Question: My 4-year-old (5 in September) is an only child. For the most part, she is very well behaved. She has her moments when she can’t get her way, but what 4-year-old doesn’t?
For now, my main concern is that when we are teaching her to do things such as write her letters or put on her shoes by herself, she gets very frustrated if she does it wrong and we correct her. For example, when she puts her shoes on the wrong feet, I say, “Honey, you did really good, but this shoe goes on this foot and this one on that one.” She will whine and stomp and get so mad. I’m not sure if she’s mad at me or mad that she can’t do it, and
I don’t know how to bring her out of that place of anger. After a few minutes of me trying to explain that she’s doing great but just needs Mommy’s help sometimes, she will calm down. Same thing with writing. She loves to scribble and draw, and although she knows all of her letters and numbers, she cannot write them all perfectly yet. She tries and does a pretty good job, but if her letter/number doesn’t come out right, she slams the pen down, stomps and wants to walk away. I don’t know how to bring her down so we can try again or how to let her know that it’s okay because she’s learning.
Answer: With every answer I give, I always want to encourage all parents to check with your pediatrician if you have any doubts or worries about your child’s development.
Now, with that caveat out of the way, let’s talk about your lovely daughter and why she is pushing back and “misbehaving.” She is feeling, in a word, harassed.
There is a mind-set among many parents that children are born to us as a blank slate and that we need to fill up, write on or form our children.
From this perspective, everything needs to be taught, from skills such as riding a bike to feelings such as empathy. Children don’t have the skill when they are born and will not develop it without us. This is a potentiality issue, meaning that if you don’t teach your child how to be creative, she doesn’t even have the potential to be creative. She’s just a blob of a human, waiting for knowledge. Waiting for you to teach her everything.
Yes, if someone doesn’t teach your daughter how to ride a bike, she will not learn to ride a bike.
I am not concerned with that kind of mind-set for the sake of this discussion.
What I am concerned with, and where you are finding your struggle, is how you are interpreting what you are seeing.
You are seeing a young child try to write letters. Excellent! She wants to do it. You see “letters not perfectly formed” and come in to correct, because how will she learn otherwise? Your daughter feels, “Hey, I am trying this; this is how I learn; I am my own person. BACK OFF.”
You see and feel this as, “My daughter is misbehaving. She needs my help, and I need to assist her. This is my JOB.”
But the brain is not a blank slate when it comes to the desire to want to try something new. The young brain is programmed to experiment, learn, try, fail, try again, fail again, succeed, move on. It is primed for this when it feels relaxed and supported.
For instance, studies show that when given open-ended toys and freedom (such as blocks, paint and paper), young children will creatively play. They will fully use their imaginations and play for the sake of play, which means there is no expected outcome or experience (which is called work). Children will build block towers over and over that fall, watch, wait, and then figure out how to change them to make them stay. That is true learning!
Your child will put her shoes on the wrong feet, feel it is uncomfortable (eventually) and switch the shoes. The developing brain is meant to make these changes. Some children are quick to make changes. For other children, change comes more slowly. Our job, as parents, is not to push according to our own schedule; it is to create the right conditions so that the child’s growth is unhindered.
In other words, stop correcting your daughter’s attempts at learning.
Her letters are a mess? No problem. They are not meant to be neat and clear; it is not developmentally appropriate. Instead, celebrate her willingness to create. Smile at her. Hug her. Doodle with her! Can you imagine her joy at the two of you being silly together? In that joy is relaxation, and from that source of rest comes her willingness to concentrate on making an uppercase B. From relaxation comes the place where she will want to listen to you.
Are there times you need to step in and correct? Yes: when your daughter is going to attempt something that results in maiming or death. When your daughter is going to a wedding with you, for instance, you casually put the shoes on the correct feet (and even then, this is not a true need). When your daughter is running and continuously falling down because of the shoe problem, you step in and change the shoes. You see? Begin to use common sense, rather than black-and-white thinking, to guide your decisions.
In essence, what I am asking you to do is more about what I am asking you to see. Rather than the sculptor who is always hacking away at the marble to create the image, see yourself as a gardener, a cultivator. Your child wants to learn; she is learning. But by mucking around in the soil (interfering, teaching, interrupting), you are disrupting her growth, and more important, she doesn’t want to learn from you. She is telling you how she needs to learn with her behavior.
Stop pushing and pulling against the tide, and, well, go with this flow. Have some faith that she can and will learn it all, in her time. You will be delighted to learn that your child has everything in her to mature, and to eventually write her letters.
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for April 1.