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Now that summer is here, parents’ thoughts turn to next fall and the upcoming school year. In particular, parents of pre-kindergarteners wonder if their child is ready for “real school.” Will your child be a star or will she struggle?

Along with a general feeling of anxiety, you might be feeling just a bit competitive. Your child knows so much! He can do such a lot of wonderful things! As we try to reassure ourselves that our child is indeed ready for kindergarten and will indeed do well there, there’s a tendency to trumpet his abilities and even to pad his resume.

There are many websites and books eager to tell you “what your child should know.” These sites suggest your child should be able to do all sorts of things she may or may not be able to do. But even if she can do them all, is that enough? It’s easy to imagine that these lists represent the floor, not the ceiling, of pre-kindergarten accomplishment. It’s easy to feel tempted to tutor a child in the entire kindergarten and first grade curriculum, just to be sure.

This feeling is encouraged by other parents at your child’s preschool, who are quick to inform you their son or daughter can do two-digit addition, is reading Charlotte’s Web right now, and is on the way to mastering French. Naturally, you feel uneasy. How can any child compete?

Well, you can’t and you shouldn’t. Because what your four-year-old really should know isn’t something she learns, it’s something she is just certain of.  Your child must be certain of these four things:

Children whose parents are constantly coaching them actually feel less confident. They understand, quite rightly, that if their parents are so worried about their abilities that they must be unable to succeed as they already are. The unspoken message worried parents send is “You’re not good enough.” Any child who receives that message will be afraid to try.

Acting-like follows believing-in. To act like a smart kid a child must first believe he’s a smart kid. Your job as a parent is to convince your child he’s smart and capable, a wonderful kid who’s perfect in every way.

You don’t do by pushing your child to learn advanced content. You don’t do that by constantly telling your child how clever she is. You do it by genuinely appreciating your child and communicating your admiration for her in everyday, ordinary ways.

It’s hard to ignore the boasting of parents who are anxious about their child’s kindergarten prospects. But if you can ignore that and if you can instead believe in your child and give him the confidence to try, your child will do well.

What your four-year-old really needs to know to be ready for kindergarten  is that you think he’s terrific.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

If you’ve ever fed a toddler soft food, you know the outcome: food on her face, in her hair, between her fingers, all over the high chair tray, and quite a bit on her clothes and even on the floor. A mess!

But also a lesson. Babies who mush up their oatmeal and fingerpaint with the pureed squash are actually learning about non-solid objects. They are expanding their vocabularies and their notion of how the world works.

In a word, messy eaters get smarter.

It’s easy to learn about solid objects. Blocks, stuffed toys, cars and balls keep their shape and can be rotated and played with without changing. But how do children learn about squishy things? Researchers at the University of Iowa wanted to know.

So they put 70 16-month-old children in front of 14 non-solid objects, like applesauce, pudding, and soup. The children were allowed to do what they wanted with each substance, including touching it, smelling it, and eating it. After one minute, the scientists asked children to identify the same subject when it was presented in a different amount and in different shapes. This meant that children couldn’t rely on looks alone to identify the substance but had to know more about it.

This is important, as lead author Lynn Hall pointed out. “For a lot of non-solid stuff, you can’t really tell what it is just by looking at it. What matters is what it’s made of. Is that whiskey or ice tea in the glass you just grabbed? Or similarly, for children, is that baby lotion or strawberry yogurt?” Touching, tasting and smelling are the only ways to really know. Says Hall, if children have “a lot of practice touching and eating non-solid foods, then they know it’s okay to get in there and figure it out.”

Children in the study who did the most messing around with the foods in the one minute they had, were better able to identify the same foods when it was disguised. In addition, children did better when they were sitting in a high chair than when they were sitting at a regular table. The high chair spelled an exploration zone, apparently, and helped children investigate more.

What’s the take-away? Realize that when your child is making a mess with his food, he’s learning a lot about the food and what soft solids do. He’s learning how to think. Yes, he’s getting it everywhere and naturally you want some of that to go inside his tummy. But being obsessive over cleanliness in the high chair might actually inhibit learning.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.