Tuesday, August 7, 2007


By Alicia Bayer

I was on a parenting bulletin board recently and read a post by a
mother who was worried that her 4 1/2 year old did not know enough.
"What should a 4 year old know?" she asked.

Most of the answers left me not only saddened but pretty soundly
annoyed. One mom posted a laundry list of all of the things her son
knew. Counting to 100, planets, how to write his first and last
name, and on and on. Others chimed in with how much more their
children already knew, some who were only 3. A few posted URL's to
lists of what each age should know. The fewest yet said that each
child develops at his own pace and not to worry.

It bothered me greatly to see these mothers responding to a worried
mom by adding to her concern, with lists of all the things their
children could do that hers couldn't. We are such a competitive
culture that even our preschoolers have become trophies and bragging

Childhood shouldn't be a race.

So here, I offer my list of what a 4 year old should know.

1. She should know that she is loved wholly and unconditionally, all
of the time.

2. He should know that he is safe and he should know how to keep
himself safe in public, with others, and in varied situations. He
should know that he can trust his instincts about people and that he
never has to do something that doesn't feel right, no matter who is
asking. He should know his personal rights and that his family will
back them up.

3. She should know how to laugh, act silly, be goofy and use her
imagination. She should know that it is always okay to paint the sky
orange and give cats 6 legs.

4. He should know his own interests and be encouraged to follow
them. If he could care less about learning his numbers, his parents
should realize he'll learn them accidentally soon enough and let him
immerse himself instead in rocket ships, drawing, dinosaurs or
playing in the mud.

5. She should know that the world is magical and that so is she.
She should know that she's wonderful, brilliant, creative,
compassionate and marvelous. She should know that it's just as
worthy to spend the day outside making daisy chains, mud pies and
fairy houses as it is to practice phonics. Scratch that-- way more

But more important, here's what parents need to know.

1. That every child learns to walk, talk, read and do algebra at his
own pace and that it will have no bearing on how well he walks,
talks, reads or does algebra.

2. That the single biggest predictor of high academic achievement
and high ACT scores is reading to children. Not flash cards, not
workbooks, not fancy preschools, not blinking toys or computers, but
mom or dad taking the time every day or night (or both!) to sit and
read them wonderful books.

3. That being the smartest or most accomplished kid in class has
never had any bearing on being the happiest. We are so caught up in
trying to give our children "advantages" that we're giving them lives
as multi-tasked and stressful as ours. One of the biggest advantages
we can give our children is a simple, carefree childhood.

4. That our children deserve to be surrounded by books, nature, art
supplies and the freedom to explore them. Most of us could get rid
of 90% of our children's toys and they wouldn't be missed, but some
things are important-- building toys like legos and blocks, creative
toys like all types of art materials (good stuff), musical
instruments (real ones and multicultural ones), dress up clothes and
books, books, books. (Incidentally, much of this can be picked up
quite cheaply at thrift shops.) They need to have the freedom to
explore with these things too-- to play with scoops of dried beans in
the high chair (supervised, of course), to knead bread and make
messes, to use paint and play dough and glitter at the kitchen table
while we make supper even though it gets everywhere, to have a spot
in the yard where it's absolutely fine to dig up all the grass and
make a mud pit.

5. That our children need more of us. We have become so good at
saying that we need to take care of ourselves that some of us have
used it as an excuse to have the rest of the world take care of our
kids. Yes, we all need undisturbed baths, time with friends, sanity
breaks and an occasional life outside of parenthood. But we live in
a time when parenting magazines recommend trying to commit to 10
minutes a day with each child and scheduling one Saturday a month as
family day. That's not okay! Our children don't need Nintendos,
computers, after school activities, ballet lessons, play groups and
soccer practice nearly as much as they need US.

They need fathers who sit and listen to their days, mothers who join
in and make crafts with them, parents who take the time to read them
stories and act like idiots with them. They need us to take walks
with them and not mind the .1 MPH pace of a toddler on a spring
night. They deserve to help us make supper even though it takes
twice as long and makes it twice as much work. They deserve to know
that they're a priority for us and that we truly love to be with them.

What does a 4 year old need?
Much less than we realize, and much more.

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