Parental Aspirations: On Raising Capable Preschoolers

Posted by Tara Sarathy on 11/30/17 4:12 PM

“Today will be different. Today, I will be present. Today, anyone I speak to I will look them in the eye and listen deeply...Today, there will be an ease about me...Today I will radiate calm, kindness and self-control will abound. Today I will buy local. Today I will be my best self. Today I will be the person I am capable of being.”—Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

There’s a gap between the parent I aspire to be and the messy, sometimes under-slept or stressed reality of me. I am more calm and forgiving with the people I interact with out in the world than I am sometimes with my family. No one loses it when a guest spills red wine on their carpet, but few of us are as not-to-worry-I’ve-Scotchguarded-that zen when our children (or partners) spill tomato sauce or get putty stuck to the rug. That my children are also on much better behavior at school away from me, I am also certain. We are all trying to be our best selves out in the world. But home life is stickier. We let down our guard with those we love; we are tired; our family relations have an emotional intensity and dimension no other relationships have.

As a parent of two young boys, who are almost four and six and alternate between wanting to be “big kids!” and remaining my little ones, there’s a gap between how I aspire to guide and support my children in learning to do things for themselves and what I in fact do on a day-to-day basis.

Of course, I want my children to feel the sense of competence and positive self-image that comes with developing mastery over daily tasks, but sometimes it’s just easier for me to just strap on those sneakers myself so we can get out the door when people are dawdling, or I’m in a rush. Sometimes, I am a-okay with lending a helping hand for a task I know my children are fully capable of doing on their own. Sometimes, I catastrophize that my little boys will NEVER learn how to tie shoe laces or prefer pants that pull up to zip so they can make a quick loo run because I have not prioritized helping them master these basic tasks. They will be wearing Velcro sneakers as adults! Who will want to hire, or marry, men in little boy sneakers?

So, in the spirit of getting some wisdom, perspective, and tactical advice on how replicate some of the I-am-a-cooperative-capable-child-who-wants-to-help-others spirit that my children possess at school, I turned to several of Lowell’s Pre-Primary teachers—Ana Ardon, Lisa Powell, and Iris Vargas—as well as Pre-Primary School Director Stefania Rubino. What follows is an attempt to outline some of their methods for fostering autonomy and a sense of success in a fun-loving manner with an appreciation that the parent and child relationship has an emotional intensity of love and big feelings, stickiness and relational battles, the I-want-to-establish-my-independence-and-be-separate-from-you-now-hold-me, that is unique.

Take a step back and observe your child. Then, develop realistic expectations.

Teachers observe children. They get to know children and their individual capabilities and meet children where they are developmentally. Preschoolers have their own temperaments, learning styles, and facility in making transitions. Add on, sometimes your child is tired, feeling under the weather, or preoccupied with something else–whether that be a worm on a wet sidewalk or a worry. Two- and three-year-olds are fairly ego-centric in their thinking. Four- and five-year-olds are becoming more interested in helping others and can process directions more quickly than they did a year or two ago, but are still growing.

As parents, we sometimes assume as that as our children become more verbal and seem more precocious, they can do more or follow more complex directions than they are actually able to hear, process, and execute. Or we rush through imprecise directions because we are busy and need to keep the day moving and then feel frustrated when our children either don’t respond or do so inconsistently. Young children need concrete guidance, reinforcement, and support in learning how to grasp, retain, and perform instructions.

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Take some time to observe, take stock, and think about what your child best responds to (or not). Consider asking your child’s preschool teachers for their observations of your individual child, and what works best in terms of following directions and meeting expectations like putting their things in their cubby or cleaning up toys at the end of choice time.

Children need to feel successful.

Stefania Rubino reminded me what seems the most essential part of this nut. Children need to feel successful at tasks to feel excited and motivated to develop some autonomy at self-care tasks and do some simple things to help others, like put away the apples after grocery shopping.

Also, no single strategy best supports a child learning new tasks all the time. Some days and moments your child may feel ready to take on a more complex task, others she may not because she is hungry or distressed, or it’s the end of the day, and she’s been holding it together all day. Knowing the right amount of challenge to offer your individual child and how much assistance to provide her requires tuning into your child and responding to where your child is in the moment. In pediatric occupational therapy, this is referred to as the “just right challenge.” [1] A ‘just right challenge’ is an activity that is perfect for the child because it includes just the right amount of challenge—that is, it’s hard enough to be interesting but easy enough that the child can be successful.” [2]

Offer simple strategies.

Before you do something for your child yourself, offer simple strategies such as try using both hands when opening your sock, open your shoe, and is your sneaker’s tongue out?

If your child first needs help, model the task for your child (it may require fine and gross motor strength they are working on and remembering several steps in the right order). Say out loud what steps need to be done and in what order.

Break down a task into manageable steps.

Most tasks involve several steps that may need to happen in a sequential order to work. You may first help your child catch the zipper and hold the jacket taut and then have him pull up the zipper, which might make him feel proud and incidentally helps build strong hands needed for developing proper pencil grasp.

For an older preschooler you might use more complex multi-step directions such as Please put on your coat, pick up your backpack, and meet me by the back door.

Test if your child has heard and understood a direction by asking him to recite the steps back to you in order.

Or, ask What comes next? These techniques use the skill of speaking to reinforce the process of listening and doing. If it’s a task they feel excited to do, my children love to recite back, Step 1, we do X, check! Step 2, we do y! Sometimes they find it annoying. We heard you! Like any technique, you want to be judicious in how much you use it to avoid making every interaction exhausting.

Aim to use a calm, positive tone.

I know, I know. It’s hard to be Mary Poppins all the time, but no one, including you, feels respected and wants to cooperate with an annoyed or terse grown-up. Model the voice you hope to hear.

Create and keep family routines.

Routines, routines, routines! On weekends with the lack of the mostly predictable, weekday school schedule, my children regularly ask, What are we going to do today? What’s next? Routines are not a creativity killer. Routines help young children feel secure in relationships and be ready to learn because they know what to expect. Routines also reduce power-struggles and help children learn self-control.

This includes routines around daily rituals like getting ready in the morning, mealtimes, nap/ bedtime, and clean-up activities.

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Use visual and auditory cues to help children stick to routines and schedules.

Visual and auditory cues for a particular routine such as singing a clean-up song or turning off the lights, provide predictable cues for what comes next for your child.

Preschool teachers also use visual schedules with words and pictures or photos to help children learn what activities will occur and in what sequence on a given day. You need not make yourself bananas making visual schedules for all the routines and tasks that are part of your child’s life, but consider using them strategically for routines that are tricky for your children. Visual calendars need not be Pinterest worthy and should not be so cluttered with information as to overwhelm your child.

Ask your children’s teacher for suggestions and snap a photo of what they use for a sample. It’s also fine to outsource creating a visual schedule to something like Etsy or Amazon if what you are buying is organized and has content you can modify to suit your family’s needs. The book, Is It a Big Problem or a Little Problem?: When to Worry, When Not to Worry, and What to Do, is a good resource for learning more about visual supports.

The more you help your children learn what’s expected of them and what comes next on their own with minimal directions from you (in an annoyed, I’ve-said-this–so-many-times way), the clearer an expectation will be and the less likely it is to become a source of confusion, stress, or battle between you and your young child.

Give a five-minute warning about what will happen next.

No one likes to be rushed or have an abrupt ending to a fun activity, whether that’s leaving a playground or putting magna-tiles away before washing hands and coming to the table for dinner—least of all, young children. Prepare your child by letting them know that in five minutes (or some reasonable time), what transition will be happening.

Timers, whether a simple sand timer, a timer on your cell phone (which has the benefit of being portable), or a time timer for home use can provide a sound and visual cue of when one activity is up and it’s time to move onto the next without the parent being the one to end the fun. That said, you still may need to calmly point out the timer went off and remind your child one activity is ending, what is happening next, and what they may have to look forward to.

Understand your preschooler’s priorities are not your own.

It’s likely not terribly important to your preschooler that he arrive to school right on time, and you to work or any morning commitments. When my husband or I tell our children, We are going to be late!, it is of little motivation to our children. At best, it’s an annoyance, at worst, it makes a process needlessly stressful to them. So, while it’s fine for young children to know that everyone has places they need to be, try to keep your language short, sweet, and neutral, and know other things may be more compelling to your preschooler than staying on schedule. It’s time to get in the car is a direction that says to your child what is expected. (For more tips, check out “How to Get the Kids to School on Time.”)

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Organize your home.

Your child’s classroom has some order to it—blocks go in the block area, art supplies are in a particular space, and hooks in cubbies are within the reach of your child. By organizing your child’s room or play space, you are helping your child make sense of their environment and remember where their belongings and toys go. My house will never have the beauty, intention, or order of my children’s classrooms (past and present), but I am constantly working towards making things accessible to them and kept in a consistent spot.

Free yourself of some extra toys!

On a related note, if you want to spend less time asking your children to clean up their toys, consider having less altogether and not having everything out at one time. Put toys in bins and containers that are easy for your child to use, consider labeling bins with a simple picture and a word description, and give away/pay forward what you really don’t need. [3]

Do the chores you are asking your children to do.

Do the adult version of chores you are asking of your child and make it easy for your children to act on what you ask. I have been reminding, well nagging, everyone in my household on an almost daily basis that dirty clothes go in hampers! For me, this became about people not respecting all the laundry that I collect, do, and put away. Until I noticed our hampers have all gone missing. How hampers go MIA I cannot say. What I can say is that three light-weight hampers with handles are coming in the mail shortly, and I will be writing names on each one with a sharpie the moment they arrive. Then, I’ll deposit one in each bedroom, so everyone knows where his dirty laundry is meant to go and will be able to help carry his hamper to the washing machine.

Avoid the temptation to compare your children to friends or siblings.

Need I say more? We probably all know we shouldn’t do this on an intellectual level but find ourselves doing so from time to time. If you feel like everyone has it easier than you, you probably aren’t seeing everything. Maybe some of the more challenging aspects of your child’s personality are also a gift (even if they make day-to-day home life more exhausting). That said, if you have any concerns about your child’s development, consult your child’s teachers and pediatrician.

Share control when you can.

Some safety and health rules are non-negotiable. Young children need to sit in car seats in cars, and people must go to sleep at night. But giving simple forced choices like, Would you like to brush your teeth first or go potty? and Would you like five more minutes of play before bath? give your preschooler some control. As your child gets older, you might have a conversation about some family rules and expectations that are partly open to discussion, so your child feels he has some say and investment in family expectations.

Notice and comment on your child’s efforts and successes.

On occasion, provide encouragement and note your appreciation in specific, concrete, matter-of-fact terms. No need to go overboard with praise. Consider pointing out a natural, positive consequence of their getting a job done well or quickly. Since you cleaned up your toys quickly, we have time for an extra book! A five-year-old-and-older child might enjoy having a particular family job. For instance, my five-year-old loves to prepare fruit kabobs for the family and guests.

Have realistic expectations for yourself. Today will be a little bit different.

So in the spirit of Eleanor of Today Will Be Different, today, I will prepare snacks and lunch for the next day the night before. Today, I’ll budget an extra 15 minutes into my morning routine, so I am not rushing my children. Today, I will not get annoyed when messes are made and getting people to clean their own messes up takes a lot of work, maybe more than me just cleaning up the mess myself. Today, I will only talk to my family members from the same room rather than yell up the stairs just as I ask my children to do.

Well, maybe I’ll only successfully manage one or two of the above, but today, I will aim for some small changes and successes. Soon, three hampers will arrive. One for everyone but the cats. I will use mine and write names of each boy on the others and show them where they will be kept. Today will be a little bit different.


[1] See “Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder,” Lucy Jane Miller.
[2] See “Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder,” Lucy Jane Miller, p. 86.
[3] This one was of my favorite take-aways from a PEP class, “Setting Limits and Learning to say ‘No’” with Paige Trevor.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Parenting

Tara Sarathy

Written by Tara Sarathy

Tara is a Lowell parent and non-practicing lawyer who has worked in law school administration and in public service. She volunteers with the Parental Readiness and Empowerment Program of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and is a contributor to MomsRising's blog.