Parent’s Goal When Child is a Preschooler (3–6 years)
The preschool age can be challenging and confusing both for parent and child. It’s the age of letting go, and also holding on – much like the teenage years. Children of this age must learn a sense of responsibility and ambition that is self-motivated. At this age, parents often make the mistake of bringing in threats and bribes, as it is an age where misbehavior will often rear its head. During this age in particular, parents have the opportunity to lay the foundation for intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means being motivated to do something because it makes you feel good in itself. For example, hugging a loved one or eating dessert have no external rewards or consequences, they just feel good, so we are motivated to have this behavior. No reward is needed because the behavior itself is the reward.
On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to do something based on wanting a reward for our behavior or avoiding punishment. Extrinsic motivation is often the primary system used with preschoolers, and it can create problems later in life. For example, a child who grows up always getting a sticker or a sweet for doing positive actions will grow up expecting a reward for something that should happen naturally.
The perfect example of this is “eat your vegetables and then you’ll get dessert.” Not only are we robbing our children of the opportunity to appreciate vegetables, which can be delicious, but we are taking them away from the present moment and having them focus on something in the future. We are essentially telling them that vegetables are bad, but there will be a reward if they comply.
Extrinsic motivation can also reduce compassion. If our children are overly praised or rewarded for acts of kindness, they are robbed of the opportunity to discover how good it feels to do something kind. Instead, they are trained to focus on “what’s in it for me.” Often, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can produce the same behavior and the difference is experienced internally. For example, extrinsic motivation can be studying because you want a good grade, intrinsic motivation can be studying because it makes you feel proud to learn and be good at something. I’m sure you can guess which type of motivation produces happier and more successful children, but learning intrinsic motivation takes time.
Giving a reward or threatening a punishment will often produce an immediate behavioral shift, which is why it’s so popular at this age. However, I strongly believe that if we, as parents, can just take some deep breaths during challenges instead of bribing or punishing, our children will come out on the other end with so many more tools to use in life. My son and daughter take such pride in their schoolwork and so truly love learning that even when I tried to encourage them to take time off from school for a Disneyland trip they didn’t want to. They receive so much joy from learning new things! Of course, this isn’t only a result of allowing intrinsic motivation to grow, it is also a result of great teachers and an open-minded temperament.
During these preschool years, the goal isn’t to “teach” internal motivation, but to allow it to grow within your child. You can do this by pointing out, on occasion, the naturally good feelings that come with doing something positive. For example, when you see your child doing something positive on their own, notice it and ask the child to look to their feelings. “I see you’ve put your dishes in the sink. How does it make you feel to help keep our kitchen clean?” or, “I notice when grandpa was here that you gave him a hug and that made him smile. How did it make you feel to make grandpa smile?” Internal motivation doesn’t always have the immediate behavior change that external motivation has so there will be times when you may need to use external motivation, often when you are in a personally desperate situation. For example, your child is repeatedly hitting his sibling or you are running late for a flight.
So you can see why patience and trust in the goodness of our child are our goals as parents during this preschool age. Doubting that our child will ultimately make the right decision leads us to threaten or bribe which ultimately communicates that we don’t trust them and that they don’t have the inner resources to do what’s right. Having patience and trust in the goodness of our child is essential. Also, Erikson pointed out that essential goals for children this age are to learn how to interact with others as well as plan and achieve goals which both require the development of intrinsic motivation. We want our children to be kind to others because it feels good to be kind, not because they are avoiding getting into trouble.
Preschoolers will also begin to develop ambition, a desire to achieve, which will require hard work. It’s so tempting for us to jump in and do things for them, but we accidentally rob them of their ambition when we do this for them. When we do things for them, we also unin- tentionally communicate that we’re not sure they can do it themselves, which can also rob them of confidence. If they ask us for help, we can help, but try to be the secondary figure in the job instead of the leader. If parents can allow their preschooler to lead age-appropriate activities, it builds on their foundation for intrinsic motivation and creates pride and confidence.
But there’s more to this stage. There’s the letting go you need to do... you’ll need to reassure yourself as you communicate the message that you believe in your child (because often you will be just learning to believe in your child). Allow your child to explore on her own, as long as it’s safe. Avoid being over-involved, allow him to work things out on his own. Support your child’s choice, even if it’s different from your own personal preference. It can be very empowering and confidence-building when your child learns that she can have a say in things that affect her.
This is a good age to offer two choices and let the child choose. For example, instead of announcing “You’ll be starting soccer on Monday” you can ask, “Would you rather do soccer or karate?” Instead of “We’re having spaghetti for dinner,” you can ask “Would you rather have spa- ghetti or quesadillas?” You can even use the “two choice” method to encourage good behavior. Instead of “Put your toys away,” you can ask “Would you rather put your toys away now or in 30 minutes?” Then, set a timer and when it goes off, you can ask, “Do you remember what you decided to do in 30 minutes? It’s been 30 minutes....” Instead of “Ok, time to put your toys away now!” Be available, and provide kind but firm boundaries. More detailed explanations and suggestions for this strategy can be found in the book Transformational Parenting.