The Competent Parent: Mean Girls at Only Age Four?


Welcome to our online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.



Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m having big trouble with a bright four-year-old girl in my class.  “Violet” has quiet, sneaky behavior and does and says mean things to the other kids which makes them upset.    She is very smart, and knows how “push their buttons” so that an adult does not notice.  She is then not very truthful when the child approaches me and we talk about what happened.  She very much wants to be accepted by the kids but then tattles on them at the drop of a hat.  She just does not seem to know what it means to be a nice friend.  Please let me know if you have any insight on teaching her how to be accepting and patient of the other kids as well as speaking kindly and truthfully.


Miss Teacher


Dear Miss Teacher,

Let’s take a child development approach.  In the preschool years, Violet can be expected to advance from grabbing toys from others to cooperatively planning out roles, costumes, and plot lines with a small group.  At age two, children are oblivious to the notion that other bodies are connected to emotions.  They climb over, take toys from, and act surprised when unpleasant noises and adult interventions hamper their will.  At age three, children are becoming aware that they can cause emotional reactions in others.  You can see this developing as they play house – “I’ll be the mommy and you be the big sister.  ‘Kay?”  If this arrangement is agreeable, it serves her purpose to have a playmate to help carry out the scene.  If on the other hand, she goes to get a dress so she can be the mommy and the would-be playmate becomes upset because she wanted that dress, the playing is interrupted by the conflict.

Pleasing and displeasing adults is also being studied closely at age three.  Teacher gives warm smiles and says my name approvingly when I put things away at clean up time.  She raises her voice and says my name sternly when I grab a dress from Lily. Over the course of about a year, the three-year-old catalogs all the cause and effect patterns she has observed. With consistent reactions from consistent playmates and adults, she will learn these patterns more quickly.  It also helps when adults take the next step, and, while responding with the appropriate emotion, also consistently guide Violet to be successful, i.e., find costumes and roles for both girls to play house.  Such lessons help to build social-emotional skills, including looking for adults to help out in a tight situation, so that Violet will have a repertoire of “good” behaviors that get her favorable results.

However, if reaction patterns are inconsistent, or if she is cataloging more negative reactions than positive, her social-emotional development can go awry.

In an ideal environment, children are supported to notice how their actions affect others, and are guided to make good decisions that end well for them.  When negative patterns develop – as you describe, with meanness and tattling – we need to redirect Violet’s ineffective strategies so she can be more successful with playmates.

Close supervision at play time will prevent the sneaky tactic she is employing to get a rise out of classmates, and ultimately a rise out of you when confronted.  Let’s take the point of view that she doesn’t have the skills she needs to make the other children work the way she needs them to.  A good foreman stays close by when inexperienced workers could hurt themselves and others by improperly using tools.  If you shadow her, you will catch her misguided efforts in time to steer her back on the course of interacting positively with the other children.  “Looks like Lily wants to wear a Mommy dress, too.   Let’s see if there’s another one here.”  “I think Lily’s sad to hear you say that she can’t come to your birthday party.  Lily, do you want to play with some other children until Violet’s ready to be friendly again?”  Then stay with Violet to help her sort out her own feelings (maybe jealousy that Lily wanted to be the Mommy).  You are a model of compassion when you kindly help her to label and acknowledge Lily’s feelings about being wounded by hurtful words.  And now that you’ve helped her to understand her feelings and Lily’s, you can help her to come up with a win-win solution to the conflict.

Truth and tattling have one meaning for adults and another for children.  The truth is what will set me free. Violet wants to be free of looking bad to others, especially to you.  Although that is the result of her actions, it is not her intention.  If you watch to see what is occurring just before the tattling, you are likely to see a moment when Violet feels inadequate.  She didn’t get something she needs for her play scenario.  She couldn’t make someone do her bidding.  She was teased or rejected by someone.  Or she saw you give positive attention to another child.  In essence, she tattles to make others look worse than she thinks she looks, especially to you.

It’s best to focus on fixing the current problem – someone is hurt and we can find a way to help them – rather than to focus on guilt and blame.  Don’t back the guilty party into a corner with an accusation, because then her only recourse is to deny it.  Again, closer supervision will keep you from having to pull a confession out of one child or the other, or both.  Even at the ripe old age of four, we can expect children to still be inexperienced with resolving conflict as they try to play cooperatively.  Let’s give her the right tools as she needs them.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at  

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