I Can Do It!

Preschoolers can amaze us with their abilities.  They have a growing control over their own language, their own bodies, their own actions and increasingly their own emotions. As parents, we watch them master a new skill and marvel at their competence. Preschoolers take great delight in their ability to control themselves and their environment, and we want them to experience this as much as possible.

There are instances, however, when we clearly can not hand control over to them due to safety concerns or because they are simply too young to take on control in a certain area. So how do we know where to draw that line–how much control is too much or too little? The Kaleidoscope preschool staff at Harley Family Center discussed some of the ways we can determine how to best give our children a sense of control, without overwhelming them with the choices they need to make.

Preschoolers benefit greatly from a managed environment. A parent can provide his child with a sense of control by proactively adjusting the household to encourage reasonable choice making. For example, if a child is interested in dressing herself in the morning, parents will take much of the fight out of a morning clothing “discussion” if all the clothes in the closet are acceptable to wear for the season. Remember that wearing clothes that don’t match or offend our sense of style is not often an issue to battle over–your child will become the teenager obsessed with looking “cool” soon enough. Wearing a sun dress in the middle of January, however, may be a safety issue if you are planning on being outside for most of the day. Go through her closet every season and be sure that all clothes fit your idea of what is appropriate for the season. Another adjustment you can make proactively is to be sure the clothes are all generally easy on / easy off. The easier it is for your child to take over the act of getting dressed, the less you have to do in the morning! Allowing her to choose her own clothes is far simpler if we let go of our need to control the outfit, and we instead control the closet itself.

Another way to allow your child the sense of control she desires, while still ensuring that she satisfactorily completes the task, is to give her a first chance at completing the task but be willing to help if it gets hard.  We know that most anything our child attempts we could do in far less time and much more efficiently. Our children, however, need the chance to practice the many tasks we will one day ask them to do independently. This takes time and patience. Looking into the future, we can see that it is the practice they have today that will greatly benefit their mastery as they walk into kindergarten and the grades beyond. Your child may run into frustration during self help tasks like zipping her zipper or drinking from a cup. Acknowledge that the task is difficult to do–nobody likes to hear that something they are struggling with is easy–and let her know you can help if she needs it. Then stand back for awhile and honor her struggle, give her the time and space to work on the problem. If frustration mounts, remind her that you are happy to help, and step in when she asks for it.  Allowing her to make mistakes and work through her problems will help her to find a way to accomplish her task in time. If we constantly do for our children, we are saying we don’t think they can do it.

Your child may be struggling with toiletry tasks like brushing her teeth or brushing her hair. Very often your child’s strong desire to do things herself does not result in a task that is effectively completed. She does need to practice the tasks, however. Let your child know she is in charge of her toiletry tasks, but that you are in charge of doing an “inspection” or a “double-check” after she is finished.  Frame this in terms of families helping each other to do the best job they can, so she sees that your help is positive, not a statement of her inability. She will slowly become more efficient and competent at the many tasks we ask her to complete, and your “inspections” will become more of a confirmation that all went well. As she walks into a preschool classroom or kindergarten classroom, her years of practice at these tasks will give her the sense of control she needs when she is faced with doing them on her own.

There are instances in a young preschooler’s life when she doesn’t have the choice to comply. Be clear about these times with the statements you make. When it is time to clean up the toys in your house, when she needs to walk through a hallway at school, when she needs to hold your hand in the parking lot, when it is time to leave an event or play-date, she needs to hear the authority in your voice to understand what is expected of her. When you know there is no choice, adjust your statement to be sure you don’t ask your child’s permission. We often raise our voice inquisitively when talking to adults; we add the word “okay” at the end of a statement; we ask our adult peers if they would like to leave now, rather than state that we are leaving. These are polite ways of addressing adults.

Our children need to hear our kind and polite voice, but without the customary questioning we are used to offering adults.  If it is time to pick up toys we can say to our children, “We will pick up the toys before lunch.” We don’t have to bark our orders, but we do need to state what we expect in a kind and firm voice. Once we have said this, we need to follow through and not let a tantrum or tears or an upset child adjust our expectations. This would be offering a choice due to inappropriate behavior, and that is not something we want our children to expect will happen when they reach preschool or kindergarten.

Children will often push the boundaries we set up for them. Young children will do this around choices, as well. For example if you offer a choice A or choice B, they decide that they want choice C. When children push the boundaries, it is to see if the boundaries are strong around them. Children feel more secure when they know they can count on what their parent says. For this reason, don’t make a habit of letting them opt for choice C when you have not offered it. Remind your child of the two choices you offered and let her know that if she doesn’t choose A or B, then you will choose for her. Make this exchange simple and straightforward, and follow through with taking over the choice if she balks. She is looking for an opportunity to test how strong the limits are, and you are showing her they are very strong. As a child gains a sense of control over her world, she is opened up to how little she really does control. Understanding that her parent has control of these other things is very settling for her. It allows her to trust her parents, as well as the many adults she will meet throughout her school years.

We celebrate the many new tasks and experiences our children have mastered. We want them to continue their growth through these preschool years. Remember, however, that they are still small children. They don’t need to gain control of everything at once. The more we pace their childhood with limited control balanced with our own authority, the stronger footing they have as they walk into their school-age years.