A parent recently asked my advice about choosing a preschool for her son. I responded with my belief that the purpose of preschool is socialization, and that a developmental ‘learn through play’ program is best. She agreed in theory, but admitted she worries about kindergarten readiness. Will a school that does not teach academics provide enough preparation for kindergarten?
This made me think — what do children really need to succeed in kindergarten? Yes, there are some simple skills that can give a child a leg-up. But parents are inclined to make the mistake of sacrificing the long view of a child’s needs for the peace of mind they get when the child has mastered letters, numbers and scissors.
A successful school experience (or, for that matter, a successful life) is not the result of skills taught in preschool. It is sown from the seeds of a parent’s trust. When an infant, toddler or preschooler is ‘taught’ something he may not be ready to learn, he does not feel that trust.
My husband and I are planning an East Coast college tour for our eldest daughter, a high school junior. This is the girl whose babyhood brought me to my knees, to Parent/Infant Guidance Classes that follow the RIE philosophy, and finally to my life-changing mentorship with Magda Gerber. This child was my “guinea pig” for the approach to child-rearing that I not only parent with, but also teach, write about, live and breathe.
In spite of my daughter’s accepting, laid-back parents, she is shooting for the moon in her college search. She is self-confident, ambitious and deeply in tune with herself. The conviction she has in her choices, her effortless poise, and her no-nonsense maturity have a way of erasing any doubt in her capabilities. While I am often riddled with self-doubt, I have never doubted her.
What children need to succeed is our undying trust in them. Feeling trusted by parents, who are godlike beings to an infant and toddler (alas, much more mortal in the eyes of a teenager!), gives a child trust in his instincts and belief in himself.
Trusting a child means having faith in his capabilities from the very beginning, and wholeheartedly accepting our child for all he is…and isn’t. And that means allowing our baby to show us what he is learning, rather than the other way around. He doesn’t have to perform to grab our attention or approval. What he chooses to do while he plays is enough. (see this video on self-directed play.)
When we teach or stimulate our baby, he receives the message that his interests, the things he chooses to work on, are unimportant. His parents want him to do something else. He loses self-trust. Infant expert Magda Gerber went so far as to say, “How do adults dare to believe they know what an infant is ready to learn at any particular moment?”
Implicit trust means letting go of our lifelong desire – projected onto our child — to be a tennis ace, a violin virtuoso, or a valedictorian. It means allowing our child to struggle and flounder, to be (gasp!) average.
It means allowing our child to be a ‘quitter’ when he loses interest in the soccer team, in completing a puzzle, or in learning to tie his shoes. It is valid to quit something when one feels finished with it, and a trusted child knows when he is done, or when he needs a break.
Trusting in a child’s capabilities also means not encouraging him to quit by needlessly helping him. If a child is working on something, we wait and respect his process. For instance, we do not take him down from the play structure he climbed on his own, but instead give him the opportunity for a successful descent by spotting him, calmly supporting him, allowing him to struggle. Children can be easily tricked into believing they are incapable by a caregiver’s well-intentioned help. Parents can solve a child’s problems in a jiffy, but doing so robs the child of a profitable learning experience.
Children build true self-confidence — not by being showered with praise, but when they have opportunities to solve their own problems and overcome the frustration that often precedes eventual success.
A secure and trusted child is any teacher’s dream. He has the self-confidence to raise his hand and say, “I don’t understand.” He doesn’t crumble when he makes mistakes. He is persistent in his struggle to grasp something challenging. He is his own person – an enthusiastic learner with a unique point of view that he is eager to share. Because he is secure, and likes who he is, he is kind to others. He is never afraid to be himself, a ‘self’ that has been honored and encouraged since he was born. And eventually, he’ll learn to use scissors like the best of them.
I share more about the power of trust in my book: