Let’s face it — parenting preschoolers can be a tough gig. We chatted with parenting experts to find out the biggest mistakes parents make with pre-K kids so you can spend less time stressing (and scolding) and more time enjoying your sweet child (that is, until the teen years).
Do you ever wish you had a parenting expert on speed dial? Consider us your virtual parenting expert. We rounded up advice from the top parenting experts on how to navigate the preschool years by avoiding these top parenting mistakes.
Getting too worked up about "school readiness"
Go ahead, admit it. You Googled "school readiness" and have a skills checklist taped to your refrigerator. Having a general idea of school skills is fine, but marriage and family therapist Erica Curtis says don't get too worked up about it. In fact, she says many of these kindergarten and school readiness tests and charts are misleading.
"They reinforce the misconception that school readiness means studying academics and practicing sitting still," she tells SheKnows. "Some preschools have further perpetuated this misconception by offering an academically-heavy curriculum, contradicting The American Academy of Pediatrics' assertion that play (not academic curriculum) is the key to social, emotional and cognitive development in pre-K kids. This leaves parents confused about exactly how to prepare their children for the school years to come."
What should you do to get your preschooler ready for school? Read to your child every day and teach through play, such as counting the ducks at the park, learning colors while squishing and molding play-dough and writing the letters of the alphabet in the sand at the beach.
Which leads us to our next mistake...
Not enough unstructured play
What if we told you to quit stressing about signing up your children for advanced Shoe Tying 101 and just let them play on their own? Well, that is exactly what we are telling you. "The biggest mistake I see parents of pre-K age children making is worrying too much about academics and organized activities for their little ones and not giving their children enough time to play with friends," says Playdate Planet founder Meryl Neiman.
In fact, these social skills they learn through unstructured play will help them in the future. "We are in a creative, entrepreneurial-based economy that needs creative, collaborative, risk-taking, out-of-the-box thinkers. That’s why companies like Google, Pixar, Zappos, Facebook and others embrace play in their workplaces," she explains. "If parents want their children to be able to succeed in one of these environments in the future, or start their own company someday, they should give their children more time to play."
Over-praising your kids
Yes, it is important to give your children praise, however overdoing it can actually cause more harm than good, says Curtis.
"We once believed that praise was the answer to all of society's ills," she says, calling this parenting shift "the self-esteem movement." This movement can be blamed for the reason why every kid now gets a trophy or a medal just for participating, instead of awards just for the winners. Yes, your trophy case looks good, but she says this is not beneficial to your child's development.
"Over-praising our children leads to less willingness to take on challenges. It can lead to an inaccurate understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. It can even lead to under-performing in school," she says.
Curtis says to focus on encouraging your child, instead of praising him. She says to stop saying things like "good job," and "you're so smart" and provide more accurate and specific feedback like, "I see you running fast" or "You've been working so hard and you finally mastered the monkey bars."
She says this language may seem like splitting hairs, but it's not. "This shift in language makes a difference and perhaps most importantly, it emphasizes what they are doing over who they are inherently."
Cooking multiple meals at dinnertime, instead of one family meal
Child feeding expert and dietitian Kristen Yarker says the biggest mistake she sees pre-K parents make is letting kids choose what they eat for dinner, instead of eating the family meal that everyone else is eating. In fact, she says that this practice inadvertently fuels picky eating, as well as causes stress when parents have to make multiple meals each night.
"It teaches kids that they don't have to try what everyone else is eating. This is particularly a problem when eating at family or friends' places and holiday meals," she says. Additionally, she says this can lead to a narrow range of foods that kids will eat and can contribute to an unbalanced diet.
"One of my biggest pet peeves about what parents of younger children do, is they put them in time-out," says Bill Corbett, parent educator, conference speaker and author of the award-winning book, Love, Limits & Lessons: A Parent's Guide to Raising Cooperative Kids. "Time-out was designed by expert psychologists, to be used only when a child becomes so unmanageable that they are likely to hurt themselves or hurt someone else. Parents have destroyed the value of a true time-out by using it as punishment for whenever the child gets angry, throws a fit or won't comply."
What is the proper way to use a time-out? Corbett says that it should be a child’s special place to cool down whenever they feel it's necessary — and they can come out when they are ready.
In fact, Corbett says overusing the time-out curbs the child’s ability to develop strong emotional intelligence. "Going to time-out sends the message that there is something wrong with you and you're not like the rest of us in this family. The parents want the child's mood or tantrum to stop and instead, experts have shown us that forcing an emotion to stop is the worst thing that can happen."
What should you do when you tell your child they can't have a cookie before dinnertime and throw a big ol' tantrum?
"The best thing a parent can do is to just let the tantrum happen and ignore it," he suggests. "Or better yet, stay with the child if she will allow the parent to be there, [but] don't talk and soothe the child by rocking her or rubbing her back. Little children only have controlled tantrums when they know they can get a reaction from the big people in their lives whenever they don't like the rules they set."
Too much TV time
"The biggest parenting mistake I see parents making with their pre-K kids is allowing them too much screen time," says parenting expert Kathy Slattengren of PricelessParenting.com. "I am concerned that pediatricians, psychologists and teachers are seeing babies and preschoolers with social, emotional and physical problems related to too much time on screens."
Gut check time: The American Academy of Pediatrics say screen time for kids under age 2 is discouraged, while kids ages 3-5 should have time limited to 1-2 hours a day.