In my last blog post, we explored some important environmental factors that can play a role in the intellectual development of your child during the 3 to 5 year age range. In this blog post, we’ll review some important emotional and social development that happens at this stage.

3-to-5-Years: Emotional and Social Development

Having one or two best friends, usually of the same gender, is common at this age. It is also common for those friends to change rapidly – kids are flexible and willing to play with most of the kids they meet in their neighborhood or school. Awareness of male and female roles and gender preferences for toys and activities emerge by kindergarten.

Young children express their emotions fairly openly, which can include frequent angry outbursts. Jealousy among classmates is also common as the older, kindergarten children vie for the attentions and affections of their teacher.

Your child is still egocentric in that she thinks everybody sees the world just as she does. Even though she does not understand that other people may have needs or emotions of their own, she is developing a sense of morality. She is learning that there are rules about how things are done, that there is a right and wrong way to behave, and that her behavior will be judged against those rules. But it will be a while before she can really understand why the rules exist or when she must follow them – and when she might be allowed to change them.

Learning to Share

One issue starts to emerge at this stage that creates many conflicts: sharing. Children of this age are not very inclined to do it. Nor do I think they should be forced to share, with siblings or with friends.

Whether your child’s toys or her food is at issue, I think it is more constructive to introduce the idea of sharing by showing her what you want her to do, and doing it yourself. Share your food with her or her sibling, but don’t force her to do so. You must honor her choices, even if she chooses not to share, as that shows her that she is respected and valued. Then you can explain the practical consequences, in a non-threatening tone: “You don’t have to share. If you don’t share, she won’t share either. But that is fine if that is how you feel right now.” The impulse to share should come from within your child. Don’t be discouraged; it will come one day soon.

Discipline for 3-5 Year Olds

As for discipline, all kids need limits, but your child needs love just as much, if not more. It is better to try to “catch” your child being good and praise her, than point out the bad behavior. Praise is far more effective in reinforcing good behavior than punishment is in deterring unwanted actions. You want to show her that no matter what she does, even if her behavior isn’t to your liking at that moment, you still love her. You may not like the behavior – and you can tell her so. Nevertheless, she needs to be reassured that you still love her.

Your child needs to know that you will be her advocate, whether she is right or wrong. If you start with that attitude now, you will have a better chance of remaining in her confidence later on, when she is older and involved in more serious issues, such as drugs or alcohol. You want her to feel she can call you up and say, “Mom, I’ve had too much to drink; come get me.” She needs to know she can count on you to be on her side – even when she makes mistakes. That is what it really means to be a reliable parent.

Let your child’s temperament guide the form of discipline you employ. If your child has trouble moving from one activity to another, make sure to give her plenty of advance notice so she can make the transition smoothly. If your child is demanding, she may respond better to incentives or rewards.

What About Spanking?

I think the research shows that spanking only leads to aggressive behavior in a child. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls corporal punishment “of limited effectiveness” and warns of “potentially deleterious side effects.” There are almost always alternative approaches to take that will better achieve your goals – and your child’s.

Moral Development

Moral development begins between the ages of 3 and 5. First flickers of conscience, and understanding of right and wrong, begin at about age three. Children who are emotionally deprived in infancy may not develop the ability to be compassionate. Babies who don’t get enough touching and loving may actually lack the appropriate wiring in the brain to form close relationships.

Babies are born with the seeds of empathy. When one baby cries in a hospital nursery, the other babies start crying. It isn’t the noise that stimulates them, but the feeling of empathy for another’s discomfort.

Empathetic parents tend to have empathetic children. When teaching politeness, manners, and consideration, it works best to begin as if you are both in this together. “Let’s both say, “Please may I have that block? Or thank you for the doll.” You are setting a good example. It is a gentler approach than barking direct commands. It is also one that your child will be more inclined to respond to positively.

That doesn’t mean you give in to your child’s every whim or demand. She needs to hear that some things are out of bounds, unacceptable – in short, a “no.” Otherwise she will expect instant gratification at all times. Children, who don’t learn the meaning of NO, will be at the mercy of impulses and desires they don’t know how to control, says Robert Coles, child psychiatrist and author of The Moral Intelligence of Children.

Everyday Opportunities for Moral Teaching

Moral training needn’t be preachy. Games such a pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo teach a child about taking turns and expecting reciprocity. Such give and take is at the root of moral teaching. It is the way you learn to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Even by age two, children have learned there are rules that should not be violated. They may not be rules about morality, as such. They are more likely rules about games or their likes and dislikes; for example, never let the carrots mix in with the peas on the plate. But it is the beginning of an understanding of rules that will form the basis of more sophisticated moral reasoning.

Be What You Want to See

Remember children imitate the behavior they see. If you forget to say “Please” and “Thank you,” and show consideration to others, your child will notice. And, she will mimic your behavior.

Gender Differences

Gender differences grow dramatically during this stage. Boys tend to be bigger and stronger, but girls ages 3 to 5 tend to be farther along in small-muscle coordination – for example, doing jumping jacks and playing catch better.

Among boys, aggressive acts are also more common than among girls. This period is when the gender differences in aggression are most noticeable. As an aside: college age is when they are least noticeable, so just be patient.

Gender roles become more evident at this stage in the selection of toys. Parents are often surprised at how stereotypically children usually behave. Boys tend to favor trucks and blocks where they can engage in action play. They take as much pleasure in building things up as they do in tearing them down or crashing vehicles into each other. Girls at this stage tend to prefer art activities, doll play, and dancing as their active physical play. As a parent, you may want to be conscious of these stereotypical inclinations so you can bring out a broader range of possibilities for your child: a boy who is considerate and can play quietly; a girl who feels free to be physically active and strong.

The Smart Explorer stage for children ages 3 to 5 is a stage of great cognitive, emotional, and social growth. It is important that you are aware of these common developmental markers, so you can help your child develop the skills she needs during the time she may be most open to developing them, while also knowing your child and her unique capabilities as well as individual limitations.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.