The boundless energy of the pre-nursery-school child can test the stamina of the most devoted parents. Looking after him (or her) is a full-time job. He is mobile, curious, resourceful, and wanting to be independent but requiring much guidance. The happiest mothers, fathers and minders accept that their child needs attention most of the time. Daily routines and activities seem to revolve around his needs. Much attention and reassurance is necessary so as to develop a feeling of self-esteem in a child. The more one ‘invests’ in this, the greater is the chance that the child will evolve with enough self-confidence and emotional stability to maintain itself in society.
Attention and affection
A child who is left on his own for much of the time will learn, but more slowly than if he has an adult to guide him. He is still too young and inexperienced to make sense of a large part of his environment: he needs someone to introduce him to new sights and situations, who can help him master new skills and join in his games. He also needs an adult’s praise for each of his small achievements; if his parents are happy and pleased with him, they will increase his motivation and confidence to take on new experiences. When their child reaches the age of one or two, and as he gets older, parents often discover they have to give more thought to the way they express their love for him. Most of the time the child wants his usual share of physical affection, but if he is angry or busy playing he may turn away from his mother when she tries to cuddle him. This is normal and reflects his growing sense of independence. He may see an unsolicited caress as an infringement of his privacy, and in this situation parents should not force their affection on the child. Instead they should offer the cuddle and then wait for him to claim it, which he will do when he is ready.
Feeding and diet
In his second year a child is able to eat a wide variety of adult foods, provided they are first cut up or can be held in the fingers and chewed. He can also be given processed foods when convenient. However, because these tend to have a bland taste and an uninteresting texture, he may tire of them or, worse, become so used to them that he rejects home-cooked food. Processed baby-foods are nevertheless sometimes useful for filling in gaps in family meals; when, for example, a first course is unusually highly spiced or sweetand unsuitable for the child. A baby can have his meals at the same time as the rest of the family, although young children sometimes need snacks between meals to stave off hunger. Snacks are simple to prepare: bread and butter, or a piece of fruit, and a drink are sufficient. Sugary snacks or sweets are to be strongly discouraged. Once past their first birthday, most children are ready clumsily and make a mess; but if they are to learn to use a spoon and fork – and later a knife – properly. they should be encouraged to manage without too much help. A one-year-old may need his spoon filled for him. But he will then be able, given time, to put the spoon in his mouth, hand it back to be refilled, and repeat the process. A parent who spoons every mouthful from the plate into his mouth, while he sits back passively, is doing unnecessary work and is not helping the child towards independent eating. Parents often worry that their child is not eating enough, or is eating too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of food. These fears, which are usually unfounded, are based on unrealistic expectations about how much a child should eat and do not take into amount that a child at this age knows best himself whether he is hungry or not.
On some days, and at some mealtimes, he will be hungrier than on others, so it is unfair to expect him always to eat the same amount. Adults’ appetites vary, and so do children’s. Tastes also differ from day to day. Adults can pick and choose what they want to eat and prepare their meals accordingly. But a child is seldom in the position of being able to plan his meals. His only choice is either to eat what is on offer or to refuse it. From an educational point of view it is reasonable however to expect a child to eat all he has taken on his plate. A child who occasionally refuses to eat is not a problem. He is simply asserting his right to eat as much or as little as he needs. The best way to respond to a child’s refusal to eat certain foods is by not giving them to him. There will still be many other things he enjoys. If parents persist in trying to get him to clear his plate at every meal, they may indeed turn their child into a problem eater. He will learn that he can get his parents’ attention by making a fuss at mealtimes and he will begin to reject more and more foods.
The importance of a balanced diet has to some extent been overemphasized. Although a diet should be balanced overall, it need not be balanced at every meal, or even each day. A child who eats nothing but bread and jam for several meals will almost certainly make good the nutritional deficit later when meat, say, becomes the current favourite. Similarly, most diet books advise that fresh fruit and vegetables are vital for growing children, yet some children eat little of these foods and still growily because their nutritional requirements are being met in other ways. A child who is offered a wide variety of nutritious foods will never starve or become malnourished: over a period of time he will balance his own diet.