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Four-year-old Expectations—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My family, including our youngest, age four, has been invited to a couple of outdoor events in the next few weeks. He’s done pretty well with keeping a mask on in the grocery store, doctor’s office, etc. but I’m concerned. I might be distracted and not able to keep him from taking it off or otherwise putting himself at risk of catching Covid-19. The two events I really don’t want to miss are a family wedding and a long-time neighbor’s high school graduation picnic.

No Vaccine for Children Yet

Dear NVfCY,

The behavior of a four-year-old at a wedding or a picnic is the responsibility of the adult who brings him. That would be you. This can be shared, tag team-style, with others you deem responsible. You are probably weighing the burden of this close supervision against how you might feel about missing an event. Once in a lifetime events, such as a graduation or wedding, are probably worth the extra care you will take to prevent your son from catching and possibly spreading Covid-19.

Ask Ahead

A typical preschooler has a mind that races in all directions and a body that is on the move. If the hosts for these events have not had a preschooler for a few years, it would be a good idea to ask a few questions so you can come prepared.

Will other young children be there? You might offer to bring suitable toys – a tub of Duplos, a beachball for a game of catch, bubbles to blow and pop, sidewalk chalk – that could be used unobtrusively by your son, and perhaps shared by other young guests. Ask what area would be good for setting up such an activity with enough space to be safe.

What is the order and approximate timing of any ceremonies / speeches / cake cutting / open bar, etc.? Knowing the schedule will help you plan for coming late, leaving early, or taking a walk around the block with your child during the middle. If an event has been planned with adult guests in mind, you’ll have to make timing choices to suit the four-year-old’s presence or absence or distraction.

What specific considerations are being given for vulnerable guests, such as children, or anyone who might later come in contact with a vulnerable person, for unintended contagion? Ask about masks and distancing. As outdoor events begin to return to our lives, they may look a little different than before the pandemic. Event planners may have seating arrangements to accommodate individuals, couples, and family groups apart from each other, just to be sure.

There may be a basket of colorful facemasks for guests to wear – as a suggestion or requirement – the same as yarmulkes at a conservative Jewish ceremony. Plan accordingly if the host’s answers aren’t satisfactory.


Help your son anticipate what each celebration will be like so he can rehearse being a great guest. For example, you could play out the scene of a proud parent giving a speech at the graduation picnic with stuffed animals in all the roles. Help your son play the part of an attentive listener who can applaud enthusiastically at the proper time. While wearing his mask, of course.

To prepare for a wedding, there are several nice picture books  you can read with him as the event draws near and then review together afterward as you share the highlights of the real thing with each other. Have a pretend reception, either with stuffed animals and pretend food, or with real food at a real table with real napkins, playing the part of yourselves. Flower your conversation with topics likely to be covered at the real wedding: “My, don’t they seem happy together.” “That fruit display looks amazing.” “Isn’t it great that all the grandparents were able to come.” Help him practice some appropriate remarks, including good wishes to the guests of honor, so he won’t feel left out when the time comes.

Don’t Overstay

Unless there is someone to whom you can entrust your child’s enjoyment of and safe distancing and masking during either occasion, you’ll be focusing your attention on him – explaining who’s who and what’s going on, and assuring that all his needs, including pandemic safety, are being met. You’ll make sure he has good food to eat, room to move around, and meaningful topics of conversation. (A four-year-old might like to name pictures he sees in the clouds passing by rather than discuss the other guests’ lineage and outfits.) As I’m sure you know, taking care of a young child’s every need can be exhausting. So be sure to time your exit for before he, and you, have exhausted his capacity to be a welcome guest.

Since your whole family is included in these invitations, if you are more closely connected to the guests of honor than anyone else, perhaps there is another family member willing to escort the four-year-old home while you stay on to enjoy the celebration.

Extra attention is called for now that social restrictions have been lifted for those of us old enough to be vaccinated. Outdoor air is safer than indoor air, but masks and distance add another layer of protection for everyone even as the case rate continues to decline. Most adults should be able to refrain from hugs and kisses of people outside our “bubbles”, but a four-year-old cannot be expected to ward off an attack from an overly affectionate wedding guest.

And if it doesn’t feel safe, send your best wishes rather than taking the risk. Vaccines for children under the age of twelve are expected by September or October . The more precautions we take now, the better chance we have of being able to celebrate in the future with the people we love.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.


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