Your 3-year-old: Development, behavior and parenting tips

Parenting Feisty 3-Year-Olds

Most people agree that raising a child is not an easy task. We parents don’t get issued a rulebook or guidelines which guarantee raising a happy child into a well-balanced adult. Parents of young children almost always worry now and then about their parenting skills but if you are aware of what to expect from your 3-year-old as far as development, milestones and normal behavior go, you’ll both enjoy that journey to 4.


You’ve survived your child’s babyhood and also the thorny journey through the unmistakably difficult terrible twos. Now he’s 3 and you hope for smoother sailing.

You look at your beautiful child and realize he’s become a smarter but more demanding — and probably impolite and self-centered — little person. You might ask yourself these questions. Am I too lenient? Too strict? Is my child doing what he should be at doing this age?

What’s normal behavior for a 3-year-old

Hurray! Social skills, both fine and gross motor and language skills have improved. If you know what’s coming, what’s normal and what milestones to expect, the future is less uncertain.

3-year-old developmental milestones

3-year-old social skills

  • no longer a toddler
  • has become more independent
  • less selfish than 2 and exhibits less aggressive behavior
  • more aware of and sensitive to the feelings of others
  • more responsive to other children and able to develop friendships
  • capable of taking turns and sharing toys
  • will begin to identify with his own sex and traditionally related activities
  • more interested in structured games
  • spends much of his time in fantasy activity and will have imaginary friends (This is actually a very creative way for your child to sample different activities, behaviors and emotions.)
  • sense of time has become clearer and he’ll know his daily routine and will try to figure out the routines of others
  • will have a capacity to understand his own place spatially amongst the family and is able to view you as a separate person
  • wants to please you — will be less dependent on you because his sense of identity is growing stronger
  • will exhibit a feisty attitude on occasion and resist your requests

3-year-old motor skills

  • losing his baby fat, developing more muscle control and gaining in height
  • is quite agile and can catch a ball with arms extended
  • jumps down from object 18 inches high using two-footed takeoff and landing
  • will be interested in tools such as scissors, paper, paint and crayons
  • draws a circle
  • cuts paper into two pieces
  • concentration is required when learning to master precision finger and hand movements

3-year-old language skills

  • will have mastered the basic rules of language and should have an active vocabulary of 600 or more words with 80 percent intelligibility
  • able to talk in sentences of three or fours words and imitate most speech sounds but still has thoughts and emotions that can’t be conveyed through language
  • uses plurals and pronouns
  • may mispronounce words and will become extremely frustrated when he is not understood

3-year-old survival tips

Choose your battles. Priorities will be safety issues like climbing or going near the stove. Supervision is essential to prevent injuries as your child isn’t able to anticipate the consequences of his actions. At 3, traffic is a huge concern for a parent.

“Encourage your child to take turns and share toys.”

Encourage your child to take turns and share toys. When he cries because he is told he can’t have another cookie, well that’s something he will have to learn to get over. If these demanding personality traits are squelched entirely, a child may diminish himself in order to please. However, if these qualities are monitored but encouraged, these seemingly unpleasant characteristics develop into admirable strengths like determination, assertiveness and self-confidence later in life.

Provide new words to him in order to expand his vocabulary. He will spend most of his waking hours asking why? This can happen hundreds of times each day. This can be very challenging, so keep your answers simple.

If you believe that your child is gifted, speak to your pediatrician who can refer you to testing specialists.

Parenting the stubborn 3-year-old

Robert Needlman, a medical doctor and expert on the website says, “While a few very laid-back and agreeable preschoolers are happy to go along with whatever his parents want, most young children want what they want, when they want it! A child who is temperamentally persistent, who also feels well-loved and well listened to, might well develop an unpleasant habit of stubbornness.”

Needlman continues, “But this habit not only makes them less pleasant to be around, it also makes the children less happy. They spend a lot of time fussing and demanding, but aren’t satisfied because what they want is the control, rather than the particular thing they are demanding. The answer to this is for parents to assert control in all areas, except those that they intend their young children to be able to make choices about. Little children can make little choices.”

Heather Holden, mother of a busy 3-year-old says, “The biggest challenge is allowing Isabelle to grow in her independence but balance that with appropriate discipline when needed. I set boundaries and she is given choices so that her decision-making can improve.”

“Let your preschooler know you’re proud of his new independence and creativity.”

Her husband Kris says that his biggest challenge is being patient. He says, “You want to do what’s right for them but it may not be what they want to do. I give her choices when possible and make her feel like she is in control so there is less of a power struggle over other things.”

Let your preschooler know you’re proud of his new independence and creativity. Give him choices whenever possible so that he learns to make decisions. As he becomes more responsible in making his own decisions you can give him more control. Above all, the 3-year-old needs to feel love and security while learning and developing. Your 3-year-old is at a precious and magical stage of development. Enjoy the journey!


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