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Ages & Stages: 3 to 4 Years

Dear Debi,
I have a 3-year-old who seems to want more and more independence. For example, she won’t hold my hand when we walk through a crowded mall. Is she growing up too fast or is this normal at this age?
Tammy Buchrista
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
  • Each child is unique
  • Allow safe exploration
  • Talk frequently with your child & share books together
  • Respond to your child’s interests
Expert Advice
Dr. Leslie Richard
Dr. Leslie Richard
Pediatrician, Mother of fourMother of onePediatricianMother of onePediatrician, mother of one
I would tell Tammy that this is completely normal behavior. In fact, it’s behavior you should expect and hope for from a three-year-old. Sometimes moms get a little upset when kids express more independent behavior and they have to follow their kids and chase them. I think we should embrace these behaviors and know that this means that my child is developing as they should.

Children are fascinated with books during this age range. At the age of three, they are developing major leaps in terms of their language development. They understand much more and are able to express themselves more and use their imaginations. Books really tap into their imaginations. Children at age three are cognitively able to understand that something is happening that is separate and different from them, but they can involve themselves in the thought process – something that they couldn't maybe do when they were two.

Another great thing about books is it’s a great way to find out what children’s interests are. If they keeping bringing you back the same book about dinosaurs over and over, then you know they have a fascination with dinosaurs. Books really allow them to show their interests to you, which you can use to help expand their learning experiences.

At the age of three, children are able for the first time to put themselves in someone else's shoes – to be a fireman, to be a ballerina, to pretend that they're a bear or an animal. Pretending that you are somebody else is really something that they can't do earlier than this age. It's a major leap both cognitively and also in terms of their language development.

At this age, there's really more of a continuum of behavior and expression, so you're looking for more language development. Children need to be having conversations with you now. They may not be long conversations, but being able to have an exchange back and forth, is important. If your child is not interested in talking or isn't seeming to talk quite as much or as clearly as children of his or her age, then you may want to get some opinion from your pediatrician or from a preschool teacher or someone else in your life.

In addition to talking, another important aspect is the ability to have pretend play. That's a very important thing – to be able to go in the kitchen and cook or to pretend that you're the fireman. Some children don’t have pretend play and those children we tend to be very concerned about. If your child is not interested in pretending or in imitating you by sweeping or cooking or any of those things, then you may want to talk to a doctor about it.
Child Care provider Comments
Jennifer Parkis
Jennifer Parkis
Mother of three
When we are at the park, my 3-year-old will try to run towards the street and I will give him 2 warnings. By the 3rd warning, I tell him we are leaving the park. There have been times when he’s been throwing rocks (endangering himself or others) while we were visiting people’s homes. We then leave.
Rosa Rios
Rosa Rios
Grandmother of three
As much as the child might want independence, they are still children. In this case, the parent should explain to the child that there are too many people to allow her to walk on her own. It is good to encourage curiosity and self-sufficiency, but not at the expense of our children’s safety. There needs to be parameters and rules set regarding behavior. It is normal for a child at this age to express a desire for independence. As long as parents supervise and set rules, children will develop in a healthy and positive way.
Darlene Patterson
Darlene Patterson
Family child care provider for 22 years and mother of three
Kids at this age want to do everything on their own. They want to put their clothes on, put their shoes on, go climb something – do everything by themselves. You should let them try everything. The word “can’t” should never be in their vocabulary. You don’t want to hinder them at all so you should encourage everything they’re doing but keep them safe at the same time. An early 3-year-old is going to want to try different things than a later 3-year-old, so you just have to follow their lead.

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Ages & Stages: 3 to 4 Years Featured Video:
Ages & Stages: 3 to 4 Years
Topic: Child Development
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