Should I make my toddler study harder?

Smart love - December 2004


The Piepers


Should I make my toddler study harder? Q:I recently read an article about programs that teach pre-preschoolers (ages 1-3) reading and math skills. The programs have the children sit at desks for 15 minutes and memorize reading words and math operations.

I know many schools expect children to enter first grade able to read and do some math and I don’t want my 18-month-old left behind. At the same time, she resists attempts to get her to sit still and follow directions, and I worry that she won’t have fun with this program and will dislike school before she even gets there. What is your opinion? L.T., Oak Brook

A:Your concern is well-founded. Many studies have shown that toddlers learn best by playing with blocks or making shapes out of Play-Doh, and spending time reading or playing with loved ones. Trying to make 18-month-olds learn in ways more appropriate to older children can creative negative attitudes toward learning. For example, learning formal addition and subtraction is meaningless to an 18-month-old. It would be much better to start teaching the concept of numbers by asking your daughter if she wants one grape, two grapes or three grapes.

So follow your heart and let your child learn through playing and doing and through her relationship with you. Fostering her curiosity and love of learning will stand her in much better stead as she enters school than forcing her into meaningless memorization and drills. Why won’t my baby give her older brother a break? Q: I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. Most of my friends are having difficulty getting their older children to be nice to the younger ones. My problem is that my younger child is making life impossible for the older one. She follows him around, grabs any toy he is playing with, sits practically on top of him whenever he is playing with something, and generally never gives him a minute’s peace. The older child is fundamentally very loving with his little sister, but he is becoming increasingly impatient and irritable. Suggestions? S.R., Highland Park

A:Yes—jump in to protect your son without imposing unfair expectations on your daughter. A 1-year-old cannot understand that her brother, whom she loves being with, needs time to himself. Trying to explain this will either hurt her feelings or make her redouble her efforts to be close to him. When your daughter heads for her brother, scoop her up, take her in another room and read or play with her. If you don’t have time to play, stick her in her high chair and give her some pots to bang on.

Explain to your son that his sister wants to be with him every moment because she loves him, but that you can understand he needs some space from her and that you will make that happen. Then be sure you spend some special time with your son, who, after all, is still young himself and needs time with you. How can I help my toddler better express her feelings? Q: My 3-year-old daughter makes her likes and dislikes clearly known. Generally, I’m glad she’s assertive—except when she states, often loudly, that she doesn’t like her two grandmothers. These women tend to be judgmental and are easily hurt. They wind up glaring at me, while I try to explain to my daughter that saying, “I don’t like Grandma,” hurts Grandma’s feelings. 

My ex-husband believes she should be nice to these people and punished with a “time out” if she is not. I value her ability to be authentic, but also realize she needs to learn not to hurt others’ feelings. The other day it happened when her father came to pick her up to bring to his house and she didn’t want to go. She cried for a while after he turned off the television and said she needed to get going. My ex said I was rewarding her by holding her and not being more firm in making her go with him right away. Any suggestions? K.D., Chicago

A:We suggest you stick to your guns. The grandmothers and your ex-husband are expecting way too much of a 3-year-old. Given your description of the grandmothers as judgmental and overly sensitive, it is not surprising they are not your daughter’s favorite people.

Your daughter is much too young to be told to pretend to be nice to people she doesn’t like. This will only confuse her and teach her there is something wrong with ever feeling negatively about someone. In later years, this may make it difficult for her to avoid abusive relationships and to choose positive, caring friends and partners.

Talk to your daughter about the fact that while you can understand that she sometimes has negative feelings about her grandmothers, it would be better if she talked to you about these feelings in private rather than discussing them with her grandmothers. If she does make a negative comment, she should not be punished. As she gets older, she will naturally become more aware of what others are feeling, and she will then be much more inclined to keep her negative opinions to herself.

Your ex-husband, meanwhile, needs to understand that transitions are difficult for young children, particularly children whose parents are divorced. Your daughter used to have both parents at once and now is with only one at a time, so it is not surprising that it is difficult for her to leave you and go with her father. If your ex can be helped to recognize this, then perhaps he could be more gentle and understanding with your daughter. For example, he could talk about the fun things they are going to do together and that, although he knows it’s hard to leave Mom, she may call you during their visit. The more kindness he shows her at these difficult moments, the more positively your daughter will feel about her visits with him.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D. are the authors most recently of  Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors that Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives.  They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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