by Helen F. Neville, B.S., R.N.
Why 4-year-olds Fib, Fight and Quibble
Adapted from Is This A Phase: Child Development &
Your preschooler's bossy, a braggart—and he lies, too. Or she complains about her playmates and you hear "It's not fair" a dozen times a day.
Congratulations! You've reached the "fours!"
Full of the developmental changes that may start sometime before the fourth birthday or as late as the fifth birthday, this period is full of growth that pediatric nurse and parent educator Helen F. Neville explains in her new book, Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years (Parenting Press, Fall 2007).
If you're struggling to understand why your 4-year-old fibs, fights and quibbles about equity—and what to do about this behavior, Neville offers a perspective based on more than 25 years of working with families:
Why do 4-year-olds stretch the truth?
Four-year-olds exaggerate because they are enthusiastic, Neville tells us. They also have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality. After Evan and a friend play firefighters, Evan announces, "Malik's house burned down today." Having driven past the house, Evan's father can calmly say, "Is that so? Tell me about it." Another parental strategy: tell an even bigger whopper. When Malik reported, "We caught a dinosaur in the backyard today," his father replied, "My car wasn't working today, so I rode a dinosaur to work!"
Children this age also lie because they want to claim an achievement. "I made this picture," Evan shows his mother. Seeing Elena's name on the picture, his mother knows Evan really means that he would like to draw that well. Her response: "I like the bright colors in that picture, too."
The most common reason children lie is to protect their relationship with us. They know what we want them to do, so they pretend they are the kids we want. Suppose you ask about milk spilled on the carpet and your daughter explains, "A monster came out of the TV and spilled it." There's no point in arguing. If you simply reply, "The milk needs to be cleaned up. I'll get two sponges and you can help me," you show your child that mistakes can be fixed.
Four-year-olds also stretch the truth because they are old enough to understand practical jokes and tricks. When a 3-year-old opens what appears to be a candy box, she's surprised to find pencils inside. Once she knows what's inside, however, she expects that everyone will know that: she believes that once she knows something, everyone does. By age 4, she can imagine fooling someone. She giggles at the thought of giving the box to a friend and having the friend assume it's filled with candy.
Why are 4-year-olds tactless?
After you've struggled to explain the importance of telling the truth, your child does—all the time! You're embarrassed to hear, "Grandpa, there's hair coming out of your nose!" or "Grandma, I wanted a pink shirt for my birthday, not green!" or "I don't like you!"
Tact is knowing when to skip the whole truth. Understanding the ways words can affect others is a long, complicated process. With our gentle and repeated explanations, 4-year-olds will eventually understand that it is painful to hear comments on appearance or complaints about gifts. In the meantime, parents can apologize with, "I'm sorry" or "We're still working on tact."
Why do 4-year-olds brag?
Four-year-olds are all-or-nothing thinkers. When they feel good about themselves, they are the best! They tell everyone how great they are. In general, children age 4 through 6 tend to see themselves as terrific at everything they do. If we ask, "Who can jump the highest?" they all raise their hands. It is this confidence that helps 4-year-olds persist despite mistakes and shortcomings.
Boys brag more than girls—"I'm strong," "My daddy is bigger than yours," "I have more cars than you do"—because establishing a pecking order is more important to them. Bragging makes them feel higher in the hierarchy for a while. As long as no one is getting hurt, it is probably best to ignore this behavior.
As children grow older, it's the parents' job to help children pursue activities where each one does well. This personal success will build the self-esteem so important when dealing with pecking orders in different settings and circles of friends. (In American culture, bragging often emphasizes individual accomplishments. By contrast, in such Native American cultures as the Hopi, showing off your own achievements is strongly discouraged while expressing pride in what your group accomplishes is acceptable.)
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