A: Oh, I love 4-year-olds (especially because I don’t have one in my home anymore). Four-year-olds are exactly as you put it: “great but challenging.” And to understand how to engage yours in this type of conversation is to appreciate the mind of the preschooler.
The typical 4-year-old is living in a time of extremes, of ups and downs, and is just starting to understand different perspectives. For instance, 3-year-olds may only be aware of what they need, want and possess. A person not wearing a mask? A 3-year-old may take a passing notice of missing masks, for instance, but will probably move on with the next distraction or emotion. But a 4-year-old is becoming mature enough to notice something different and stay stuck on it. The brain can focus on disparate ideas, objects and people for longer periods of time, while also turning over these things to make sense of them.
If everyone in your home speaks kindly or wears masks, then your 4-year-old will be quick to “spot the difference,” much like the game. This attentiveness can make for awkward encounters: “Why is that person in a chair with wheels?” or “Why is that man so fat?” or “Why is that little girl so brown?” or “Why is that big girl screaming?” or “Why did that woman throw her napkin on the ground?” or “Why is that man sleeping in the street?”
When I was little, these types of questions were quieted. Drawing attention to anyone who fell outside of the larger culture racially, socioeconomically, culturally, spiritually or behaviorally was considered “rude,” and therefore, children learned to silently stare — or worse, to look away from others. Not only does this teach children that curiosity is “rude,” but this also erases everyone else’s identity, a part of them that deserves to be seen, named and witnessed.
You are asking specifically about people breaking the rules, so you may be questioning my above tangent; I see it all on a continuum of understanding differences and, hence, becoming mature. We want our children to purposely see others and not ignore them or their differences. We want them to avoid jumping to conclusions about people based on an action or series of actions.
Why is the girl screaming? She is on the autism spectrum and is feeling dysregulated by city noise. Why would people litter? Maybe they didn’t know they dropped their napkins. Why did the person run the red light? Maybe they’re rushing to the hospital to see a sick child. Maybe the “unkind” person just got some awful news themselves, and the people not wearing masks don’t believe in getting sick.
It is developmentally normal for 4-year-olds to have dualistic thinking (good vs. evil), which is why superheroes begin to carry such weight during this time. Extremes are easy to understand, so our parenting work is to gently mix in other options. We don’t make excuses for others, but we can point out other explanations for what we see.
We can also use those observations to talk about our family values.