School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
To accompany Chapter 2
Comments from parents about preschoolers:
"I enjoy her because I can talk to her; we have these wonderful conversations, and she can tell me about something that happened to her today at school that was really neat for her, and I just love to hear about it."
"It's fun to hear him looking forward to doing things with us.  He'll ask how many days until Saturday or Sunday because on those days I wait for him to get up before I have breakfast.  Usually I'm up and gone before he gets up.  He likes to come out and get up in my lap and share my breakfast, and it's a ritual.  He looks forward to that and counts the days."
"She's really affectionate, always has been, but now out of nowhere, she'll tell you she loves you.  She likes to do things with you, and when you give her special attention, one on one, she really likes it.  We play games - Candy Land or Cinderella – or just one of us goes with her to the supermarket or to the park.  We read stories every night and do some talking.  Sometimes I put a record on and we dance."
For many parents the preschool years represent the best of childhood.  At that point, children have a good grasp of language, they take delight in discovering new things, they are affectionate, think their parents are wonderful and know everything there is to know (this will change!), and they haven't developed the dislikes and negativism that older children generally go through.  In fact, when children are going through adolescence and parenting tends to be more associated with conflict, parents often think back wistfully to those preschool years when everything seemed so much more serene and fun.  I remember my daughter when she was about four climbing into my bed in the morning when my hair was all over the place, I was still sleepy, and I definitely wasn't looking my best.  She would hold my face in her hands and say, "Mommy, you are so beautiful."  Well, of course I just melted and found her even more endearing than ever.  Preschoolers tend to be very loving and do affectionate, sweet things all the time.  Parents like to remember those times even 20 or 30 years later.
When we look at the preschool years in terms of the developmental theorists we have studied, we see that Freud would place preschool children in the infantile genital stage, Piaget in the preoperational stage, and Erikson in the initiative vs. guilt stage.  Freud suggested that the task for children this age is to learn to identify with the same sex parent.  At the beginning of the infantile genital stage, the child tends to have a "crush" on the opposite sex parent.  Often you will hear little girls say, "I am going to marry daddy when I grow up," or little boys say, "I am going to marry mommy when I grow up."  By the time kids are at the end of this stage, boys have learned to identify with their fathers and girls with their mothers.  Strong gender role identity takes place during this stage, with boys learning the behaviors and attitudes that society deems appropriate for males and girls learning the behaviors and attitudes that society deems appropriate for females.  Many of Freud's ideas about gender role identity have been criticized over the years, particularly with regard to the subordination of women to men (penis envy; women seen as inferior to men).  Freud's ideas with regard to gender role identity were pretty rigid and helped perpetuate many stereotypes that still exist today.  However, it can't be denied that children this age develop very strong ideas about what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl in our society.
During Piaget's preoperational stage, the child has certainly broadened his way of thinking from the sensorimotor stage, but is still pretty unsophisticated in the way he thinks.  There are some very common things that preoperational children do.  For example, they are egocentric - seeing the world from their own perspective and not recognizing how other see things.  This will change around the age of six or so.  The preschool child is likely to nod her head into the phone when asked a question by the person on the other end of the line.  The preschool child who is wearing a raincoat because of the weather is likely to say when asked why it is raining, "It's raining because I'm wearing my raincoat!"  This is an example of transductive reasoning, very common at this age - reasoning from one particular to another without having an understanding of the steps or reasons for something.  Preschool children also use symbolic play as their language ability becomes more complex (the five-year-old child has a vocabulary of more than 2,000 words).  They will use an object for a purpose other than that for which it was designed - making a bow and arrow out of two sticks, for example, or a house out of a refrigerator box.  Kids this age tend to have lots of curiosity and ask a lot of questions - "Where was I before I was born?", "Why does the sun shine?", "Where do
people go when they die?", etc.
Children in the preschool years have difficulty with conservation, classification, and seriation tasks.  This is because they don't think as logically as older children or adults.  For example, they can tell you which of two sticks is longer, but often have problems lining up a group of ten sticks in size order.  As parents interact with children, they need to keep in mind that the preschooler's knowledge is incomplete.  Things that are obvious to the parent are very often not even recognized by the preschooler.
Erikson's initiative vs. guilt stage lasts from about age 3 to about age 5 and is marked by the ability of the child to plan and direct self-initiated activity.  The positive outcome of this stage - having a sense of initiative - happens when the child has primarily positive experiences, when parents encourage rather than criticize, allow the child opportunities to set and pursue goals rather than doing everything for the child or limiting the child's experience too rigidly, and answer the child's questions rather than ignore them or put them off.   The idea of parenting at this stage is to help children grow from having total dependence on others into individuals able to trust themselves to get around independently in the world, to be able to initiate and sustain activities and to form a positive self concept.  Erikson would expect parents to be especially aware of their child's feelings and emotions and to respect them.
As children move from toddlerhood to preschool years, their emotions become more complex.  Preschoolers become increasingly accurate at understanding the connections between feelings and the events and social interactions that produce them.  By the end of the preschool period, they recognize that feelings can persist and are influenced by what one thinks.
Studies have shown that preschoolers are particularly accurate at understanding anger and distress.  A preschooler's most common form of emotional upset is crying, which accounts for about 74% of disruptions at home.   Anger represents about 23% of these incidents.  Parent-child interactions are the main source (71%) of the upsets, with siblings accounting for about 13% and peer conflicts for about 6% of the distress.  Parents' usual response to a preschooler's distress is to give practical, problem-solving suggestions so the child can deal with the situation.  When parents encourage children to take action with problems, children are better able to plan and are more effective in social activities.
Children this age are able to show their feelings, but can also hide feelings as well.  By age three children are already beginning to hide anger, disappointment, and guilt.  They will try to hide their wrongdoing and may also try to mask feelings of disappointment when other people are present.  Girls are more likely to hide negative feelings (this continues throughout life) and give full expression to positive feelings.  Children this age have trouble understanding more than one emotion in a person at a time - for example, they are likely to think that someone who is nice is nice all the time.
A child's temperament influences their emotional reactions and how they control their emotions.  The child who is emotionally intense and has a heightened negative affect is less controlled and is less able to regulate the expression of his or her emotions.  They act out, often in aggressive ways, when they are angry or upset.  This behavior makes it difficult for them to achieve positive resolutions to upsetting situations.  Children who don't become overly aroused emotionally are able to regulate their feelings, talk over the situation, and find more adaptive solutions to the upsetting situation.  Parents who encourage children to express their feelings of sadness and distress and teach them ways to deal with these feelings appropriately help children to express themselves and find solutions to upsetting events.  It should be remembered, also, that children look to adults as role models.  The parent who gets upset at a situation and throws things or yells or hits or punches the wall will show their children that this is the way to handle adversity and conflict.
During the preschool years, children often develop fears.  It is natural for children this age to develop a fear of animals, of the dark, of harm from imaginary creatures, and of natural disasters like fires and storms.  Again, the way the parents handle these fears can help the child learn to deal with them.  It should be kept in mind that some fears fade away as the child's thinking becomes more sophisticated, and that there are some fears that occur because of things that happen in the environment - someone dies and the child becomes fearful that it will happen to him/her or a parent, there is a tornado and people's houses are blown away and the child is fearful that that will happen to his house.
Some fears are beneficial because they cause the child to be careful in potentially dangerous situations.  There is nothing wrong with making a child cautious when climbing a tree, for example, because being concerned with falling out will make the child be more careful.  Fears can be harmful for children, though, when they are intense and prevent the child from exploring the world and interacting with other people.
In early childhood children define themselves in terms of their physical characteristics - size, hair color, boy or girl – and differentiate themselves from others in terms of physical characteristics - "I am taller than Jane," "I have black hair."  They focus on external differences.  At the same time they are also focusing on their actions and what they can do as a way of defining themselves - "I run fast," "I help daddy paint the porch."
Preschoolers have internalized standards that they evaluate themselves by and they tend to be optimistic when they approach tasks.  This optimism is helpful when they are trying to accomplish something.  As mentioned earlier, preschool children have established a gender identity and know that this identity is unchanging over time.  Children this age are prone to gender stereotyping ("only boys can be doctors," "girls have to do the dishes") and this gender stereotyping tends to be reinforced by parents, friends, the media, and later, school.  Kids tend to discourage what they consider to be gender-inappropriate behavior in their peers - "you can't play with that truck, you're a girl," or "only sissies play with dolls."
Preschool children tend to use private speech directed to themselves - "I got my shoes and socks," "First you take this block and then you put it here" - giving themselves validation or directions.  As children gain in attention span and concentration increases, their capacity for self control also increases.  By the end of the preschool period, children know the rules and can follow them, often without reminders.  They may still resist, but in a different way.  Instead of crying and temper tantrums, they will use verbal means of refusing and negotiating compromises.  Parents who have used verbal requests to induce compliance and verbal feedback to modify behavior (as opposed to yelling and spanking) have the most cooperative children at age five.
According to the book, Attachment in the Preschool Years (Cicchetti, Greenberg, Cummings, 1990), during the growing years, the child's attachment to the parent serves "to protect children from danger, to facilitate their exploration of the environment, to play a role in regulating physical proximity, and to provide a sense of security and trust."  As children grow and develop, verbal interaction replaces physical intervention as the means by which parents ensure safety and proximity, and promote exploration.
As it did in earlier stages of development, sensitive, involved, flexible parenting promotes feelings of security in children.  Parents' behavior with children at earlier age periods affects their attachment and children's behavior during the preschool years.  Securely attached infants whose parents are sensitive and responsive will become toddlers who feel confident about exploring the world.  Parents who understand the behavior of toddlers and know how they are developing will be better able to parent their children responsibly and have preschoolers who are cooperative and feel good about themselves and their families.  Some of the factors influencing parents' behavior with their children are:
     Parents'  attachment relationships with their own parents.  Mothers who reported having secure attachments with their parents were warm, helpful and supportive with their own preschoolers.  Their children were securely attached to them and reaped the benefits of that close relationship.  Mothers who reported remote, detached relationships with their parents were cool, remote, and very directive with their own children.  These children were insecurely attached, more anxious, subdued and suffered from behavior problems.  Mothers who had secure attachments with their own parents reported as many negative events in their early lives as insecurely attached mothers; however, they seemed to interpret them differently.  They were more able to focus on what was positive in the relationship and value that.
     Environment, characterized by the neighborhood, external danger, and living arrangements.  Mothers in lower socioeconomic groups who are young and single, with little education and no supportive boyfriend or husband, use more controlling techniques with their children, emphasizing obedience and safety.  Mothers in lower socioeconomic groups who feel they have the support of institutions such as church or religion are able to be more child centered in their discipline.  Parents with high incomes who live in affluent neighborhoods have access to schools with more resources, have access to better medical care, etc.  This creates an environment for children that is very different from that of children living in families with low incomes.
     Parents' personal problems have an effect on parent-child relationships.  For example, one study showed that a parent's depression itself wasn't directly related to children's problems, but when the depression leads to unhappy marriages, those unhappy marriages negatively affected the parent-child relationship.  Depressed parents who are unhappily married are less warm and less positive with their children, and the children are more aggressive and resistant with parents and other people as well.  Alcoholic parents create a difficult family atmosphere of aggressiveness and hostility that affects children.  The alcoholic parent often creates financial hardship for the family (losing a job, spending money on the addiction, etc.), and is unable to be a responsive parent to his/her children.  The non-alcoholic parent must deal with the behavior of the alcoholic parent and is often less sensitive and responsive to the children in the family.Preschool boys in one study were found to develop aggressive, negative acting-out behaviors when the father in the family was alcoholic.
     Philosophy of discipline.  Parents who are authoritative and use non-physical methods of discipline have children who are better behaved, more confident and cooperative, and get along better with peers.  Parents who use harsh methods of punishment (spanking, humiliation, criticizing in front of friends) have children who are most hostile, more nervous, and are resentful of the parent.  Parents tend to parent the way they were parented, and often people will say, "I was spanked when I was a child, and I turned out all right."  If you ask these people if their parents could have used another, more effective in the long run method of discipline, they can generally come up with something that works better.  Just because our parents did things a particular way doesn't mean that we can't come up with more effective, more appropriate methods of discipline.  Remember that one goal of discipline is to instill self discipline in the child (after all, parents aren't always going to be with the child to be the "discipline cop."  Children need to internalize the appropriate way to behave in many types of situations).  To instill self discipline in the child, discipline needs to make sense for the offense.  The child who is called in to dinner but stays outside and plays with her friends doesn't need to be spanked for that.  More effective discipline is for the child to not get dinner.  One hungry evening is usually enough to make the child come in for dinner on time the next night.  Parents need to think about and discuss what exactly their goals are for their children and what methods of parenting and discipline will work best to achieve those goals.
In relationships with siblings, preschoolers:
     Are helpful, comforting and soothing.  Generally if a new baby comes on the scene, preschoolers have mixed emotions - they may resent how much of the parents' time the new baby takes, but they also want to be helpful and gentle with the new baby.  Parents can tap into these prosocial feelings by letting the preschooler know how much he is loved, encouraging the preschooler to help by bringing diapers to the parent or letting the preschooler help feed the baby.  Preschoolers are at the age where they want to be kind and helpful, and this is evidenced by interactions with siblings.
     Have hostile interactions about one-third of the time.  Even though preschoolers can be empathetic and kind, they are also still pretty immature with their emotions and feelings.  When someone takes a toy away from them, or they are forced to stop an activity they are enjoying they can become frustrated and angry.  Thus, temper tantrums or aggression sometimes occur.  The wise parent figures out what to do at those times, whether it's removing the child from a situation, scooping up the child, holding them close and rocking them in a chair, or distracting them to another activity.
     Are more aggressive when mothers are overcontrolling and intrusive.  Timing is important when dealing with a preschooler.  Parents need to let preschoolers have lots of time to play and engage in enjoyable activities, chosen by the child.  Parents should not try to control everything about the child's environment.  Certainly, young children need some controls and guidance, but there are many things that the child should be starting to have control of.  If the child is playing happily, the parent needs to let the child alone rather than intruding with suggestions of other things to do.  I had a friend once who wanted her child to experience every possible thing.  I've been with her more than once when her child was happily engaged in something and she would see something she thought the child would like and she would interrupt what the child was doing.  Once I was having coffee with her at her house and her little boy was playing contentedly with
some trucks and blocks.  Something came on the TV about trucks and she starts yelling, "Adam, look, look at the trucks.  See those trucks on TV.  Just like the ones daddy drives.  Adam, Adam, look, look!!"  She sounded demented.  It's also not a good idea for parents to get involved in every squabble their children have.  As long as no one is getting hurt, parents need to not try to control the situation, but let the children try to work things out themselves.
     Are more prosocial when fathers are affectionate.  Obviously children need affection and cuddling from both parents.  We used to think that dads were more reserved when it came to their children.  Happily, most dads today are not afraid of showing affection to their children.
In peer relationships, preschoolers:
     Want friendly interactions and achieve them most of the time.  Friendly, outgoing children who are not aggressive tend to be the most popular with peers.
     Dislike children who disrupt play and cause trouble.
     Are most popular when parents coach them on how to be part of group activities.
     Are warm and outgoing when they have had secure attachments with mothers in infancy and toddlerhood.  This goes back to Erikson and the idea that if the infant develops trust in her environment, she is better prepared to develop autonomy which leads to feelings of initiative and the ability to get along with peers.  Secure attachment is the foundation for positive relationships later in life.
Problems with preschoolers tend to center on:
     Meeting physiological needs.
     Getting control of bodily functions - masturbation, bed wetting.  These can be challenging issues for parents and children both.  Children this age naturally become interested in their own and other peoples' bodies.  It is not unusual for preschoolers to "play doctor" and compare body parts with another child.  Sometimes parents react very negatively to this and even scare the child with their reaction.  Better to sit down and have a talk with the child about their body and privacy issues.  Preschoolers often find that it is pleasurable to touch their genitals.  Again, parents need to talk with the child about privacy, what is appropriate, where it is appropriate and so on.
     Getting control of emotional reactions and behavior like fears and aggression.  Sometimes children this age develop what seem to be irrational fears - fear that the parent will die, fear that the earth will open up and they will fall in.  Fears are normal at this age, and some fears are even healthy, as mentioned earlier in these notes.  If a fear seems to be
interfering with the child's normal daily activities, the parent should explore what is happening with the child.  It is important to discover the cause of the fear.  If grandma has just died, it isn't unusual for the child to start thinking that maybe mom or dad could die too.  If there was a tornado in the next town, the child may worry about a tornado hitting his house.  Sometimes it takes lots of conversations between parent and child to allay the child's fear.  But parents need to take that time and consider it an investment in their child's emotional well being. 
     As far as aggression is concerned, parents need to address this too, if their child is showing aggression toward other children.  Again, it is important to determine the cause - sometimes the child has been bullied by another child and decides that he will then bully others. He may have older siblings who are aggressive with him so he emulates that behavior with his peers.  She may have seen something on television and is emulating that behavior.  Whatever the reason, parents need to help their child learn ways to behave that curb that aggression.  Parents should also look to their own behavior to see if the child is modeling what she sees the parent doing.
Parenting  in this age period includes the following:
     Being a sensitive, responsive caregiver who provides feelings of  security to the child.
     Balancing an acceptance of the child's individuality with control of his/her behavior.
     Providing stimulating experiences with toys and people.
     Helping children master challenges so they feel successful.
     Serving as a coach to foster the child's increasing competence in self-control and social relationships.
     Helping the child to conform to rules outside the home.
     Providing companionship and play.
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