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Parenting Advice Hitting and tantrums at preschool


My three-year-old has begun hitting in preschool. In the past, when this happened, we were able to tell him to use his words instead of his fists, as he has a very large vocabulary. He is an only child, and his mother is home with him every day except for the three hours he is in school, three days a week. When we talk to him about the hitting, he only says that he likes to hit. We have also noticed that his tantrums at home have increased in frequency, duration and intensity. What alternatives do we have in handling this behavior?

Chuck Cleaver

Jan's reply:

"Out of clutter, find simplicity.
Out of discord, find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."
- Albert Einstein

"In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." When a child exhibits unwanted behavior in a particular situation, we have several opportunities. We have the chance to interpret that behavior and to understand what it is that the child is attempting to communicate. We can also reexamine some long-held but false assumptions about the needs of young children, and about the nature of learning. So I thank you for these opportunities which spring from your questions about your child's behavior.

Whenever we think there is a "problem" with a child's behavior, we can be sure that false assumptions are at work. Why? As Rick Lahrson, Executive Director of The Kids' Project, has written, "In early childhood, nearly everything we do is either an attempt to contribute to another or an attempt to improve our ability to contribute, or an attempt to survive - in order to contribute. Misbehavior in children is an attempt to communicate, when all else has failed." Because of the many false assumptions about childhood in our society, children are mistrusted and misunderstood to the extent that unwanted behavior is seen as an isolated action to correct, rather than an important communication from the child to those who care about him.

With misbehavior in a preschool setting, there are three such false assumptions:

1. Our society assumes that every child of three should be capable of spending hours at a time away from his parents in a new environment. Yet research has clearly shown that the "clingy, dependent" toddler, who is given sufficient opportunity to bond closely with his parents and is not required to mature faster than he is capable of doing, is the child who grows up to be an independent, self-reliant adult. Conversely, the child who is forced into independence before he is able to handle it, may never fully mature, because his emotional needs have not been met at the proper time in his development. The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce offers a fascinating look at this aspect of child development.

No one would expect every flower in a garden to bloom at the same time, yet our society expects every child to be ready for school at the same age. In fact, there is no "magic age" when all children suddenly become ready to spend time away from their parents. As with all developmental stages, each child has a built-in, unique schedule. Parents who accept and cherish their child "as is," who willingly meet dependency needs as they arise, and who allow the child to indicate in words and behavior when he is ready to move on to the next level of development, are doing their job in the easiest and most effective way.

2. A second assumption that should be examined is that preschool is the best preparation for school. Here, too, research has proven otherwise. Even one year can make a significant difference. A seven-year study of seventy schoolchildren in Cincinnati revealed that 81% of the boys who waited a year to start school had above-average grades, compared to only 47% of those who started early. 100% of the girls who waited had above-average grades, compared to only 60% of those who started early. In fact, many studies have shown that the longer a child waits to start school, the better his performance when he or she begins. Those who have homeschooled throughout their childhood score the highest, on both social and academic measures.

3. The third false assumption is that school is the best preparation for life. Again, researchers have found that former homeschoolers are often more successful in social, academic, and professional areas than their schooled peers. Many famous and successful persons homeschooled: Andrew Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Charles Dickins, Isadora Duncan, Thomas Edison, Claude Monet, and Mark Twain, among many others. Clearly, school attendance is not a necessary prerequisite for a creative and successful life - and for many, it can be a hindrance.

As you may be suspecting by now (despite what relatives and friends may be telling you), a child of three is very young to be spending several hours at a time away from his parents. A three-hour separation may not seem long to an adult, but it can be extremely stressful for a young child. Research studies have clearly shown that children who remain at home during their early years are happier, more cooperative, and score more highly in social, verbal, and other developmental tests. My article "Homeschooling: Nurturing Children's Natural Love of Learning" covers these topics more fully.

Unless there are other stressful factors in your family situation, I strongly suspect that your son is trying hard to tell you something that even a verbal child may find difficult to express: he does not feel ready for something that he is being asked to do. Preschool has probably been presented to him as the "right" thing to do. If he finds the separation or the preschool environment too stressful, he may be feeling inadequate and guilty about his failure to meet his parents' hopes and expectations.

It is often the brightest and most creative children who recognize early on that the structure of school is stifling and restrictive. A child who "misbehaves" in a preschool setting may simply be trying to do instead the work all children are meant to do at that age: to develop and maintain a close, trusting bond with caring parents. In a paper titled "A Nation Really at Risk", Dr. John Raven wrote:

"Not only does schooling at this [early] age not have an effect on subsequent educational attainment, the research evidence points increasingly toward the home as a much stronger, and much more important, educational agency than the school - especially in relation to the really important qualities which young people need to develop. Schools are, in general, very much worse than most parents at developing adventurousness, inquisitiveness, self-confidence, and curiosity in children.

"If educators wish to promote the development of young children, their starting point must be with community support networks for adults... which will enable more parents to relate to their own children in a sensitive, developmental way. It is parents, and parents alone, who are in a position to give each child the individual attention he or she needs, and to "read" the meaning of his or her gestures in such a way as to be able to create a developmental environment which will lead the child to develop his talents."

Let your heart hear what your son is trying to say with his behavior. Forcing a child to do something that he is not capable of doing - or should not be doing - at his present developmental age will always backfire. Expecting one's child to fit into a certain situation because other children appear to fit in is unrealistic. Each child develops at his own rate, and each child has his own best style of learning (see my article "Learning Disability: A Rose by Any Other Name"). One of the reasons I recommend homeschooling is that it takes individual differences into account, in a way that no school system can.

A key factor in a situation of this kind is choice. If a child is being asked to do something, and given no choice in the matter, he may find it an impossible task. If the same child is presented with a choice, he may actually choose what the parents had been about to require. One reason that former homeschoolers usually do very well if they try school at a later time is that they know they always have the option of returning to homeschooling.

In the following books, the authors discuss the nature of children's learning and the value of helping them learn at home for as long as possible.

The Hurried Child by David Elkind:

Dr. Elkind discusses the issue of children pressured by the many forces of our culture into growing up too fast.

Teach Your Own by John Holt

This is the single best "how to" book for homeschooling families.

In Their Own Way by Thomas Armstrong

This book describes various learning styles found among children, that schools do not take into account. An awareness of these styles can help parents to identify and work with their child's personal learning style.

How Children Learn by John Holt

John Holt's classic of educational thought, How Children Learn has sold nearly one million copies. In the belief that young children tend to learn better than adults, Holt urges parents to trust their children. I consider this an essential book for all parents, regardless of whether their children attend school.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful for you in finding a good solution.


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