior—choosing to act the “right” way. In childhood, as in life, it can be hard to make “good” choices.

Behavior is learned, not inherited, so your child is very reliant upon you to model correct behavior during these years. Preferred social niceties and good manners, such as saying “please” and “thank you” can be encouraged and also modeled by you. Children learn more from being shown—consistently and repetitively, and being encouraged to try (and reap the benefits!), than they do from being told. By the time your child is four she may be capable of making some moral judgements for herself (such as “it is wrong to hurt someone”), but will not come to these conclusions unless you have modeled and talked about appropriate behavior. The earlier you model your expectations for your child by your own behavior, the sooner the message will get through that this is important information for her to learn.

A parenting style that is sympathetic, warm, firm, and supportive tends to help children develop positive social skills and regulate their own emotions, as well as developing more sophisticated moral reasoning at an early age. Peers, too, are very powerful models and therefore have an influence on the development of moral behavior, although they will have more of an impact when your child is a little older and at school.

Playgroups and learning

Playgroups offer a new range of experiences and role models for your child and she may pick up new skills and behaviors from her peers.

Developing values

Children absorb information like a sponge absorbs water: quickly and indiscriminately. This is the time in your child’s development when you need to be most careful about the views, fears, and prejudices you voice because her ears are like radio antennae: they will tune in and remember all sorts of things that you say, and often the very thing you wish you hadn’t said. We are not born with a set of values. We are born only with the ability to develop beliefs and learn the rules that guide behavior. Values result from our personal experiences and the influences we are exposed to. They are learned from our parents, and other caregivers and teachers, and they develop over time. Your toddler will not be able to make up her own mind or hold an independent opinion until she is approximately seven years old. Until that time, her judgements and beliefs will be based solely on what you tell her, what she learns, and, importantly, what she sees you do.

She has not yet developed independent thinking skills and, although she can be empathetic and may challenge you if your wishes conflict with her wants, she is not ready to question your authority. Therefore, at this age, she will absorb the beliefs that you hold and express unquestioningly.

Bending the truth

Your three-year-old has got a lot to take on board at once. In the past, she only had to worry about what she wanted; now she has to consider what is expected of her, too. This can result in inner confusion. How can she manage to give you what you want and gain your approval at the same time as doing what she wants? The answer is to tell a lie. However, she doesn’t know it is a lie, and she isn’t being consciously deceptive.

At this age, lying can be seen as a sign of her developing reasoning ability; she is testing out her ideas about reality and fantasy and this is not a cause for concern. However, it is important that your toddler does not learn that lying works, otherwise she may start to rely on it. If you know your toddler has told a lie, tackle the situation right away, but don’t get angry, and make it easy for her to tell you the truth. You might ask her to help you figure the answer out: “I wonder how teddy got up there to break the vase?” Alternatively, you can speak to her more directly: “I think it may have been you, not teddy—is that right?”

Explain that it is important to say what really happened and that it is called “telling the truth.” Tell her that you would only be upset if she didn’t tell you the truth. Keep your explanation calm and simple so that she understands, and has no fear that you might get angry.

Skills development

By the end of this year you will be looking forward to your child’s school years. She will probably be able to dress and undress by herself, but buttons are still a challenge; you will have a good idea of whether she is right- or left-handed, and she will be able to wash herself, brush her teeth, and brush her hair (to some extent!). Her language skills will also be improving daily. She will be able to speak in sentences of five or six words and her vocabulary will have rocketed to several hundred words. This is the perfect age to start to introduce her to letters and numbers in a light and playful way. Your child’s memory and reasoning skills have now developed to a point where she will enjoy learning about sounds and words, but there is no need to rush this process.

Drawing skills

She will progress from scribbling and drawing simple shapes to creating more recognizable pictures. Comment on her drawings to encourage her.

Reading and writing

Children learn best if they are given tools that stimulate more than one sense simultaneously. That is why, when showing your toddler her A,B,Cs it is useful not only to show her what the letter A looks like, but also to reinforce the message with an image that relates to the sound (such as an Apple). Make the sound and encourage her to repeat it, so she gets used to relating the sound of the letter to the associated image and to the letter itself. This first stage is called “phonics.”

In phonics, letters are identified by the sounds that they represent, not the name of the letter. (For example, A = apple, rather than apron.) Learning the names of letters can follow later, but research shows that children need to learn phonics first in order to develop reading skills. Any activity that helps your child familiarize herself with letters, whether alphabet charts, rhymes, or matching games, will help her later reading and writing skills. She has a large enough vocabulary now to be able to look at picture books with you and pick out words that have similar sounds. Try looking for words that start with the sound “p” for example, as in “picture, picnic, parrot.” Use gentle repetition, but don’t pressure her to learn. There may still be some sounds that she struggles with, however. Common toddlerisms include using “r” instead of “w” (“it’s waining,” instead of “it’s raining”) or using “d” for “th” (“dis is de one” instead of “this is the one”). Adjusting her mouth and tongue to pronounce the sounds for “b,” “p,” “m,” “w,” and “h” can take months to get right. Word games and rhymes can be a useful way to help her practice.

Your toddler is too young to be able to spell words but, now that her finger skills and muscle control have improved, she can copy or trace a few letters and may be able to copy simple words, including her name, by 48 months. Start off with a single letter at a time and link it to its sound. See whether she can copy or trace it and color it in. Before too long she will learn to recognize her name when it is written down.

Number skills

Your child may be able to learn her numbers by rote, (for example, count up to five or even 10 by the age of four), but their order and what they represent will have very little meaning until she is older. At this age it is good to concentrate on matching numbers to the right quantity of objects. Once she is used to the idea that numbers are symbols that represent something else, you can then go on to show her that the quantity is the same no matter what the item is. For example, 1 teddy = 1 orange; 2 eggs = 2 apples; 3 apples = 3 crayons, and so on. These are difficult concepts for children at this age, so don’t overdo the “training.” She is still too young to grasp the idea of changing quantities by adding and subtracting and will not master this until the age of five-and-a-half. Activities such as measuring and pouring will help her learn the basics of counting.

Signs that development is on track

All children will develop at their own pace. The following is an approximate guide (assuming a full-term birth) to how your child’s new skills will develop in the coming months.

By the end of months 36–39, your child:
  • Can hold a conversation of 2–3 sentences.

  • Is beginning to use adjectives.

  • Can balance on each foot for a few seconds.

  • Will be starting to dress without help.

By the end of months 40–42, your child:
  • Can pedal a tricycle.

  • Can walk around objects without bumping into them.

  • Can kick a ball.

  • Can walk on tiptoe, jump, walk backward, and sideways.

By the end of months 43–46, your child:
  • May be able to draw a head, with arms and legs but no body.

  • Can use a fork and spoon.

  • Can climb stairs using one foot on each step.

  • Can match primary colors red and yellow, but may mix blue and green.

By the end of months 47–48, your child:
  • Can remember the words and tunes of favorite songs and rhymes.

  • Can use “I,” “me,” and “you.”

  • Knows that she is a girl and he is a boy.

  • May know her age.

Precise play

At this age, your child will be increasingly dextrous and will be comfortable holding child’s scissors and cutting paper, and she will play with smaller toys and objects more skilfully.

The impact of violent images

There is a growing consensus among researchers that children who are exposed frequently to violent images on TV or in computer games are likely to become desensitized and may become more aggressive than those children who are not. This is especially true if children are not monitored while they are watching or playing, because they have no way of interpreting the rights and wrongs of the situation they are watching. Violent programs and games do not encourage reasoning; therefore for the child watching them there is no understanding of the true consequences of violence.

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