Preschoolers are explorers, scientists, artists and experimenters. They're experiential learners, so they keep pushing on limits to find out what's solid. They're still learning how to be friends, how to engage with the world, and how to control their bodies, emotions and minds. With a little help from you, these years will build a secure and unlimited foundation for your son or daughter's entire childhood.

What Your Preschooler Needs to Thrive:

1. Structure.

Regular routines help kids feel safe, and are vital for preschoolers, who grapple with big fears on a daily basis. The world is chaotic and scary to them; their household should be predictable. A calm, orderly and fun atmosphere, with regular meal and bedtime routines, will produce happier children who have the internal resources to meet daily developmental challenges. Routines also help children handle transitions more easily and reduce power struggles.No, that doesn't mean you need to be rigid. But your child does need to know what to expect. 

2. Enough sleep.

Preschoolers may resist bedtime, but without sufficient sleep, three to five year olds simply do not have the resourcefulness to cope with the demands of their day. Develop a regular routine that helps her wind down and start relaxing well before bedtime. When he gives up his nap, be sure he still gets some downtime to rest every day.

3. Control over her own food intake.

You decide what food is accessible in your house, but your child needs the responsibility to decide how much she eats. Remember that children need frequent small meals, and if you don’t provide that, they’ll end up snacking all day. If you always provide a variety of healthy food, you can feel comfortable letting them choose which foods they eat and how much.

Worried about a picky eater? Serve a variety of healthy foods and avoid power struggles; your child will eventually enlarge her choices as her taste buds mature. As long as sweets aren't available (except as rare -- not daily -- treats), preschoolers will naturally choose healthy foods that meet their physical needs, over a period of time. Never set up a clean plate as the goal; instead, when they say they're done, ask them how their body feels. (Obesity starts in preschool!) If you're bothered by throwing the food away, ask yourself why not wasting food is more important than your child's future physical health and body image?

4. Help with Emotions.

While your child may no longer have frequent tantrums, he still has big feelings, and he still needs you to "listen" to those feelings on a regular basis. All kids need daily laughter to vent the anxieties that inevitably build up in a small person grappling to manage herself in a big, often overwhelming world, so be sure to build daily roughhousing into your schedule. 

And you can expect your preschooler to sometimes express his needs as an attack, meaning that a child who is hurting may well yell "I hate you; I want a new Mom!" Don't take it personally. Instead, empathize even while you set limits. "You must be so upset to speak to me that way...I guess you're very disappointed...You really wanted to, and I said No....I'm sorry this is so hard, Sweetie."  You have to limit behavior, but all emotions are acceptable.

5. Empathic limits.

If you want a cooperative child, resist the impulse to punish. Kids this age need guidance and limits, because they are actively learning the rules and how the world works, and naturally they will test to see just where those limits are. Research shows that when young children are punished, their behavior actually worsens. (For more on why, see Why Peaceful Parenting ».) By contrast, empathic limits help children WANT to cooperate.

Because their brains are still developing, young children get flooded with emotion very easily. When you set limits, they get upset, partly because they want what they want, but partly because they worry about your disapproval. It helps them to calm themselves if you empathize with their disappointment or anger. So don't hesitate to set limits, but acknowledge your child's perspective, and hold the space for them to express their upset about the limit.

Doing this now will help them learn to control their own emotions over time, and to maintain their equilibrium in the face of upsets as they get older. 

6. Interaction time with parents.

Your preschooler's brain is experiencing rapid growth and consolidation, both in learning facts and in learning emotional self-regulation. Lots of intimate time with physically and emotionally affectionate parents is critical for your preschooler's emotional -- and even brain -- development. This means what psychologists call "Floor Time," which is getting down on his level to work together building that train track or tower. The point isn't the intellectual work of the building, but the emotional connection you make over it -- and the nurturing support you offer when the project inevitably runs into snags. Daily, unstructured "Special Time" with your child during which you let your child take the lead will build your relationship. If you can't bear one more game of superhero or dollhouse, offer your child "Cozy Time" instead. Just snuggle up on the couch with a pile of books for a lazy half hour, and make sure you take plenty of time out to talk about what you're reading, or about her day. Here's a whole page of Games to build closeness & emotional intelligence! »

7. To be Heard.

Preschoolers are famous for asking questions, from the incessant "WHY?" to badgering parents to change their minds about a limit. This can drive a parent crazy, unless you look under the surface at the reason for the question. Your child wants more than information; he wants to feel heard, to be acknowledged, to tell you what he thinks, to weave together his world view with your help, and to have you respond to the turbulent emotions that often threaten to overwhelm his emerging intellectual control. When your child pesters you with WHY? questions and doesn't seem satisfied with your answers so she keeps on asking, turn it around and ask her the question.

8. Help in learning to express herself without whining.

Whining can drive even the most patient parent crazy. But whining is a signal that your child needs help, either in processing emotions that are weighing on her, or in meeting other needs. She's not just trying to get her way; she's expressing the need all preschoolers have to begin to master their environment by asserting some control. Luckily, there are some secrets to stop your child from Whining.

9. Social Time.

Preschoolers are biologically designed to look up to older kids. In the tribal cultures natural to humans, young children who are old enough to leave the parent tag along with the big kids and learn social skills. Since our children are usually in groups of same-age peers, they often need adult help and modeling to learn to "take turns" or refrain from bossiness. Four year olds are experimenting with appropriate use of power, so they're famous for bossiness and even bullying. Don't feel bad about stepping in at the playground to model appropriate social behavior. How else are they supposed to learn?
For help with social skills »
For help with bossiness »
For help when your child is starting to bully »
To empower your child against bullying »

10. Downtime.

Everything is stimulating to your preschooler, from seeing the dump truck on the street to the candy in the grocery store. While playdates and field trips stimulate his emotional and intellectual development, he needs substantial unstructured time at home to simply play and regroup in the safety of his cozy home base, where he can let his hair down and take a deep breath in a quiet place.

Parents of preschoolers in our culture face a big challenge. Most three, four and five year olds don't have lots of siblings or cousins readily accessible to play with, and they can't read yet. Parents have other things to do. How to keep kids constructively occupied?

Many parents solve this by letting their kids spend many of their awake hours on screens. Because preschoolers' brains are still in a critical developmental phase, engaging with screens changes the way their brains develop, literally shortening their attention spans for life. Screens are also so easy to use that kids who come to depend on them for fun are less likely to become motivated readers. What's more, creating this habit early in life deprives children of the essential skill of learning to structure their own time. But there are alternatives to screen time for your kids, and the good news is that once kids get used to structuring their own time, they'll be much less interested in screens.

11. School

Children three and older usually thrive at school, and for most of them, it is preferable to a full day at home with a parent or caregiver. But we need to remember that kids under the age of five have to work very hard to hold it together in a group setting. Their cortisol levels -- that's the stress hormone -- become elevated when they stay at school in the afternoon, compared to children who go home after lunch, indicating that they're under stress. Happily, this effect is much less pronounced in settings where the caretakers are stable and the child feels connected, so it's worth the effort to be sure your child feels "at home" at her school.