The Age Four Transition to Responsible Childhood

Ewen Mcintosh, Creative CommonsSource: Ewen Mcintosh, Creative Commons

My earliest clear memories of events I experienced, which are not simply memories of stories told to me about my childhood, are from when I was four years old. I know, because those memories are clearly situated at and near the apartment in Minneapolis where we lived when I was four, from which we moved about the time I turned five. One of those memories, which would have occurred when I was about four years and four months, is the following. On a hot summer day my grandmother told me that it was time for me to take an adventure by myself. We lived on a busy street, with traffic lights, and I’m sure that my grandmother had already explained to me how to cross streets at lights as we took walks together. But this day, she told me, I would go by myself, a distance of about two blocks, crossing at least one busy street, to buy myself a popsicle, and then walk back home. She would sit on the stoop and watch to make sure I came back OK. I did. And then, after that, I could take walks like that myself, to get things my grandmother or others in the family needed, without having to be watched. I’m sure that one reason I remember this event so well is that it was very exciting to me; a big step toward growing up.

There are a number of significant things to note about this memory. First, this was seven decades ago, back when it wasn’t unusual to see little kids walking along the sidewalk and crossing streets unaccompanied by an adult. There was no fear that someone would call the police or Child Protective Services. If Jack were four, you might not want to trust him to make a good bargain on his sale of the cow (he might trade it for beans), but you could trust him to walk to the marketplace and find his way back. Second, this illustrates something that parents (or grandparents, as in my case) did in those days; they taught kids safety rules, so they could safely gain independence, rather than protect them from independence. But the point I want to elaborate on now has to do with motivational and cognitive changes that occur in children at around age four, which make children both desirous of and capable of increased independence. It is significant that, back then, it would have been common to see four-year-olds out on adventures by themselves, but not three-year-olds. Three-year-olds might be out with their five-year-old siblings, but rarely if ever alone.

The Age of Independence in Hunter-Gatherer Bands and Sudbury Schools

Some years ago I delved into the lives of children in hunter-gatherer bands by surveying anthropologists and reading all I could find on the topic (see here and here). One thing I learned is that hunter-gatherers typically view children as “infants” up until about four years old, and as “children who have sense” (to use a phrase quoted by one anthropologist) beginning at about four years old. Children under age four are often still nursed by their mothers, and although they are free to engage in many adventures around the campsite and to accompany adults or older children on trips, they are not allowed to—and apparently have little desire to—venture out of sight and hearing of adult or older-child caregivers. Four-year-olds, in contrast, are generally free to run with the other kids, or even alone, away from caregivers. Millennia of experience have taught hunter-gatherers that by the age of about four (of course, it varies somewhat from child to child) children not only begin to seek independence from adults but are capable of it.

Remember: Kids will be kids. Kids will make mistakes using media. Try to handle errors with empathy and turn a mistake into a teachable moment. But some indiscretions, such as sexting, bullying, or posting self-harm images, may be a red flag that hints at trouble ahead. Parents must observe carefully their children's behaviors and, if needed, enlist supportive professional help, including the family pediatrician.

Even more years ago, when I first became interested in the Sudbury Valley School, where children freely pursue their own interests all day (e.g. here and here), I was intrigued to learn that the youngest students the school would accept were four years old. At this school, all students, regardless of age, are free to roam anywhere on the school’s 10 acre campus, which is not fenced off from its surrounds. Adults do not follow the students around. Students, regardless of age, are expected to take responsibility for their own safety. The campus includes a millpond with a dam and is bordered on one side by a road with traffic and on another side by a state forest where someone could get lost. It also has huge rocks and trees to climb and one of those old-fashioned “dangerous” high slides in the playground. The judgment of the school has always been that most four-year-olds are capable of being responsible for their own safety in this environment, but most three-year-olds are not. (I should add that the school requires a visiting week of all prospective students, regardless of age, in which they must prove their ability to be responsible; so not all four-year-olds are accepted.) The policy has turned out to be wise. Over the school's 50-year history no students have died or even been seriously injured. The policy has since been adopted by most of the schools throughout the world that are modeled after Sudbury Valley.

The Shift from Attachment to Independence

If you read the literature on child development and advice to parents—especially if you read the older literature, before “experts” began to see it as their job to frighten people—you will find a continuous refrain about how at age four children begin to need and seek greater independence from adults. Even today, some of that can be found on the Internet if you Google “children age four.” Here are some examples:

• “ Children this age [age four] go from 0 to 60 on the independence scale, so it's vital to talk to them about safety rules before they get any big ideas, " says Daniel Coury, M.D., chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. " But you don't want to scare them off. ” ( Here .)

• “ Four-year-olds want to try new experiences. They also want to be more self-reliant and seek to expand the areas of their lives where they can be independent decision-makers. ” ( Here .)

• What a four-year-old would say about his or her needs: “I need to explore, to try out, and to test limits. ” ( Here .)

Research on attachment, going all the way back to the work of Bowlby (1958) and Ainsworth (1979), has revealed that children’s attachment to caregivers begins to increase around age six to eight months and declines at about age four years. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. Six to eight months is when infants begin to move around on their own (initially by crawling), so a strong drive to be near a reliable caregiver is adaptive, so they don’t stray off too far and get into danger. Around four years is when children begin to have common sense, so there is much reduced danger in their straying off. The primary function of attachment (I hate to be so cold about it) is to protect the child from danger during the period when he or she is mobile but has not yet acquired much sense about what is dangerous and what isn’t.

The Internalization of Language and Origin of Verbal Thought

What underlies the increased ability of children, at about age four, to behave safely and independently? Part of the answer, of course, has simply to do with increased knowledge. If caregivers have done their job properly and allowed children to explore and behave in moderately risky ways in the caregivers’ presence during the children’s first four years, then, by about age four, children have learned a lot about what is safe and what isn’t. But something less gradual also occurs just before or around age four: Children develop the capacity to use words not just to communicate with others, but also to communicate with themselves. In other words, they begin to think verbally, which means, essentially, that they can tell themselves what is safe or not and can recall verbal rules that they learned from others, and they can use those abilities to restrain or motivate their actions as they roam and explore on their own.

Repeat: I am not a short-order cook. "It's a child's job to learn to eat what the parents eat," says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Instead of the all-or-nothing scenario, offer a variety of foods at mealtime: the main course, plus rice or pasta, a fruit or vegetable, and milk. This way, your child can eat just the pasta and the peas and get protein from the milk. "What a child eats over the course of a day or a week is more important than a balanced meal at one sitting," says Stephen Daniels, the chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora.

The person most noted for this theory that a major shift in thinking occurs around age four is the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vyotsky (1934/1962). Vygotsky contended that what we usually describe as thinking is, largely, internalized speech. At first, according to Vygotsky, thinking occurs in a social context, as back-and-forth speech with others. An older person says something to the child. The child understands what was said and may or may not argue. If the statement is a rule of behavior, the child may abide by it immediately, but not sometime later, because the child doesn’t think of it later. That’s why very young children need to be watched. Over time, however, children learn that they can use language even when not in the presence of others, as a way of reminding themselves what they should or should not do. At first they may use the words aloud, in a phase of talking to themselves: “ Oh, Mommy said don’t touch the hot stove .” But with time they learn that they don’t have to actually enunciate the words; they can just think them to themselves. There is sometimes a transitional period where you can see the child’s lips move as he or she thinks. If you are a lip reader, you can literally read the child's mind.

According to Vygotsky, and verified by much research since his time (e.g. Alderson-Dat & Fernyhough, 2014; Manfra et al, 2014; Winsler et al, 1997), by about age four children have developed the capacity for verbal thought to such a degree that they can recall and follow rules that they learned previously, without someone there to remind them, and can even think verbally about how to behave in new contexts. They can ask themselves such questions as, “ Is it safe for me to do this? ” or “ What would happen if I did that? ” and imagine the answer before they actually try this or that. This ability is the essence of common sense and caution.

The Emerging Understanding of Minds

Another well-documented cognitive shift that occurs at around age four concerns what researchers call “theory of mind” (e.g. Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001.). Theory of mind refers to the understanding that there is a difference between what a person may believe to be true and what is actually true. People can hold, and act upon, false beliefs. One person can believe one thing and another can believe something else. This understanding is an important development in the child’s ability to get along with peers. To have real friends and to truly collaborate, you must understand that the thoughts and perspectives of the friend are not necessarily the same as yours. Thus, to get along, it is necessary to somehow learn about the mind of your friend and take that into account in your play. It is no coincidence, I think, that this ability emerges around the same time that children are motivated and able to enjoy play with peers, without intervention by adults. Most four-year-olds, unlike most three-year-olds, can play happily with others their own age because they can take into account the needs and knowledge of their playmates, which may be different from their own needs and knowledge.

I suspect (though I don’t know of any research on it) that development of theory of mind is intimately linked to the internalization of language. When children talk to themselves as a way of thinking, they almost can’t help but begin to become aware of the fact that they have a mind and that their mind can change over time. “ I think there is a toy in this box. Now I’m opening the box. Oops, there’s no toy. I was wrong .” Once they realize that they have a mind, which can change over time in its knowledge and beliefs, it is a relatively small step to realize that the same is true for other people. The mind is what people say to themselves.

It is also no coincidence, then, that age four is when children typically begin to enjoy tricks and riddles and guessing games. To enjoy these things you have to understand that the mind can be fooled. Understanding that also helps you to behave safely when out adventuring. You know that your current belief, or what a playmate just told you, could be wrong; so you test it out before you act on it.


Throughout human history, until very recently, people understood that the capacity for common sense, restraint, and self-controlled safety grows rather rapidly at around age four. Age four was understood as the approximate age at which children enter the culture of childhood, where they begin to learn at least as much if not more from play with peers as from adults. People didn’t need research studies to prove it to them; it was obvious. Children today, sadly, exist in a world in which adults have become convinced that children are not competent at age four, and many believe that they are not competent even at age eight, or twelve. Many twelve-year-olds today are not permitted the independence that four-year-olds were permitted until just a few decades ago.


We also, sadly, live at a time when many people hold the really weird belief that it is more important to train little children in so-called “academic skills” than to teach them basic rules of safety—rules that they can understand and that could give them the freedom they need to learn lessons that are far more important than the scraps of academia we force onto them.


And now, what do you think? Do you have memories of adventures at age four, or of your children's desires and actions at that age? This blog is, in part, a forum for discussion. Your questions, thoughts, stories, and opinions are treated respectfully by me an other readers, regardless of the degree to which we agree or disagree. Please post these here; do not send them to me by email. I receive far more emails than I can possibly answer.