Skills for Life

by Moshe Shtuhl, Ph.D.

I am sure that many of you heard about the controversy around the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. In a nutshell, Chua advocates for placing high demands on children in regard to their achievements and enforcing mastery with a resolute determination, at the expense of fun or relaxing activities. The emotionally charged response of some parents to the book centered on the question of how much children should be “pushed” into learning and high achievement. Many felt that high pressure might cause anxiety and might harm children’s quality of life. Furthermore, the argument went, as we all tend to avoid activities that are associated with anxiety, such an approach might eventually diminish children’s intrinsic drive to learn and explore.

Absent from the public conversation was a discussion of the many ways in which children learn through everyday life experiences with, support and guidance from parents and other adults. The one exception was an Op-Ed piece by David Brooks of the New York Times. He jokingly called the author a wimp for not exposing her children to the challenges of real life experiences such as sleepovers, which are truly delicate and complex situations, socially and emotionally.

A quick question to the reader: what do children learn during the preschool years?

“Letters, writing, numbers and colors,” is the answer that often comes to mind. While these are important, a plethora of child development research points to the many ways experientiallearning that is mediated and supported by parents can make a difference in children’s development and well being.

Clearly, not all learning takes place in the classroom. Life experiences provide tremendous opportunities to learn a whole range of skills: thinking, language, social smartness, emotional intelligence and more. When parents are aware of these opportunities then they can enable, reinforce and support this very important learning. The possibility of making a significant difference in children’s lives is available throughout childhood and beyond, but the impact is especially transformative during early childhood.

We at Family Compass are busy developing a Parent University to share with parents this accumulating knowledge and provide hands-on training to address the developmental and emotional needs of children. We plan to offer the first classes of the Parent University in October of this year. On May 3rd we will take the first step when we host parents whose children attend one of the 25 “Alliance” preschools for a two-hour seminar (see announcement above). The seminar will discuss four important domains in which parental support can make a difference: (1) Helping preschoolers cope with anxiety, (2) Playing with your children to help them become savvier and smarter, (3) Ways to support preschoolers’ language abilities, and (4) Supporting children’s emerging abilities to manage themselves and their feelings.

As a preview, here are a few “nuggets” of information from each of the talks:

Coping with Anxiety (Alison Gardner, Psy.D.):

Anxiety is normal and functional as, for example, it provokes the “fight or flight” response when needed. Excessive anxiety or over reaction to anxiety can be debilitating. Life can be overwhelming and stressful, but helping children develop skills to cope with anxiety and reduce stress early on can give them a head start for life.

Helping children when they are anxious about something is challenging, and often one parent feels that the child needs protection so that he/she does not get too anxious while the other parent emphasizes that the child needs to “get over it.” The good news is that here both parents are right. Children do need protection from things that provoke their anxiety even if objectively you are clear that the monster under the bed is not going to harm anybody. But protection alone is not enough. As part of the recipe to help children they need the experience of overcoming anxiety. The parent’s challenge is to provide enough support so that the child does not feel overwhelmed, while also providing experiences of overcoming the fear, either real or imagined. Dr. Gardner will talk about the tools in the parent tool box to do just that.

Play (Joshua Metz, LCSW):

When a preschooler engages in self-motivated, reinforcing, and challenging play, either alone or with friends, that child is not just wiling the day away and “taking a break” from the real work at hand. On the contrary, a child’s play is helping to support critical social, emotional and cognitive development that lays a solid foundation for future academic and social success.

When the play is exploratory (seeing how the world works), innovative (building and creating), social (playing tag or dress up), or even therapeutic (playing the powerful lion protecting his pride), preschoolers are learning about and mastering critical skills and knowledge about themselves, others and the world around. This cannot be replicated in any classroom, by reading a book, and there is no computer program that can do that.

When two children argue over who gets what blocks and how they are going to build a bridge between their two pretend zoos, they are learning about and practicing how to negotiate and solve problems together. When a child pretends to be a mighty giant who commands all he sees, he is learning to take perspective and shift his mindset to the mindset of the giant. When a little girl sits down with a puzzle and happily assembles and dissembles its pieces, she is strengthening her concentration and focus. All of these skills that are experienced and practiced through play support skills essential for healthy and successful development.

Language (Ruthie Dearson, M.A., CCC-SLP):

Children’s language develops in leaps and bounds during the preschool years. While the two-year-old is only beginning to combine words and use short phrases, the graduating preschooler is able to initiate and sustain conversation, show listener awareness, tell stories, express complex thoughts, and be intelligible to unfamiliar listeners. How can parents support children’s developing language skills on this high speed train that is development?

Through daily conversation with your child where you share stories from your experiences or point out things you find interesting in the world around you, you are modeling language for your child. Engage your child in the daily activities of life at home, talking about them while doing them. Provide opportunities for your child to take turns in conversations and share their own ideas or ask you questions. Support their language growth by reflecting back what they have said, restating if necessary to correct grammar, and encourage expansion of their ideas. Remember to match your child where he/she is developmentally, slow down your rate of speech when necessary, and place emphatic stress on new words to highlight them: “Look! The forsythia are blooming! Those yellow bushes are called forsythia.” Pay attention to your child’s nonverbal cues that indicate boredom, lack of interest, or that he/she simply didn’t understand and make adjustments accordingly to keep your child engaged even if it means moving on to a new topic or new activity.

Positive Discipline, Reinforcing Children’s Self-Regulation (Mark Gardner, LCSW):

One of the most important goals in development is to help children gradually become better managers of themselves, which is also known as self-regulation. Self-regulation is the foundation upon which all other development and learning occurs. Your child’s ability to effectively control his feelings and manage his behavior (self-regulation) is fostered by your organization and structure. In other words parents can help children succeed in fulfilling expectations by providing them with little “helpers,” that help make the task doable.

One such helper is to have the child get into the habit of doing something. When we act habitually, we don’t need to plan or think about it too much. It is like we are on an automatic pilot (think about making coffee each morning). If, for example, you work with your preschooler to teach her to get dressed, brush her teeth and eat cereal, with little parental management, making it habitual would be a great helper for success. You can achieve this by structuring a clear and repetitive sequence and support her doing it, at the exactly the same way every morning. After several mornings you might delightfully discover that she can do it on her own.