Picture a scraggly bearded, ratty clothed castaway standing on the shore of a deserted island. Now picture a fun-in-the-sun family standing in the water just in front of the marooned survivor. Incredulously, he repeats, “You mean the water is only knee deep to San Diego?”

Parenting is often like that. We feel we’re in over our head, but with the right information we’re only knee deep. Understanding the stages of child development helps the whelming waters to recede to wading level.

Understanding these stages helps us keep perspective in our parenting. It helps us realize when a toddler says “no,” he may be defiant, but on the other hand, he doesn’t yet know how to say, “Mommy, may I please have five minutes to finish with my blocks?”

Stages of development should never be used as an excuse for sin, however. Loving and training are the first priorities of every parent. For some parenting perspective, let’s take a brief look at two through four-year-olds.

The Two-Year-Old:

You’ve heard about the “terrible twos,” but it’s really the terrible two-and-a-halves. Twos are often rigid and inflexible. They’re trying to gain control of a world without many skills.

Twos can wait a minute, suffer slight frustration, and try to please. Routine becomes ritual and is necessary for security (1 bath, 2 stories, and 4 stuffed animals at bedtime). Our patience with Two contributes to everyone’s well being. A timer works wonders – “You may ride the trike until the timer goes off, then it’s sister’s turn.”

What do we teach a two-year-old? We teach her to obey (assuming she’s understood what we’ve asked her to do), to use her words, to wait, and to say her prayers. We remember that learning is a process (lots of routine experience) and not the product. Routine experience builds the vocabulary necessary for communicating with words rather than emotions.

My Twos loved to look at picture books and have me name everything on the page until they could name them themselves. They loved to listen to stories as well, the same one every single night. And they loved scribbling with crayons.

Don’t forget that physical exercise is the best brain training for all preschoolers. Running, jumping, climbing, and marching are the fuel for future academic success.

The Three-Year-Old:

With more skills at hand, especially an enlarged vocabulary, Three is cooperative and anxious to please. He is the best helper there is. He is beginning to share, wait, and take turns.

Three is motivated by new words: different, big, new, surprise, secret . . . . He is very imaginative and imitative. This is learning for Three, playing at life, helping with life.

At 3 ½ your child may have something akin to PMS, six months of disequilibrium, insecurity, and lack of coordination. Where he could get dressed two weeks ago, it seems impossible now. Teamwork is essential. “You put one sock on, I’ll get the other.”

God’s grace allows you to love the Three who demands, “Don’t look at me!” “Don’t laugh at me!” Tensional outlets are common: possible stuttering, nose picking, even tics.

Have patience parents. Take time to sit and hug and regroup. There is security in boundaries for Three. He needs help handling his emotions. Friendly time outs are wonderful; wouldn’t you like one now and then?

Read real stories to Three, not just Hop on Pop. He understands more than he can tell you. Bible stories come alive as you act them out for him. He loves Scripture verses, nursery rhymes, learning shapes and colors, and counting everything in sight (up to three, maybe higher).

He can try matching socks in the laundry basket. Don’t expect Three to “write.” Scribbling and drawing (process, not product) are fine for now. Playdough™ is usually a favorite as well as singing songs over and over and over.

If you want to teach Three the alphabet, sing the sounds of the letters (buh, buh, ball and ruh, ruh, rail (not er, er, rail) rather than the names. This saves a step in teaching your child to read later on.

The Four-Year-Old

This age is investigative, self-confident and secure. This also means Four can be out-of-bounds, accident prone, and defiant. She may even threaten to run away, stopping at the corner because she’s not allowed to cross the street. Four needs help toning down her exuberance and continued training in obedience.

She is social, needing genuine attention for great discussions. She is curious, asking, “Why? Why? Why?” (I allowed mine to ask why three times. Setting a limit seemed to satisfy.) The Four-year-old is humorous, loving dumb jokes.

She is imaginative. Keep an eye out for tall tales (My, what an interesting story you tell!”) and imaginary companions (Would you like to set a place for Mousy at the table?) Of course, you must teach the difference between truth and tale, but don’t hurt Mousy’s feelings.

Dress-up and drawing are staples in Four’s learning world. A dress-up box is a must. Don’t invest in reams of drawing paper, scratch paper will do. Ask Four to tell you about her picture. Her apple will likely have become a wagon and a fire engine before she finished, and your guess will probably be wrong.

Running, climbing, marching, and turning somersaults is still the best brain training. If your child can’t tie his shoes, count backward from 25, throw a bean bag into a trash can, balance on one foot, etc., she’s not neurologically ready for formal learning.

Some Fours will want to learn to read and to write their names. It’s not pushing if there’s no resistance. Make it fun — no pressure necessary. Keep reading to Four, helping your her build a strong auditory vocabulary.

Cultivate the garden of your young child’s life, preparing their soil with exercise, reading, and experiences.

I am reminded of the words of a children’s song when I think of our precious little ones in these first stages of their life’s journey. “Have patience, have patience, don’t be in such a hurry. When you get impatient, you only start to worry. Remember, remember, that God is patient too, and think of all the times when others have to wait for you.”

Be patient with your young ones. There is much time and there are many ways to teach and to learn.