Living with Preschoolers and Preschool Behavior

Preschool behavior is driven by the psychological developmental stage called Initiative. Children between the ages of three and six see their world as an exciting and challenging place to discover and explore. Their increased physical and intellectual abilities, as well as expressive vocabulary makes parenting preschoolers both exciting and challenging. Sometimes, in the face of increasing initiative, parents respond by adding more and more rules and limits in an effort to keep children safe. Positive discipline for preschoolers involves understanding the child’s need to explore and experiment while also providing appropriate boundaries and supervision.

Parenting preschoolers takes some creative thinking and some novel ways of looking at discipline. Focusing on what they CAN do rather than what they can’t is important. For example ‘you can jump on the floor or outside’ is a better phrase than ‘Don’t jump on the sofa’. ‘You can have a carrot or some raisins’ is preferable to ‘You can’t have a cookie”

‘No’ becomes a favorite word, and this will be an important word later in their lives (after all, we will want our teens to be able to say ‘no’ to drugs, alcohol or sexual experimentation). So, we want to look for ways to say yes rather than no. For example ‘yes – we can go outside as soon as you get your shoes on’, rather than ‘no, you don’t have shoes on’. Sometimes when parenting preschoolers, it’s wise to let them make mistakes rather than always standing in their way.

For example, letting them pour their own milk and perhaps spilling is an excellent way to teach learning from our mistakes. In this instance, the parent can respond with ‘oops, you spilled – what do you need to do now?’, encouraging the child to get a paper towel and clean up the mess. We can even help them think about solutions by asking ‘next time what might help you pour more easily?’ They may realize that if they had a bigger cup, or a smaller pitcher, it might have been easier.

Parenting preschoolers often involves a great deal of supervision, as they sometimes are very spontaneous. They can climb up to the top of the jungle gym only to realize once they are there, that they can’t get down again.

Preschool discipline often involves understanding that learning takes time and patience. Set realistic limits, making sure that children understand, and then follow through if necessary. It’s important not to use a lot of words – act, don’t talk. It is also ok for preschoolers to have their feelings. Following through with a discipline tool, even though it is kind and firm, does not necessarily mean that children will be happy about it.

If we, for example, are taking a child out to the car because they were acting inappropriately in a restaurant or store, they may be mad and crying. This is common preschool behavior. It’s important for parents not to do a lot of talking at this point. We are just ‘following through’. We might simply say ‘I know you are mad that you don’t get to finish your meal’. Children need to learn that they can cope with feelings…Jane Nelsen calls this ‘exercising their disappointment muscles’. We all need these muscles in life.

Parenting preschoolers also involves understanding other dynamics. Temperament has a great deal to do with how individual children see the world and interact with it. During the preschool years, children are beginning to figure out their place in the world, so gender, increasing social skills and learning about how to get along with others are factors in parenting this age group.

More information about preschool behavior can be found in Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, by Jane Nelsen.