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5 Unreasonable Expectations That Parents Have for Preschoolers

While teaching preschool, Ms. Meyers saw that parental expectations were often out of line and caused undue frustration for everyone.

Parenting a preschooler is more enjoyable when moms and dads have reasonable expectations and understand age-appropriate behavior.

Parenting a preschooler is more enjoyable when moms and dads have reasonable expectations and understand age-appropriate behavior.

5 Out of Line Expectations for a Preschooler

  1. expecting them to share their toys
  2. expecting them to play with no conflict
  3. expecting them to clean their rooms alone
  4. expecting them to sit for long periods
  5. expecting them to always tell the truth

Each of these is described fully below.

Are Your Expectations Out of Whack?

  • Are you mortified when your preschooler won't share their toys in the sandbox or during a play-date?
  • Do you get exasperated when they do a poor job of cleaning their room?
  • Are you worried that they're hyperactive because they can't sit still at circle time at preschool or during story-time at the library?
  • Do you overreact when your child lies to you, fearing their heading down the road of deceit and treachery?

If nodding yes to any of these questions, you (like many other moms and dads) have unreasonable expectations for your preschooler. Parenting a 3-5 year old is challenging enough without having absurd standards that cause you unnecessary stress and damage the relationship between you and your child.

Let Kids Be Kids

Today, we owe a debt of gratitude to Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and other 20th century pioneers in developmental psychology who transformed how we view children. Because of their influence, we no longer see them as miniature adults like folks did during Victorian times. In those days, wealthy youngsters got dolled up in stiff, frilly, and formal clothes that were unsuitable for playing. Impoverished youngsters, in stark contrast, worked on farms and in factories as cheap labor. Whether privileged or not, though, kids weren’t allowed to be kids and suffered because of it.

We’d never imagine treating a child like a grownup today. We now acknowledge that they move through various stages of development, distinguished by major changes in their bodies and brains. Yet, even with all that we know, parents in the US are unique in rushing their children through these stages. Moms and dads in other parts of the world delight in each period of growth and would never want to hurry their kids. This is especially true during their precious preschool years.

However, some American parents have the misconception that speeding their kids through the early years will make them smarter and more accomplished. In reality, though, it only creates unnecessary stress in their lives and the lives of their youngsters. With this in mind, here are 5 common expectations that many parents have for their preschooler but shouldn't.

1. Expecting Them to Share Their Toys

While playing in a sandbox at the park, a preschool-aged boy snatches a plastic shovel from another child's hand. His mother, mortified by her son’s behavior, rushes over, scoops him up, and scolds him in front of the other parents. She feels like a complete failure as a mom, convinced her son's inability to share, take turns with toys, and cooperate with others reveal a lack of character, compassion, and morality. As a result, she publicly shames him for doing something that’s totally normal and age-appropriate for a 4-year child.

Developmental psychologists would tell this mom to stop beating herself up and cut her kid some slack. Youngsters, they argue, don't know how to truly share until they’re 7 or 8. Dr. Bill Sears, the noted pediatrician and author of more than 30 parenting books, says that moms and dads should encourage sharing but not expect or demand it. He says preschoolers are naturally egocentric with a “what's in it for me” attitude that prevents them from thinking of others. When they enter elementary school, though, they become more socially aware, adopt a “what's in it for us” stance, and develop a desire to share.

2. Expecting Them to Play With No Conflict

Today, bullying is a major concern with parents reading books on the topic and schools adopting a zero-tolerance stance against it. Sadly, though, dads, moms, and teachers rarely talk about it with any nuance. Teasing, taunting, name-calling, hitting, intimidating, gossiping, shunning, and almost all negative behaviors get placed under the same umbrella of bullying. Moreover, they’re all considered equally dreadful and damaging whether occurring at high school, middle school, elementary school, or even preschool. The indiscriminate labeling of young children as bullies can do irreparable harm to these kids who are simply engaging in normal behavior for their stage of development.

Unfortunately, some parents have unreasonable standards when it comes to the behavior of their own young child as well as other young children. This is caused by their lack of knowledge about early development. They don’t appreciate that preschoolers have just transitioned from parallel play—playing side-by-side one another but not with one another—to interaction with their peers. Socializing is new to them and, therefore, they need adults to guide them as they form relationships and to have patience when they have inevitable missteps. The last thing that they need is for their behaviors to be flagged as bullying.

Parents should keep in mind that kids who act out need help and compassion. Betsy Evans, a conflict resolution specialist, says: “When adults frequently observe a child engaging in hurtful actions toward others, the child must not be seen as 'mean' or 'bad' but as experiencing emotional, physical, or social challenges that are overwhelming. Those behaviors will become a pattern if there is no intervention by teachers or parents.”

This video explains how play is central to children's learning. Having conflicts is normal and promotes their problem solving skills.

3. Expecting Them to Clean Their Rooms Alone

When they tell preschoolers to clean their rooms, parents know precisely what needs to get done: pick up the toys and put them in the toy-box, make the bed, put the dirty clothes in the hamper, and return all books to the shelf. However, they need to keep in mind that little kids lack such a lucid vision of the task. Cleaning a room to them seems overwhelming and exhausting. As such, they need adult guidance to break it down into small doable steps.

Sara Bean, a school counselor and mother, says: “It’s very important that kids know exactly what your expectations are. Many times we think they know how to do certain tasks, but they honestly don’t—they need to be shown the ropes first before they really get it.” When preschoolers don’t clean their bedroom by themselves, therefore, they aren't being lazy, stupid, or obstinate.

Kids need a parent to join them: turning on some loud music, dancing around the space, and making it fun. Putting up a chore chart that lists the specific jobs that need to be completed serves as a valuable visual aid for little ones as well as a motivating tool. When a task gets completed, parents can put a sticker next to it, inspiring the child to do more. However, parents should remember that a preschooler’s attention span is short (10-15 minutes) so it’s unlikely the entire room will be cleaned in one stretch.

4. Expecting Them to Sit for Long Periods

Parents are understandably confused about what’s reasonable to expect from their preschoolers given the conflicting messages that they hear. Sadly, one of the biggest sources of misinformation now is preschool teachers. Because of the current push to prepare kids academically for kindergarten, they’re under tremendous pressure. As such, they often instruct in ways that don’t respect developmentally appropriate practices such as letting kids learn through play, exploration, and social interaction.

Today, preschoolers must sit still longer, listen more attentively, and do more advanced work. If they struggle to do this, they get labeled immature or hyperactive when, in reality, they're just normal. Because a preschooler's attention span is about 10-15 minutes, they shouldn’t be expected to sit still longer than this.

5. Expecting Them to Always Tell the Truth

Parents of preschoolers often overreact when their child tells them a lie, worried that it may herald more deceitfulness. They can breathe a sigh of relief, though, knowing that telling falsehoods is a cognitive milestone of normal child development. It’s actually a youngster’s inability to tell a lie that can be a cause for concern since it’s one indicator of autism.

Child development experts explain that young children don't have a clear notion of where truth begins and ends. Moreover, they don’t have a clear dividing line between fantasy and reality. The last thing that a parent wants to do is squash their youngster’s budding imagination, which can be so strong and magical at this age. They don’t want to shame them for a behavior that’s no cause for alarm, creating feelings of guilt and confusion.

Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and parenting expert, is the author of Raising Kids with Character: Developing Trust and Personal Integrity in Children. She tells parents to look beyond what they perceive as a negative behavior to understand it as a normal part of a youngster's development. She says moms and dads shouldn't be alarmed at lying because children 4 and younger regularly confuse reality, daydreams, wishes, fantasies, and fears. She advises parents to stay calm while making it clear to the child that they're not buying the lie. They should then explain how being dishonest can break trust and hurt relationships.

In this video, a clinical psychologist explains why children lie at different ages. Some preschoolers simply love to make believe, telling tall tales because it's fun and entertaining.

What do you think?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 McKenna Meyers

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