The Importance of Structure
Structure is the most important thing for a child, which is something parents often overlook. Routines give them a sense of security and help them develop self-discipline. People in general are often afraid of the unknown, and even more so for toddlers. So many things are unknown to a child and they are constantly being introduced to new foods, people, experiences, etc. every day. By establishing a routine with your child, you are giving them the opportunity to be able to feel like they have some control over their day.
The very definition of growing up is that their own bodies are changing on them physically and intellectually. Babies and toddlers give up pacifiers, bottles, breasts, cribs, their position as the baby of the house, etc. They tackle and learn new skills and information at an astonishing pace, from walking and reading to learning how to play soccer and riding a bike. Few children live in the same house during their entire childhood; most move several times, often to new cities and certainly to new neighborhoods and schools. Very few changes in a child’s life are within the child’s control.
A Good Routine
Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives. As this sense of mastery is strengthened, they can tackle larger changes: walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store or sleeping over a friend’s house. Uncontrollable changes can erode this sense of safety and mastery and leave a child feeling anxious and less able to cope with the vicissitudes of life, leaving them to act out in the only ways they know how to express themselves: crying, yelling, tantrums etc.
Preschoolers want to own their new-found independence, but they also want the close attention and love of their caregivers. Ages 2-4 are the most commonly difficult years for parenting because so many changes take place during such a short time. In only a few years you go from having to take care of every little need for your baby, to having to relinquish control and allow them to make their own choices and to start doing things without your help; very tough as a parent. You will always feel like you know what’s best for your child, but at the same time you need to let your child make some appropriate mistakes for themselves so they can learn from their own experience, instead of being told about it, hypothetically.
1. Not staying consistent with a routine. When you’re not being consistent with your routine, preschoolers get confused and may act out more or throw more temper tantrums. If sometimes you let them do something and sometimes you don’t, they don’t understand.
Your child probably wants to know why last time Mommy let her color with her markers in the living room but this time won’t let her, or why Mommy laid down with her for 10 minutes last night while she fell asleep but now says she can’t.
2. Focusing on the negative. It’s easy to hone in on your child’s negative actions (like yelling and screaming) and ignore the good ones. But the truth is, if you give attention to your child in mostly a negative way then you are showing them how to act in order to get your attention—by acting out.
3. Missing the warning signs. Parents often try to reason with children when they’re in the throes of a temper tantrum, repeating, “Calm down, calm down,” but that’s like trying to reason with a goldfish. You’ve got power immediately beforehand when you can still distract or anticipate, but once the tantrum is in full force, you’ve lost your chance and your child is not hearing you anymore.
4. Unknowingly encouraging whining/nagging. For many parents, the case of the whines drives them crazy. Parents often give in to these whines to make the whining stop, but this only reinforces the attention-getting behavior. Your child will figure out which buttons to push and then push them over and over again until they wear you down enough so you give in. And then the cycle repeats every time the child wants something from you because they know that the whining has worked in the past.
5. Over-scheduling your child. This isn’t an issue for Ali at all right now, but I figured it was still good to talk about it now before Ali starts school in a year. Parents often line up a slew of activities like dance, music classes, soccer, t-ball, gymnastics etc. Then they wonder why their child isn’t getting in bed and falling asleep right away after so many activities that should have made her tired.
The problem is that they’re still wound up and need time to calm down. Every child needs down time, especially preschoolers. Whether your child is at preschool for two hours or there all day, it can be very exhausting emotionally and physically, and even though you might think they just played all day, they still need time to unwind and have free, unstructured play when they get home. Think of how you feel after you have had a hard day working and don’t get a minute to unwind and have a moment for yourself.
6. Underestimating the importance of play. This also is not a problem for Ali but again, I wanted to show the importance of this point for the future, because we are at the point now where we want Ali’s playing to be more purposeful and educational.
Many parents feel they should sign their children up for enrichment programs to give them an edge, but that’s really not necessary. The most enriching activity for a child between the ages of 3-5 is free play. This includes dramatic play (make believe), goofing around, playing kitchen, playing house, building with bikes etc. Free play is how children’s brains develop best. In play, children will naturally give themselves the right amount of challenge—not too easy or too hard, and it also gives you an excellent opportunity to play with them and to observe where their strengths, weaknesses and preferences are.
7. Getting distracted by the daily grind. Your child may play well independently, but that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t still crave your attention. Children are missing out on something if parents don’t get on the floor and play with them. Not only do parents not get down and play, many parents are too easily distracted by their cell phone, email or other multitasking. Kids are very observant and always know whether we’re really paying attention or not.
8. Not setting expectations and limits. We all follow rules in our lives whether they are traffic rules, rules at work or personal rules we have set for ourselves, otherwise known as guidelines. We all have certain guidelines that need to be followed each day, and kids are no exception. If kids don’t know what is expected of them then their behavior is definitely going to reflect that in a negative way. Setting these limits and expectations doesn’t have to be negative, it’s just a way to set your child up to succeed during their day when they know what the people around them need from them.
Changing your child’s behavior won’t happen overnight. Pick an aspect of your child’s behavior that you want to change, and work on one thing at a time. You will see better results if you, for example, try eliminating the tantrums that happen before leaving the house, as opposed to trying to make your child never have a tantrum.