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The Happiest 3-Year-Old’s Bookshelf: Empathy & Independence
[Image Descriptions: Feature of an inner page of The King Of Too Many Things, by Laurel Snyder & Aurore Damant.]
In this post, you’ll find engaging books chosen by two of extremely picky three-year-olds
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Reading books with my 3-year-old isn’t straight-forward, and it’s often frustrating. But it’s the best way I’ve found to connect with my kiddo to help them him through his obstacles. I’ve found it’s also a great way to foster a sense of empathy for others.
Since my kids read thousand of books each year, readers often ask which books we found the most helpful, engaging, and life-changing for early preschoolers. Here’s what we look for in a book for threes, along with the top ten books Q and R2 asked to read over and over again at this age.
Books that validate big feelings & foster empathy and independence
When Q, my first was three years old, I was afraid…
- He would never grow out of that stage where he flips out every time I peel his banana wrong.
- His obstinate boundary-testing and rascally defiance would grow into something more insidious.
- He would never, ever, ever learn to go potty in the middle of the night without waking us up first.
Two years later, with some parenting experience under my belt, I worried about different things with R2, my second son.
- Will he pick up bad habits, a predilection for gun violence, and misogynistic bias from classmates?
- Will he hit or bite another kid during one of his dramatic tantrums?
- Am I giving him enough attention? Does he feel like he always got his brother’s hand-me-down toys, clothing, and parental love?
Luckily – all of these issues were easily discussed, addressed, and resolved at story time with helpful books.
We plow through hundreds of books each year, but I’ve distilled the best books down to the ones that opened a dialogue between us and allowed my boys to feel safe and comfortable discussing their concerns and fears as they navigated the wild journey from toddlerhood to preschool.
If you’re looking for a sure-fire hit, you can also find Q and R2’s top 10 favorite books – the ones we returned to over, and over (and over) at the bottom of the page.
I Can Do It Myself – 3-year-old favorites for mastering independence
Three-year-olds have a weird sense of reality and some messed-up priorities. Since most of what they say sounds like a fever dream, it’s hard to know what gaps in reality they need help with, and what nonsense assumptions they’re working from. I’m updating this collection now in spring of 2018. My second son is just nearing the end of his third year, and it’s fun to review the big cognitive leaps he’s made.
In the first months after their third birthdays, the books we found most helpful were validating stories about navigating daily routines, fostering independent self-care, and hyper-simple (rather boring) books with no plot, read at a snail’s pace. It was basically impossible to read a book from cover to cover, so I just let them flip back and forth to random pages and let the conversation go where it may. Sometimes we’d read a single page, sometimes we’d ponder over a single board book for an hour.
The following books validated their feelings of frustration and ineptitude when control and mastery is just out of reach, and they want so badly to move through the world like a big kid. Seeing they aren’t alone makes it easier for them to self-regulate and take a step forward.
Preschool To The Rescue, All By Myself, Clean It!, Ladybug Girl And The Big Snow
For more books that get capture the excitement and magic of a winter adventures, check out:
Cozy Stories Celebrating Snow Days – Hygge For Preschoolers
3-year-old favorites for validating & regulating big feelings
At the half-year mark, both my boys’ brains went through The Great Re-Wiring. There were lots and lots of “NO!s,” outrageous demands, dramatic tantrums, and a fair amount of sulking protests.
Hell hath no fury like the ire of a threenager whose banana hasn’t been peeled by exactly the right person in exactly the right way.
Stories that validate these big feelings help them get through it. Sometimes, all they want is to be taken seriously. This pain over a broken banana is some bone-deep trauma, you guys.
Betty Goes Bananas, On Monday When It Rained, The Rabbit Listened
For more books helping kids manage big feelings and regulate emotions, check out:
Whining, Tantrums & Angry Outbursts: Picture Books to Help Kids Embrace Big Feelings and Chill
3-year-old favorites for big drama & exciting adventure
After the storm of The Great Re-Wiring, story time gets really fun.
Reading a single book still takes forever – I have to leave plenty of white space for kids to ruminate out loud, discuss minute details that have nothing to do with the story, and allow them to set the pace.
BUT – after the half-year mark, they could empathize with the characters in each story. Suddenly the stories we’re into are way more fun to read (and less mind-numbing to read for the 40th time.)
Little Robot, Library Lion, Hello Goodbye Dog, The Day Louis Got Eaten, Clink, Little Tree, Toy Boat, Louise Loves Art, The Runaway Pumpkin, The Lion And The Little Red Bird, Shelter, Starring Carmen
3-year-old favorites to laugh together with
Another benefit after The Great Re-Wiring – a 3.5 year old has a wonderful sense of humor. Although some of thier humor is still a little exhausting (Yes, I see it. Shoes don’t go on ceilings. Ha. Ha. Ugh.) – we’re starting to get into ‘silly’ books that make us both laugh, and it makes us feel closer.
Super Ladybug To The Rescue, The Barnyard Rescue Series, It’s Only Stanley, Wacky Wednesday, I’d Really Like To Eat A Child, The Book With No Pictures, Tough Chicks, The King Of Too Many Things, The Story Of Little Babaji
3-year-old favorites to understand acceptance & anti-bigotry
As they’re just getting started with preschool, this is when they’re starting to pick up toxic nonsense, like rigid gender roles and the idealization of violence (although it picks up in force next year). This is also when they start searching identity – for where they fit in, who looks like them, who acts like them – who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them.’
Now is when we have to take some gentle but vital steps – we need to start those explicit discussions on race, gender, disability, and visual differences. As we know, staying silent is dangerous and irresponsible. In a vacuum, our kids will absorb the stereotypes and bias they pick up from classmates, teachers, and cartoons.
It’s not hard, and it’s not as scary as it sounds. You’ve already been reading books with a good mix of diverse characters, right? So now, we’re going to continue to normalize human diversity, and introduce topics like death, gender constructs, disability, body positivity, and racial discrimination. All these are perfect introductory books.
- Goodbye Mousie: A gentle, touching, and validating introduction to death (of a pet)
- Daniel’s New Friend: An inclusive story explaining how to treat friends with visible disabilities (hint: inclusively and the same way you’d treat your other friends.)
- Look Out For Rosie: A primer on 5 human senses, with a nice slow pace and just enough drama (a dropped ice cream cone) to give us a chance to discuss how we’d feel in a similar situation
- Morris Micklewhite and The Tangerine Dress: The antidote to the ‘boys can’t wear dresses’ nonsense that pops up at this age.
- I Am Jackie Robinson: Written for older kids, the text can be simplified on the fly (or you can just use the photos) to introduce the concept of racial discrimination, segregation, and courage.
- Fix It!: The Helping Hands Series features non-binary characters of various races and abilities working alongside parents to build toy boxes, cook a pizza, plant a garden, clean the house, basic domestic stuff like that.
- The Belly Book: A fun introduction to body-acceptance and belly-love.
For more books breaking gender, race, and ability stereotypes, check out:
Empowering Girls Of Color – The Uhura Test For Children’s Books
3-year-old favorites for understanding compassion
At 3.5, kids can discuss what they would do if they were the character in a story, which makes this the perfect chance to build empathy and social-emotional skills.
This is perfect timing, since right around this age, both kids started labeling people in a false dichotomy of heroes and villains. He is good and she is bad. This teacher is nice, and that teacher is mean. This is a pivotal time to start teaching flexible thinking, that there are no good guys and bad guys, just people change over time, and who make good or bad decisions given the resources they have available to them.
Red: A Crayon’s Story, The Night Eater, Mostly Monsterly
For more books on self-acceptance and body-positivity, check out:
Stories of Self-Acceptance Reassuring Kids Who Don’t Fit In
& Body-Positive books Championing Fat Liberation
3-year-old favorites for quiet independent ‘reading’
And of course, sometimes you just want to take a shower in peace.
These are the books we kept in the car, next to the potty, and the ones I handed to them when they insisted on staying up past bedtime reading alone. These aren’t great books to take out from the library, as they’ll probably be ripped to shreds before they get to you, but they do make amazing gifts.
Beautiful Oops!, The Cook In A Book series, It’s Useful To Have A Duck, If You’re A Robot And You Know It, The Human Body, The First Discovery series & Chomp
Q’s Top 10 Picks At Age 3
R2’s Top 10 Picks At Age 3
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & I WANT A BANANA. NO, NOT THAT BANANA. THE OTHER BANANA.
Three feels like a very long year! You’ll get through it.
I don’t see any books listed under the “big feelings & foster empathy and independence” section. Can you please provide a list?
“Validating Big feelings & fostering empathy and independence” is the title of…the whole thing. All the books above. I’ve provided them.
Mastering independence, validating and regulating feelings, validating things that 3yos consider a big deal, laughing together, dismantling bigotry, understanding compassion, and reading independently …do that…and I…I am so confused.