When Teaching Your Tot…How Much is Too Much?

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I have to admit that I was one of those mothers comparing the intellectual prowess of my preschooler to other kids his age, and the competition was often fierce.

I can remember one day in particular when a group of us brought our 2-year-olds to a nearby park for a play date. One mother spoke of her son as if he was a budding Einstein.

“My Franky can read Goodnight Moon cover to cover already.” One of the other moms in the group tried to explain to her that he had simply memorized the text, and an intense quarrel ensued. All our children wanted to do was play in the mud, but we had created a competition to see whose child was the most intelligent – better yet, who was the best parent for having made him so.

Why Parents Want to Rear Child Prodigies

Many parents compare the age at which their children first learn their ABCs and the legibility of their little ones’ signatures. In today’s society, our desire to make our children the best they can be at the earliest possible age seems to establish an unspoken proof that we have succeeded in being good parents.

David Elkind, Ph.D., explains how attitudes have changed over the years in The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Perseus, $16.95). “During the 1960s, parents were bombarded with professional and semiprofessional dicta on the importance of learning in the early years. If you did not start teaching children when they were young, parents were told, a golden opportunity for learning would be lost.” This fostered aggressive teaching in the home before a child even stepped onto school grounds.

Today, our schools expect more from our children. The curriculum for kindergarten is similar to what it used to be for first grade. This puts additional pressure on parents who become worried that their child won’t be able to keep up with the curriculum if he is not given a head start. When discussing what my son was responsible for grasping during his kindergarten year, a friend responded, “Homework? Didn’t we play in kindergarten?”

Pushing Too Hard and Too Soon

There are some negative aspects to teaching our preschoolers too much too soon. That is not to say that teaching your child at home is inherently negative. Rather, it is intense, formal teaching, such as rote memorization practices, which is inappropriate for the preschool age group. Experts agree that one of the problems with this type of pedagogical teaching is that it can stymie the child’s innate love of learning, by instead producing anxiety and a general lack of enthusiasm from being pushed too hard at an age where constructive play should serve as a learning tool.

In his book Toddler Taming (Vermillion, $8.95), Christopher Green, Ph.D., says, “There is a real danger that being forced to read and pushed too hard at too early an age can turn some children off the whole idea and a definite resistance will appear, which might hinder an otherwise normal approach to the subject.”

Parents who create a stressful learning environment are often doing more harm than good. Educators have found that the child who is pressured to learn things before he is ready develops a fear of failure because of the constant burden to perform well. He may also have trouble developing his own goals because goals have always been set for him by his parents. Burnout can also be a problem. A child who has been pushed too hard before school even starts may not enter kindergarten with the same enthusiasm as the child who does not equate learning with pressure to perform.

Many parents are overly enthusiastic about their child learning to read early, for this skill often presents a child as bright for his age. The child who begins to read before kindergarten will have a head start over the other children in his class. However, experts agree that this head start is transient, as the other children will soon catch up. Green explains the dynamics of reading and why a child of 3 does not use the same cognitive skills as a child of 6. The 3-year-old utilizes his photographic memory to recognize “sight words.”


However, this skill can be mastered by any child who has a good attention span. On the other hand, the child of 6 can actually master the skills needed to read unfamiliar words. Green states, “Unfortunately, the human brain is not sufficiently mature to handle all this computation before the developmental age of 6, and it is then that we will see who are destined to be good readers. All this will probably have little relationship to the number of sight words the child could recognize at an earlier age.”

I learned the hard way that pushing a child to learn something before he is mentally capable can result in negative consequences. When my son was only 2, he was pointing to letters in a magazine and naming them. I attributed this to his love of Dr. Seuss’s The ABC Book, but was also amazed at his recognition of the letters out of context. I was excited for my little genius to move on to the next step, so I began to teach him the lower case letters by using flash cards.

He became completely confused and started to mix up some of the upper case letters. I now understand that he remembered his letters from The ABC Book because they were presented in an amusing, rhythmic cadence that he wanted to hear again and again. Consequently, he was able to memorize all of the letters. As soon as additional information was prematurely presented in a more formal way, he lost interest and regressed.

The Best Way to Teach Your Preschooler

Teaching your child on a daily basis is one of the greatest gifts you can give him. It is how we teach, not what we teach, that sometimes needs to be modified. Many experts agree that it is beneficial for your child to be exposed to letters, numbers, colors and shapes before kindergarten. How then do we get there without hurrying the child or causing undue pressures?

A valuable passion you can pass on to your child is a love of books. Elkind instructs, “In our own studies, and in those of others, we have found that what is crucial to beginning to read is the child’s attachment to an adult who spends time reading to or with the child.” Read to your child at least once a day. Attend your local library’s story time, and check out new books on a weekly basis. Make up creative stories with your child, and develop your own book. Have your child do illustrations while you write down the words. Your child will want to be able to read all by himself if he has developed a love of books.

Try to make everything a learning experience, whether it be a parade, the circus or a trip to the supermarket. Make yourself available for lengthy conversations with your child. This encourages him to communicate and ask questions. Most importantly, let your child take the lead. Does he seem interested in what you are doing and eager to continue, or is he bored and anxious?

Preschoolers are not ready for marathon learning experiences and homework. They need exposure and encouragement. They are also entitled to a childhood filled with mud pies, ice cream and ponies. However, making the time for some creative teaching in between carefree jaunts is definitely worth the effort.


ABCs and 123s

Instead of using flash cards and workbooks,
try some of the following to help your child learn his letters and numbers:

  • Play alphabet bingo
  • Put magnetic letters on your refrigerator so your child can make words with them
  • Label things in your child’s room (i.e. bed, toys, lamp,hat)
  • Have him count his pretzels at snack time
  • Play card games with letters and numbers
  • Write your names in the sand
  • String necklaces with letter beads
  • Make alphabet soup


  • Nashville Parent Directories: When Teaching Your Tot…How Much is Too Much?

Myrna Beth Haskell is a mother and freelance writer.

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