William J. Bennett, book excerpt
Getting your child’s education off to a good start does not take extraordinary efforts or extravagant stimulation. You do not need a degree in child psychology. Raising a child does not require “trained caregivers” to supply expertise that parents lack. On the contrary, you are the most qualified person to teach and guide your young child, because he is a part of you and loves you.
You should supply five basic ingredients in these years before school: your love, protection, and care; your time; a positive learning environment; an attitude that values learning; and strong moral training.
Your Love, Protection, and Care
All children come into the world fragile and helpless. In order to survive even a few hours, they need adults to supply food, shelter, warmth, and care. But meeting their physical needs is just the start. To develop well, from the very beginning children need a family. A deep commitment from at least one responsible, caring adult is crucial. (Obviously, having both a mother and a father in the home is the best arrangement.) Every child needs someone who gives uncompromising love and boundless devotion, someone whom that child can learn to love back. This is a basic fact of human growth and emotional development. Nothing is more crucial than giving your young child the feeling of being loved and cared for, and instilling a basic sense of trust that he can depend on you for nurture and protection.
The emotional bond between parent and child has powerful effects on education. Preschoolers who feel loved are more likely to be confident, and confidence makes exploring a new world much easier. A strong, loving relationship increases youngsters’ eagerness to learn new things. For example, a child wants to learn how to read in part because he wants to please his parents, whom he sees reading and who encourage his own efforts to read. Children like to learn because they love their parents, and know their parents love them back!
Forming a close bond with children is a natural part of the parenting process. Most moms and dads need no urging and little guidance here; these manifestations of love spring from the heart. The kinds of actions and gestures you instinctively want to offer your child are exactly the kinds he needs to gain a sense of nurture and protection. Holding and cuddling him from the day he is born, talking to him, playing with him, setting rules that are good for him, telling him over and over again that you love him—such actions and expressions have a profound impact on his development now, and on the kind of student he’ll be later. Children thrive when they have parents who are loving and dependable, when they know that, no matter what may happen in their lives, someone will look after them, keep them safe, and show them the limits of good behavior. When it comes to young children, loving and learning go hand in hand.
The best way to show your love and help your child learn is to spend time with him. Shaping good attitudes and habits takes time. Setting good examples takes time. The encouragement your youngster craves—whether it’s for learning how to climb the stairs, how to read his first word, or how to write his name—requires your time and presence. You have to be available, perhaps more than you imagined.
It has become popular in recent years to distinguish between “quality time” and “quantity time.” Some parents want to believe that they can spend fewer hours with their children so long as they put that shared time to good use. The fact is that children do not flourish on small, concentrated doses of attention from mothers and fathers. They need your frequent company if they are to learn from you. This may be a hard truth to accept in these modern days, but it is reality. For children, quality time is quantity time. When it comes to teaching and learning, there is no substitute for lots of time together—and children know it.
In the eyes of your child, your presence in his life is proof that you are interested and that you care. It shows that he comes first—not your work, or your friends, or a ball game on TV. In his book The Hurried Child, Professor David Elkind tells this anecdote about a conversation he overheard when visiting his son’s nursery school class:
Child A: “My daddy is a doctor and he makes a lot of money and we have a swimming pool.”
Child B: “My daddy is a lawyer and he flies to Washington and talks to the President.”
Child C: “My daddy owns a company and we have our own airplane.”
My son (with aplomb, of course): “My daddy is here!” with a proud look in my direction.
Keep in mind that one reason the preschool years are unique is that, in all likelihood, this is the period when your child wants your company more than he wants anyone else’s. He’s interested in what you have to say (most of the time, anyway). You’re his best pal. Later, he’ll often be elsewhere: in class, with his friends, or in his room, away from mom and dad. The preschool years offer the most opportunities to be together. Don’t neglect them.
Chore Time Is Teaching Time
If you’re like most parents, much time with your child is also chore time. Sure, you’d like nothing more than to spend most of the day reading aloud, taking trips to the zoo, and playing “educational” games that will help him grow. Unfortunately, you’ve also got to get an oil change, rake the backyard, take out the trash, and clean the spare bedroom before Uncle George comes to visit. The good news is that those pesky chores also have teaching value. With a little effort, you can turn many household routines into good learning opportunities for your child. He learns an enormous amount in your company if you simply talk to him as you work. Never mind feeling slightly foolish. Explain what you are doing. Tell him why you are doing it. He’ll pick up all sorts of vocabulary and absorb knowledge about what things are and how they work.
Almost any household activity can become an informal lesson. Writing a grocery list can be a perfect chance to practice recognizing some letters. (“I’m writing the word butter. Do you remember what that first letter is?”)
Cooking invariably involves weighing, measuring, counting, and grouping. (“I have to fill this cup until it is half full. Will you tell me when the milk gets to this line right here?”) Doing the laundry can be a sorting game. (“Why don’t you help me put all the socks in this pile, and the shirts in that pile?”) Sprinkle your routines with questions. Running errands in the car: “Who can count the green cars on the road? In the study: “How many books do I have on my desk?”
Daily routines draw on a whole range of organizational and problem solving skills, the same skills your child will someday need to complete a school assignment or project at work. He can learn the value of planning ahead, and then executing the plan. He gradually comprehends that every large job is really a series of smaller tasks. He sees that work is a means to an end. When he helps, he learns about teamwork.
Certain character lessons will seep in too. By watching you, he learns about sticking with a task until it’s finished. He sees how to perform a duty thoroughly and responsibly. If given the chance to make even small contributions, he begins to learn the satisfaction of a job well done.
Above all, keep talking. The stimulation, the exchange of ideas, and the responses elicited will all serve to build up a host of skills, making chore time a teaching time, and making it more enjoyable for both of you.
A Positive Learning Environment
One of your fundamental jobs is to give your child some experiences that pique his curiosity and supply fundamental knowledge about the world. This does not mean bombarding him with glitzy, noisy stimuli all day long, going out and buying lots of fancy “educational” gear, or enrolling him in the most expensive preschool in town. It mostly entails making sure he has interesting things to do. Since the world is so novel to him, and he naturally wants to explore it, this is not a difficult task. In fact, for children this age, a “learning environment” often consists of everyday activities—playing with toys, watching a parent do chores, or running around the backyard.
Expose your child to a widening range of experiences as he grows. A baby who has just learned to crawl is a little Marco Polo, anxious to explore all those mysterious corners of your living room and kitchen. Give him the freedom to investigate while you are nearby. (Make sure you’ve taken precautions to childproof your home!) As he grows, give him changes of scenery. Take him with you on errands to the bank or hardware store. Take a trip across the street to meet your neighbor’s new puppy. Find a hill for your toddler to run up and down. Just about any place you go, there will be something to stimulate his curiosity.
As he grows through the preschool years, organize little “field trips” to check out less familiar bits of the world. Spend an afternoon at the science museum. Take him to the airport to see planes land and take off. Or into the country to get a pumpkin. Lie on your backs to watch the clouds on a summer afternoon. And, of course, read all sorts of books to him.
Introduce your child to different people: extended family members, neighbors, and figures in the community. Point out the police officer, the fireman, the postman. Youngsters who know only their immediate family are less likely to thrive in the larger world and may be either too trusting or too nervous of others.
Choosing Toys That Teach
Toys are the “tools” of learning for kids in the pre-kindergarten years. Keep in mind, though, that rarely does the teaching value of a toy have a direct relation to how many batteries it uses or lights it flashes. A high price tag does not make it better for your child. Expensive toys that claim to teach tykes are often less “educational” than some pots and a big wooden spoon from the kitchen. Computer software is often little better for kids than sitting and watching TV. It certainly isn’t as helpful as spending time with a parent reading, counting, playing games, or taking a walk in the park.
Often it’s the simple toys that do the best job putting little imaginations and muscles to work. For toddlers, the old standbys you played with in your childhood are still fine: balls, blocks, cups, pans, plastic rings, simple puzzles, a sand box. A well-stocked box of construction paper, crayons, washable markers, glue, buttons, felt, and safety scissors is a treasure chest for preschoolers. A big basket filled with grown-up clothes and costumes (dime store crowns, plastic armor, discarded necklaces) is a big draw for most children.
There is no need to keep adding toy after toy to the mix. Most parents eventually learn that the more toys they buy, the more toys they see sitting untouched in the back of the closet. Children who possess several chests full of playthings often flit from one to another without really appreciating any of them. Ironically, too many toys can lead to boredom—or worse, to a spoiled and ungrateful child who constantly thinks he’s entitled to another present.
An Attitude That Values Learning
How do you teach that you value learning? First, and perhaps most important, by your good example. Your actions always speak volumes to your child. Your own reading, wondering out loud, pointing things out, and showing a general interest in the world are powerful signs of your attitude about learning.
You also instill ideals about education with your excitement over your child’s discoveries and achievements. Enthusiasm is contagious with preschoolers. If he sees you responding warmly to his attempts to learn, he’ll take pleasure in them, too. Ask questions about what he’s doing, and answer any questions he has. Take part in his activities by introducing him to a new book or game, or helping him with something that’s giving him trouble. Even just playing with your child will be interpreted as a sign that you care about what he’s learning.
Keep in mind that it is difficult for anyone else to take a parent’s place when a young child looks for reinforcement about learning. Chances are, no one else (except perhaps grandpa and grandma) will get as excited as you when your child takes his first step, or speaks his first word, or counts to ten for the first time. No one else is going to be able to muster quite as much interest in that misshapen piece of clay he says is an elephant. The more you are there to encourage his efforts, the more he’ll want to learn.
Adult responses can mean everything. Imagine three children, each frequently receiving a particular message:
Little Girl: “Daddy! Look what I found!”
Dad: “What have you got there? That’s a beautiful leaf. Where did you find it?”
Little Girl: “In the yard.”
Dad: “Where do you think it came from?”
Little Girl: “That tree.”
Dad: “I bet it did. What does it feel like?”
Little Girl: “Like paper.”
Little Girl: “Daddy! Look what I found!”
Dad: “We need to go, honey. Leave that here.”
Little Girl: “It’s a red leaf.”
Dad: “I told you to put it down. It might have bugs on it. Now come on, we don’t have time for that.”
Little girl (dropping the leaf): “Yuck. Leaves have bugs on them.”
Little Girl: “Look what I found!”
Baby-sitter: “That’s nice.”
Little Girl: “It’s a leaf.”
Baby-sitter: “I see that. Why don’t you go play with your toys?”
Little Girl: “I want to show Daddy my leaf.”
Baby-sitter: “Daddy won’t be home until after you’ve gone to bed. You know that. You can show him on the weekend, OK?”
It’s not difficult, is it, to tell which child’s curiosity is being encouraged, and which ones’ inquisitiveness is being dampened?
Early Moral Training
A child who is already learning about traits such as responsibility, self- discipline, and perseverance before he begins school has a good shot at doing well at his studies. Conversely, if he shows up in class with bad habits such as laziness and disrespect for elders, there is little that teachers can do. An education disaster is already in the works.
This is not to say that your preschooler must always be an angel. All children test boundaries and stray from model behavior. In the end, however, despite some who will tell you that peers or the popular culture have more influence than nurturing parents on how a child acts, the buck stops squarely with you. You are responsible for the way your young child behaves.
You teach your child good character in several ways. You do it by your good example. Little eyes are watching. As you do, so will your child do. You teach virtue through high expectations and clear, consistent rules. You also form character in children by talking to them about good and bad behavior. There is much unwarranted cynicism and embarrassment today about “moralizing.” Little children need to be told about right and wrong, and when adults stand silent, then we shouldn’t be surprised if young people grow up with muddled notions of how to conduct themselves. Parents can talk about good character in the context of everyday actions, as well as in stories they read to children. They can talk about it in the context of their faith—which for most of us serves as the bedrock of morality.
Teachers say that many moms and dads are falling down on the job of character training. They are not sending to school children who are well behaved, ready to work hard, and respectful of adults. Says a Texas teacher, “Some kids come to class with an attitude that they don’t have to listen to you, that just because you’re an adult, you don’t have the right to tell them what to do. They think they’re in charge, because they don’t have that structure at home.” Frequent among educators, these exceedingly sad commentaries explain much that is wrong with our schools.
Reference: The Educated Child - A Parents Guide from Preschool through Eighth Grade. Free Press (1999)