Given the opportunity, your three-year-old will become a social creature this year. She now begins to see the value of having friends and playmates and has the motivation and attention span needed to play social games with other children. At this age, your child can sometimes empathize with others' feelings and recognize their rights. Not that she always respects the rights or feelings of others, but at least she now knows that they exist. This increase in empathy enables your child to offer genuine sympathy and concern to those she cares about. For the first time, your child is capable of genuine giving as well as taking.
As social relationships become more important to your preschooler, she will want to know as much as she can about social roles and social behavior. Guess who serves as the primary objects of her social studies? That's right. You (and your partner) now get the chance to find out what life in a fishbowl is like.
Your preschooler will watch the two of you carefully: as a couple and in relation to other men, women, and children. Your three-year-old social scientist will observe, analyze, and copy the way you behave with each other and with other people. She will take note of:
- the ways you relate to your partner;
- the ways you relate to other adults of the same sex;
- the ways you treat children;
- the ways you relate to strangers and acquaintances;
- the ways you balance job and family responsibilities; and
- the ways you handle conflicts with others.
Your preschooler will not watch any of this with a critical eye, however. (That comes later.) Your preschooler will not pass judgment on the way you treat each other; she will observe and accept what she sees and hears. And invariably she will conclude that the way you behave toward each other is the "normal" way that adults treat each other.
Gender issues take on a particular importance at this age. Your child now recognizes himself as a boy or herself as a girl. And the differences between your preschooler and children of the other gender no doubt fascinate him or her. Your three-year-old may become intrigued by the different ways boys and girls urinate or by the differences in their genitalia. Again, you'll be Exhibit #1 under the microscope. Your preschooler will examine your behavior to find out how "women" and "men" act. This observation, analysis, and imitation is all part of the process of gender identification.
At three and four, your child strongly identifies with others. You can see this in her play, which probably involves lots of make-believe: pretending to be someone else. Your preschooler will pretend to be friends; characters seen in books, movies or TV shows; animals; people she meets; and especially, you and/or your partner. Despite your best efforts to avoid or overcome sexism, you will probably observe many sexual stereotypes in this kind of play. But don't blame your child. She plays only the cards she's dealt. And for the most part, what she sees—in the neighborhood, in the world at large, in books, in movies, on TV, and perhaps even in her own home—probably conforms to such sexual stereotypes.