The pre-school child – Care and upbringing

All children need food, warmth, love, encouragement and security. As with any young age group, four- to six-year-olds benefit from being brought up with a combination of tenderness and firmness. Over-protective, indulgent, lax or inconsistent parenting may cause a child to become aggressive, too dependent, or manipulative. On the other hand, harsh or excessively strict handling by parents may repress a child’s healthy development, or make him or her rebel and become totally unmanageable later on. Routine activities, regular meal-times, for example, are important in contributing to a child’s sense of security. Thus the regular care of hair, nails, teeth and attention to general health give a child a sense of well-being; baths or showers help him or her relax at the same time as making them socially acceptable to other people.

Feeding

Between the ages of four and six years, children know instinctively that food is essential because they know what hunger is, but eating is often a nuisance to them. This is a period of intense activity in their lives, and they prefer meals that are quick and convenient to eat, such as sausages, hamburgers, fish-fingers and chips, so that they can resume play as quickly as possible. Parents’ efforts to keep their children at the table may meet with resistance. Young children frequently develop an insight into predictable adult responses: they often know, for example, that their fidgeting or lolling about at the table can persuade their parents to let them go back to their games.

Normally, this resistance to regular meals is nothing more than a phase; the less fuss parents make about it, the sooner it passes. Children can be encouraged to grow out of this phase if biscuits, cakes and sweets are not left lying around the house within easy reach of young hands. It is a good idea to give a child a certain amount of freedom as to how much and what to eat. If adults can exercise some choice, why, to a certain extent, not children? Parents should not become overly worried if their child does not eat a great deal. He or she will never voluntarily starve. Parents can also help their children develop an interest in their meals by taking them along to the supermarket, allowing them to help choose the food, and then letting them assist in the preparation of simple meals where safety permits. During these years, changes in dietary preferences occur rapidly. The food item a child dislikes now may become a firm favourite within only a brief space of time.

Hygiene

Habits of personal hygiene are initially copied from parents by an observant toddler until they become part of an accepted routine. Nevertheless, sometimes when a child – let us say a boy – is involved in play, he may resist efforts to wash his face and hands or get him into the bath or shower. Consequently a child’s attitude to keeping clean can vary considerably from day to day: sometimes he will be meticulous about washing, and may refuse to wear twice a garment that he believes is dirty; at other times, he may show no interest at all in his appearance. In the long run, most parents would agree that it is more important for a child to be able to play with his friends than to show off his clean clothes.

Aggression among four- to six-year-olds

Aggression among four- to six-year-olds is not uncommon, and may occur at particular times. Sometimes parents may witness arguments or disagreements between children of the same age group about 30 minutes before meals. This may be caused by a fall in the sugar (glucose) content of the blood, which results in a loss of energy and a subsequent rise in the amount of adrenaline in the bloodstream. Discord between playmates arises commonly when one of them is unable to achieve a certain objective, such as catching a ball or steering a toy properly: one child may criticize the other, or become embarrassed. To minimize squabbles of this kind it might be advisable for parents to give their children an apple or something to drink between meals. Once children have eaten, and renewed their energy levels, they tend to view their peers and surroundings more favourably. Tiredness and lack of sleep may induce similar moments of disharmony. Continuing aggression may be the result of inner conflict, anxiety or a feeling of rejection. Children cannot reason like adults, so sometimes a slight incident can become magnified into a major worry. Because this is such an important phase of development, and the period before school begins in earnest, parents should be constantly aware of their children’s need for security and affection. Communication between parent and child is essential – not simply through talking casually, but discussing feelings or problems in depth, as well as using reassuring gesture and touch. ‘Spoiling’

The concept of ‘spoiling’ is often misunderstood. To •fulfil a child’s need for loving, cuddling or just being together with his parents is not the same as spoiling the child; the direct experience of his parents’ love can only enhance his own capacity to give affection in turn. Spoiling does occur, however, when parents indulge a child’s every whim without thought for the consequences. Parents who consistently give into demands for sweets, for example, as a method of keeping their child quiet are doing that child a disservice by encouraging tooth decay and possibly damaging his appetite for healthy eating. In this manner, parents may be spoiling their offspring’s health, appearance and confidence. Instead of constantly making attractive promises in exchange for help or good behaviour, parents should teach their child that helping and good behaviour in themselves are a positive contribution to family life or society. Children can also be said to be spoilt when they are given more toys than they can appreciate or make use of, regardless of value and cost; or when they are allowed to behave badly without reprimand. By the time they reach adult life, such children may not be able to understand ambition, or appreciate the value of goods. Parental discipline is an essential ingredient of successful emotional, social and physical development; applied in moderation, it forms the foundation for a well-balanced child, and eventually for its own self-discipline. However, pre-school children often do not understand the purpose of discipline, and efforts to impose discipline have to be explained. The most important thing for parents is to be consistent; no should mean no and yes should mean yes, and also the parents should not contradict each other. Parents need to be careful not to ignore or excuse behaviour on one occasion and then react angrily to the same misdemeanour another time. Rather than deferring punishment, the best policy is to discipline a child the moment he has behaved badly. Problems may arise if, having threatened to deprive a child of a treat by way of punishment, parents deny or forget the threat and go on to provide the treat. After a while, many children gain insight into such parental inconsistency and may learn to manipulate it.