Why Won’t My Kid Stop Pretending to Be a Lion?
Extended imaginary play is normal for preschoolers. Here are some tips for corralling your little animals.
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A lot of parenting questions boil down to: Is this a thing, or is something wrong? We’re doing an occasional series explaining why certain things seem to happen to your kid (or to your body or to your relationships) as your child grows. This week, we’re answering a reader’s question about why her child won’t stop acting like a lion. Read our first column, about preschoolers’ questions about death, here . If you have a question for a future “Is this a thing?” newsletter, email us .
Q: My 4-year-old runs around the house on all fours all. of. the. time. She thinks she’s a lion, and if you are talking about something else, doing something else or asking HER to do something else, forget it. She’s a lion and will not answer any questions asked in English. She must roar her every reply. This can be particularly exhausting when it comes to getting her to eat her breakfast (a zebra), or getting her shoes (paws) on, or getting her to school (the savanna) without an extensive round of make-believe before I’ve even had my coffee. Is this a thing?
— Kelly Walsh, East Bay, Calif.
A: I chose this question because I’m going through a version of it myself. Every time I try to tell my almost 3-year-old something she doesn’t want to hear, she meows at me. It’s adorable and aggravating and, honestly, I’m kind of impressed at the exquisite aggression of it. I wish I could meow at people in meetings sometimes instead of responding pleasantly to unreasonable requests.
But let’s back up. There are two separate questions lurking in this letter: Is it normal for kids to engage in extended pretend play? And how do you snap them out of it when you need them to get out the door in the morning? To answer these questions, I interviewed two psychologists, one of whom has done research on imaginary play. Here’s what they said.
Why do preschoolers love pretending to be animals?
It’s typical behavior for the under-5 set to pretend to be animals (or to role-play adult professions or fantasy characters), said Dr. Tracy Gleason, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College who has studied preschoolers’ imaginary play. “They’re doing a lot of exploring of what it’s like to be someone else, to feel something else, to interact in different ways with other people” at that age, she said.
The cognitive developmental task children are working on through this exploration is called “theory of mind,” said Dr. Gleason. It’s the idea that “other people have thoughts, and those thoughts can be different from your thoughts,” she explained.
Children may begin grasping the “theory of mind" concept at around 18 months , but it takes years to fully understand that, as the psychologist Andrew N. Meltzoff put it, other humans are “more than dynamic bags of skin that can be seen, heard and weighed.” By pretending to be other people and beings, and sometimes creating imaginary friends, children may be working on a deeper understanding that other people have thoughts, feelings and beliefs they don’t know about and can’t see on the surface.
How do you put boundaries on the animal play?
If you can figure out your child’s intentions, said Dr. Yamalis Diaz, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, you can figure out how to address their behavior. In general, there are four common reasons your child might role play as an animal at this age: to avoid something (meowing instead of responding to a question), to get attention (negative attention counts!), to get something they want (asking for milk with a roar) or to communicate something (this is particularly important for kids who don’t yet have strong language skills).
Dr. Diaz wanted to make clear, if a kid is being a lion at appropriate times, “we don’t want to squish their imaginations.” Dr. Gleason concurred and added that kids this age often feel powerless, so it’s helpful to be empathetic to their lack of control over their lives and to give them choices when it is reasonable.
Those caveats noted, here is advice for how to put healthy boundaries on play that is inconvenient or that is being used as a sneaky delaying tactic.
Set a timer. If you don’t have time nor patience for an extended romp on the savanna, let your child know in advance that their play will be limited, and then set a timer (on your phone or elsewhere) for 2 minutes. When the alarm goes off, your child will know lion time is over.
Use your words. If the play is coming out at the wrong times (when you’re trying to get your kid dressed, or at your local house of worship, for example), set guidelines for when the play is appropriate using child-friendly language, Dr. Diaz suggested. “Leon the Lion can come out to play after you get dressed,” or during a break at church, or whatever the situation may be.
You can also choose to interpret the meows or roars in ways that your preschooler is not excited about, said Dr. Gleason. If your kid keeps meowing at dinner, you can say, “Oh, I guess that meow means you’d like to eat all of your broccoli now.” That should get them using human words pretty quick.
Take your attention away. If the meowing is being used to get extra (yet unnecessary) attention, ignore their behavior, said Dr. Diaz, and give attention only to the right behavior. If you ask your child a question and she only meows or roars despite having the language skills to express herself, you can say, “I will keep talking to you as soon as your big girl voice comes back,” and walk away until she’s prepared to talk to you in human words. If the child is the one requesting something, the request should not be granted until she asks as a person, not as a lion.
Offer support. If your child is in fact struggling to communicate, give him a language assist. If he’s asking for a crayon by pointing to the object and using a grunt or a roar, for example, point to the crayon and say, “You want the crayon? O.K., I will give you this crayon.” If he’s meowing when he gets upset, try to get him to use those emotion words, too. “You seem sad. Are you sad? Can we take a deep breath and talk about what’s wrong?”
P.S. Forward this email to a friend with a meowing preschooler . Follow us on Instagram @NYTParenting . Join us on Facebook . Find us on Twitter for the latest updates. Read last week’s newsletter about how working parents and stay-at-home parents are not at war .
Want More on Preschoolers?
How do you cope when your child is the preschool biter ? Carla Bruce-Eddings wrote a wonderful essay about it. (Though it probably helped her kid stop biting, Yo Gabba Gabba’s “ Don’t Bite Your Friends ” video haunted her dreams.)
If you enjoy the “ Dragons Love Tacos ” book series, you might also love the new book from the brains behind it: “ High Five .” My kid loves the interactive elements of the story because she actually gets to give the characters a high five while we’re reading.
For the science behind your beautiful, brilliant and maddening preschoolers, check out our developmental milestones on 3 -, 4 - and 5-year-olds .
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
Teaching my kids to call for my dog when they drop food on the floor. They shout, “Clean up on aisle Dooz!” and I don’t have to vacuum a crumb.
— Jeri Green, New York, N.Y.
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