Social and Personality Growth: Age 3–6

During early childhood, children gain some sense of being separate and independent from their parents. According to Erikson, the task of preschoolers is to develop autonomy, or self‐direction (ages 1–3), as well as initiative, or enterprise (ages 3–6).

According to Freud, children in the second year of life enter the anal stage of psychosexual development, when parents face many new challenges while toilet training their children. Fixations at this stage give rise to the characteristic personality traits of anal retention (excessive neatness, organization, and withholding) or anal expulsion (messiness and altruism), which fully emerge in adulthood.

Family relationships are critical to the physical, mental, and social health of growing preschoolers. Many aspects of the family, such as parenting techniques, discipline, the number and the birth order of siblings, the family's finances, the family's circumstances, the family's health, and more, contribute to young children's psychosocial development.

Parenting in early childhood

Different parents employ different parenting techniques. Which parents choose to use which techniques depends on cultural and community standards, the situation, and their children's behavior at the time. Parental control involves the degree to which parents are restrictive in their use of parenting techniques, while parental warmth involves the degree to which they are loving, affectionate, and approving in their use of these techniques.
  • Authoritarian parents demonstrate high parental control and low parental warmth when parenting.

  • Permissive parents demonstrate high parental warmth and low parental control when parenting.

  • Indifferent parents demonstrate low parental control and low warmth.

  • Authoritative parents demonstrate appropriate levels of both parental control and warmth.

The willingness of parents to negotiate common goals with their children is highly desirable. This does not imply, however, that everything within a family system is negotiable. Neither parents nor their children should be “in charge” all of the time. Doing so can lead to unhealthy power struggles within the family. Parental negotiating teaches children that quality relationships can be equitable, or equal in terms of sharing rights, responsibilities, and decision‐making. Most negotiating home environments are warm, accommodating, and mutually supportive.

Siblings in early childhood

Siblings form a child's first and foremost peer group. Preschoolers may learn as much or more from their siblings as from their parents. Regardless of age differences, sibling relationships mirror other social relationships, amounting to a type of basic preparation for dealing with people outside of the home. Only brothers and sisters can simultaneously have equal and unequal status in the home, and only they can provide opportunities (whether desired or not) to practice coping with the positives and negatives of human relationships.

Are “only children” (those without siblings) at a developmental disadvantage? No. Research confirms that “onlies” perform just as well as, if not better than, other children on measures of personality, intelligence, and achievement. One explanation is that, like children who are first in the birth order, “only children” may receive the undivided (or nearly undivided) attention of their parents, who in turn have more time to read to them, take them to museums, and encourage them to excel.

Friends and playmates in early childhood

Early family attachments may determine the ease with which children form friendships and other relationships. Children who have loving, stable, and accepting relationships with their parents and siblings are generally more likely to find the same in friends and playmates.

First friends appear at about age 3, though preschoolers may play together long before that age. Much like adults, children tend to develop friends who share common interests, are likable, offer support, and are similar in size and looks.

Childhood friends offer opportunities to learn how to handle anger‐provoking situations, to share, to learn values, and to practice more “grown‐up” behaviors. Preschoolers who are popular with their peers excel at these activities. Those who are not popular may benefit from adult interventions that encourage them to be less shy and more social.