When parents hear the words Kindergarten Readiness, their minds immediately jump to a child's ability to write their name, count to ten, cut with scissors, and sound out words. But what most parents aren't informed about in regards to Kindergarten Readiness is that the ability to perform these academic tasks requires a previously learned skill set. We take for granted that underlying the ability to read, write, count, and cut paper is a child's ability to concentrate on new tasks and engage appropriately with the people in their classroom environments, namely their teachers and classmates.
The ability to focus and concentrate is a skill that requires mastery. It is, in fact, the developmental task of preschool aged children. This ability to focus and concentrate depends directly upon a child's ability to regulate his or her emotions. Self-regulation, as it is called, is defined as the ability to control reactions to strong emotions, such as anger, sadness and even joy, and to recognize and interpret the emotional states of oneself and others.
If self-regulation leads to the growth of attention and concentration, which then fosters the ability to learn about all of life's wonders, how can parents best support their preschool children's growth? Where should parents focus their efforts to help prepare their children for kindergarten?
As an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, I have had the pleasure of watching children, barely three years old when they enter preschool, blossom into self-assured, expressive, cognizant Kindergartners. I have also experienced the heartache of seeing children who are not thriving when they set off for Kindergarten. Children who are not in command of their bodies; whose emotions are marked by negativity, frustration, anxiety, and dissatisfaction; children who do not have positive relationships with their classmates or the adults in their lives.
In my work, I have witnessed the impact of parenting practices on children and noticed that they tend to fall into two divergent sides of a continuum. I call this the great chasm of childrearing. On one side are the parents who are very focused on obedience in their children, and hence have rigid expectations about their behavior. When there is misbehavior, there is a large focus on punishment. Underlying this kind of parenting is a fear about what will happen if absolute control over the child is removed. Most often, those who parent this way were raised in exactly the same manner.
On the other side of the childrearing chasm are parents who have little or no expectations of their child's behavior. These parents are overly attuned to their children's needs and desires, wishing only to "make them happy." Misbehavior is rarely punished for fear of damaging the child's emerging sense of self. Underlying this kind of parenting is a fear about what will happen if perfect contingency (e.g., a world without hurt or frustration) is removed from the child, so they allow the child to set the tone, the parameters, and the rules of the relationship. These parents want to be different from the more rigid and demanding parents they were raised by, but have difficulty finding a healthy middle ground.
The interesting thing about both of these styles of parenting is that they often create similar kinds of emotional dilemmas in children, leading to behaviors that are taxing and frustrating for both parents and teachers. For example, children of parents on both sides of the great chasm of childrearing tend to be highly anxious. The anxiety from the former is created by a fear of retribution and judgement from adults, as the parameteres are so harsh that these children do not learn to trust their own abilities. Children raised with the opposite side of the great chasm of childrearing are burdened with anxiety about not having enough parameters or by having to create them on their own. Both of these types of children test adults to see how far they can push the limits. Neither of them is given the opportunity to internalize appropriate boundaries. These children are left merely reactive to the world around them, as they lack the internal competencies that guide them.
Parents who have well adjusted children, or children who are most likely to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, fall in the middle of these two styles. These middle ground parents have clear expectations of their children's behaviors, and repeat these expectations frequently, knowing that children need a lot of reminders. They try to put themselves in their children's shoes and see things from their perspective, without being lax about rules and expectations. They are attuned to their children's needs without being unrealistically focused on them.
Middle ground parents save harsh rebukes or punishment only for the most severe situations, as they know that too much focus on obediance and punishment only creates fear in children and does not give them the space to develop skills to regulate their own behavior. Middle ground parents know that children can (and should) tolerate a certain amount of frustration, as they will need a healthy tolerance of frustration throughout their lives. These parents use language that is more elaborate than just commands (ex. "Sit down!" or "Let's Go!") but not so elaborate as to include talk about adult worries or problems. Middle ground parents know that language is not only how children learn to communicate but it is how they learn problem solving skills. These parents allow children to ask questions and speak to the frequently about what is going on in the world around them.
If you are curious about your own parenting style, the first step is to ask yourself the following questions: What do I fear as a parent? Am I being too lax or too severe on my child out of my own fears? In what ways is my parenting style similar to the one my parents used? How can I avoid being (fill in the blank. ex. hurtful, mean, shaming) while still holding my child to expectations and rules that are important to me?
If you are having difficulty becoming a middle ground parent, seek out help. Ask your child's teacher for suggestions. Make an appointment to speak with the mental health consultant at your child's school. Find out who the professionals are that work in your community, either privately or in the public sector, and how they may be of help to you. Dialoguing about and reflecting upon the challenges of raising children will help you better arrive at the effective middle ground in the great chasm of childrearing.
In addition to having an awareness of parenting styles, we all need to be mindful that our culture places a large emphasis on cognitive development. Mathematics, language and deductive reasoning are emphasized, sometimes to the exclusion of emotional wholeness and relationships. The irony is that children cannot thrive academically without the emotional health that comes from secure, nurturing relationships. These relationships foster the true Kindergarten Readiness skills: patience, flexibility, emotional-regulation, self control, sharing, listening, collaboration and respect. 'Reading', Writin' and 'Rithmetic will fall into place naturally in the context of healthy relationships and reflection.
- Dr. Rebecca L. Soffer
- Rebecca L. Soffer, PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist specialized in working with children three to five. She is a graduate of the Wright Institute and recently completed the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Post Graduate Certification. Dr. Soffer has worked with preschool aged children in various capacities: as Assistant Director of a large day care, as an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant, and as a Private Practitioner. She additionally has a great passion for and knowledge of different philosophies of early childhood education, such as Montessori and Reggio-Emilia inspired approaches. Dr. Soffer is an adjunct psychology professor at Berkeley City College and enjoys reading, writing and spending her free time with her own family and child.