Realistic Expectations for the Four-Year-Old

Four is a great age:

For sitting on laps!

For snuggling together!

For telling stories!  Rhymes!  Silly stories and silly poetry!

For exploring nature together!

For practicing gross motor skills!  Running, climbing, walking foot over foot up and down steps, standing on one foot, skipping on one foot, running or standing jumping, jumping off of things with feet together, hopping on one foot, riding a bicycle with training wheels, catching a ball, sliding down a slide, digging in the dirt or sand, lifting, tugging and pulling!  Stirring. crawling, crab crawling, playing wheelbarrow

For practicing fine motor skills!  Buttoning, unbuttoning, lacing shoes, stringing beads, pouring and carrying water, drawing, coloring, painting, modeling

For doll play, dressing up, building

For encouraging creativity! 

For music!

For sensory input!  Rolling down hills, kneading bread dough, sand play, making mud puddles, playing outside in the rain,

For close supervision – many four-year-olds are destructive in their own environments just through innocently exploring and not having a great idea of the consequences of their own actions.  And why should they be able to predict the consequences of their own actions at this young age?  That is your job!

For snuggly co-sleeping – but also can be a great age to try sleeping in their own bed around four-and-a-half or so.

Having a quiet time each day – four-year-olds need this as they play and run so hard all day long!


Four is not a great age for:

“Field Trips” – This is an area where people will disagree with me.  Four-year-olds love “new” and going “new” and “special” places.  However, in my experience with many different  four-year-olds over the past ten or twelve years, most four-year-olds are interested for about 10 minutes in whatever you are looking at, and then the importance of the tiger at the zoo or the shark at the aquarium and the pink shoes of the child next to them and that child down the row who is eating something registers about the same on the scale of awe and education.   And then they are hungry and need to use the bathroom and are ready to play.   They could be just as happy with a field trip to somewhere within your own neighborhood that is “new” and “special”.

Expecting a child to do things alone without you being right there to direct or supervise.  Some four-year-olds do a great job at this –they can get up and go to the bathroom alone and get dressed, (and I would say for the most part this is the quiet, mature, less physical little girls who are first born)  and some four-year-olds really cannot do much  unless you are physically present because they just sort of forget what they are supposed to be doing or find something more interesting along the way!

Leaving a four-year-old with younger children without close supervision

Playing well with others (in general – again always exceptions) – Friendships are important at this age, they love to play with other children generally, but still need your help.  Do not tell two four-year-olds to “work it out”!  Help them!

Answering things in a scientific, logical way – if they ask you a question about the world, they are not looking for the ADULT, DRY, LOGICAL explanation (unless this is the way you have always talked to them and they play all those verbal games with you!).

Competitive games

Dragging them on endless errands.

Expect them to cooperate while you are on the phone!

Don’t expect them to stay dry through the night – girls might, but perhaps not!

Sitting through a whole meal without becoming restless!

Pushing academics!  The Gesell Institute in their book “Your Four Year Old” says on page 81, “Especially, do not feel that you must teach your preschooler to read.”  Waldorf Education begins reading around the age of six and a half or seven, and many countries around the world also do this.


Ways to connect to your Four-Year-Old:

Listen to them!

Love them!

Be silly with them!  Play! Have fun!

If you have a very active four-year-old, try to enjoy it rather than feel as if you are suffering along and waiting for them to “calm down”.

Leave your lectures and guilt trips behind!

Let your child know you love and appreciate them for who they are!  Active or not, shy or not, able to fall asleep well or not – be warm and loving!

Set loving boundaries in a gentle way – an out-of-bounds four-year-old is really going to feel more secure if you do this!

Avoid moral judgments of your child – just because they love potty talk now does not mean they will love potty talk when they are 15!

Structure your environment so you are not always saying “no”

Show them how to do things, have special times to show them how to use art supplies nicely, how to create a card for Grandma

32 thoughts on “Realistic Expectations for the Four-Year-Old

    • If you look in the tag box, there are posts on the three-year-old, four-year-old, five-year-old, six-year-old – oh and the newborn and one month old from both traditonal, anthroposophic perspectives and how to live peacefully with children at these ages. The two-month-old to two and a half year old are coming, as is the eight year old.
      Hope that helps!
      Many blessings,

  1. Carrie,
    thank you. I was just struggling with my little girl in the last days in understanding what realistically I can expect from her. I’m seeing her so big since spring when she became 4 but I might be asking her too much, too early.


  2. Thank you for this….I have had a hard week with my four year old, but this was a nice reminder to slow down and listen and love.

  3. This is my first time commenting, and I just want to say thank you for your constant inquiry and reflection. Your topics about these very young blessings are wonderful.
    You mentioned in this post about playing with others. I wonder if you could share your thoughts about play & playmates at four years old. Specifically, I wonder about first-born children who only have an infant sibling (or only children) and how to best bring them into play circles, but without compromising the magical simplicity of homelife. Preschool, playgroups with chatting mamas, watching others’ children at home? There are lots of options and I’m just curious what your response might be.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on 4 year olds! My oldest daughter is 4 1/2, and this really seems to be a transition time for her personally. (One of my 2 1/2 year old twins is also in a transition time as well.) And in my experience this transitions/transformations are difficult for anyone.

    I agree with your feelings on field trips. We visit our local, small natural history museum about once a week. My kids never tire of seeing the same exhibits and walking the same trails – in fact, it is good for them. They are comfortable in that space, they can just visit a few of the exhibit halls instead of trying to see them all. They delight in seeing the changes there, and it is so nice that the staff knows us. And the familiarity has meant that my otherwise very shy and attached second-born twin (2 1/2) can feel comfortable being out of my arms or sling and explore.

    My 4 year old does like new and special places, but for us it is more about the atmosphere of anticipation than the place. I have found that I can create this myself, even if we are just visiting this “same old museum”.

    I’m not good at it, but I’m currently trying to avoid “no” and also to not talk so much period.

    Thank you!

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  7. Thank you for this insight, my four year old is driving me to distraction, feeling at my wits end tonight, this was a gentle reminder that he is only four.

  8. WOW…prior to reading this I was feeling extremely frustrated with my 4 year old, but I see there is rational thinking when it comes to this age. Now I just need to readjust me and we’ll be good.

  9. Pingback: Back to Basics: Developmentally Appropriate « The Parenting Passageway

  10. Hi Carrie,
    I’m new to this website, and completely engaged in what I’m reading-looking forward to a few days over the holidays so I can really get into it. Now, reading this, I’m somewhat discouraged? I have an almost-5-year-old. I know I can’t ‘go back’ in time, but what do I do? I’ve already taught her to read-although she told me she wanted to learn, so I taught her (we’re a homeschooling family). I’m not sure I’ll know when my expectations are too high? For instance, holidays are coming-how do we make cards for grandma, Bubbe, sister, and daddy without expecting too much from her?

    • Hi Cecily- Welcome here, nice to have you in this space. There are close to 700 posts, so happy holiday reading! 🙂
      For cards, most five year olds will draw a picture and copy their first name on at least a few. You can write her name for her if she gets tired.
      Waldorf education moves from oral to painting/drawing to writing to reading last, so we look for some foundational blocks first…Writing is definitely fatiguing!
      And no Waldorf guilt, there are children who have taught themselves to read even in Waldorf Kindergartens..your daughter will love First Grade with the letters and letter stories just as much as those who have not met the letters yet. My oldest daughter was an early reader and LOVED Waldorf First Grade. 🙂
      Many blessings, no guilt!

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  12. Hi, Carry! My daughter just turned four and I am so happy to find this post! I am so grateful you take an effort and share your wisdom with parents all over the world!
    Just one question – is there any difference between skipping on one foot and hopping on one foot? (sorry for the childish question, English is just not my native language :))

    • Eleonora,
      Your English is very good and I am so glad you are here!
      I always think of hopping on one foot as the same foot whereas skipping is hopping on one foot, switching to the other foot, hopping on that foot and then switching back….skipping requires more motor planning, to me, than just hopping.


  13. Pingback: Realistic Expectations: Day Ten of Twenty Days Toward More Mindful Mothering | The Parenting Passageway

  14. if I could just get my sisters and mom to keep their moral judgements to themselves and not attempt to decipher my children’s futures lives and psyche’s by their preschool and toddler years!?! This is what stresses me the most….how do we protect our families from ….our “well meaning” friends and families? I have all educators on my side of the family and they are oh so way pushy…..another sister told me that one was complaining about my education “style.” That is hard to deal with when you were raised “Waldorfian style” and your family morph’s into totally different values when they are older and judge you for choosing the “old paths.” 😦

  15. I just want to thank you for this article, it has calmed me down SO much. I am 27 and a step dad (I’m the only dad she knows and ever will know) to a beautiful little girl who is 4.5 and has VERY mild CP. I don’t have any children that are biologically mine, so this is my first go at parenting, and as such, I often find myself wanting to scream for advice. Since I was a young child everything in the world has made sense to me, but being a parent has me feeling clueless. This past week my little one’s preschool teacher expressed concern for her lack of knowledge in her colors,and I instantly panicked and began trying everything and anything I could think of to teach her with zero success, maybe she will learn when she is good and ready.

    • Jorge!
      I am so glad you wrote in. Being a parent is tough, and you sound like an awesome dad!
      If your cute little one has mild CP, is there an individualized learning plan in place for her? If she is in a public preschool, that should be part of the school’s deal to help your little one. Our family homeschools, so we have a bit more leeway, but I know in the schools there are certain things the staff are looking for, so you may have less leeway as to what goals they are striving for when. So, don’t panic, but do dialogue with the teachers and find out what they expect by when, what would happen if goals are not met, what they expect on your end as a family, and what they are doing to help her if that is the expectation. You will be a great advocate for your little girl!
      Many blessings, glad you are here,

    • Jorge- PS – your comment about being clueless once you became a parent when the world made sense before! Isn’t that the truth?

    • Hi Donna,
      Usually four year olds can undress independently, can navigate large buttons, will need help with shoes most likely and smaller buttons or fasteners, will need help dressing if things have tight necks or zippers. Does that help? Any question in particular?

  16. This was a lovely read! And it made me giggle because it is SO true. My 4 year old, Lark, goes off and the house gets real quiet. I go check on her because she’s supposed to be getting pants on and she has my face lotion all in her hair😂😂😂

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