Fathers and Preschool Children Learning Together
By Glen Palm, Ph.D., CFLE
St. Cloud State University Professor
Licensed parent educator
As young children move beyond the toddler years and begin to demonstrate their curiosity about people and their environment, fathers have new opportunities to learn with their preschool child. Development of language continues as children are constantly adding new words to their vocabulary. They begin to develop new ways of thinking as they try to understand how the world around them works. This leads to seemingly endless "why?" questions. Preschool children are expanding their self-care abilities and becoming more independent. Gender differentiation becomes more important as both boys and girls construct the meaning of gender and discover the differences between male and female.
Fathers play a unique role in helping both their sons and daughters to develop healthy gender identities as primary models of masculinity. Children at this age are also developing important attitudes about literacy and learning that will have a major impact on their success in school. Preschool children continue to develop their emotional literacy skills as they learn how to express and control their feelings including aggression and anger as they interact with a wider circle of children and adults. New physical skills produce higher activity levels for most preschoolers.
Fathers Teach Their Children
Fathers who are involved with their children during these early years have a significant influence on later development. The research literature suggests that fathers engage in more rough and tumble play during this time and help their children to learn how to regulate emotions and aggressive behavior by setting limits on physical aggression(1). Fathers also teach their children about masculinity through the relationship and communication skills that they model in their interaction with their spouse/partner(2). Children with more involved fathers are more likely to exhibit fewer sex-role stereotypes(3). Fathers who spend time reading with their children have an important impact on their children's literacy skills and school achievement(4).
This is also a time for fathers and mothers to clarify the values they want to pass on and encourage including the importance of literacy and learning, social skills and manners, and ideas about sexuality and gender. There are three important skill sets that fathers continue to develop that will assist them in their roles as disciplinarians and teachers. First, fathers continue to expand their toolbox of discipline techniques(5). Second, they focus more specifically on their role as teachers, and third, as emotion coaches. The following lists describe skills and activities that fathers may want to develop and use during the preschool years.
The role fathers play in guiding positive behavior during the preschool years can be enhanced by learning some of the following skills that fit with the young child's expanding cognitive skills and language capabilities.
Prevention skills to add to your toolbox during this stage:
- Fathers can practice really listening to their child as a way to understand both their thoughts and feelings. This may include asking questions to better understand what a child is really thinking.
- Show interest in what your child does, observe what kinds of activities your child is attracted to and get to know their interests. This can help you discover fun activities to do with your child.
- Enjoy your preschool child's emerging sense of humor and use humor with your child to diffuse potentially difficult situations. Humor at the child's level, that is not teasing, can be very effective and change the emotional tone of a situation.
- Change an activity if your child is beginning to be bored or frustrated. That, by doing so, may be a good time to play a "new game."
- Moving physically closer to a child can help them to regulate their emotions if you are able to instill a calming influence and a sense of security.
- Explain limits so that the child begins to understand the reasoning behind limits.
- Give a reminder of the rules to your child so that a child who is struggling with emotional control can refocus on the expected behavior.
- Teach problem solving skills with young children by asking them to give possible solutions to a problem situation.
- Compromise with your child so that they can experience a sense of control and learn that it is okay for them to get their needs met.
- Express strong disappointment with your child when they have done something that you had asked them not to do.
- Use logical and natural consequences to teach your child about making choices and learning to be responsible for those choices.
Adapted from Allen et. Al. 1994(5)
Emotion coaching involves a set of skills a that complement discipline skills which you can use in teaching emotional literacy to your child. John Gottman introduces important strategies that fathers can use to support the development of emotional literacy in young children(6). This is a critical time to teach children about emotions. They are learning the labels for emotions, how to read emotions in others, how to regulate their emotions, and express their emotions in safe and acceptable ways.
- Regard a child's emotions as real and respect them. Teasing or discounting your child's emotions gives the opposite message.
- Value your child's negative emotions as an opportunity to understand your child and strengthen your emotional connection to your child.
- Be sensitive to your child's emotional states, even when they are masked or subtle.
- Help your child to label their feelings and feelings in others.
- Tolerate spending time with your child when they are feeling sad, angry or fearful and learn how to respond in a supportive and understanding manner. Trying to distract children gives the message that these feelings are not okay and should be hidden from parents.
Fathers as Teachers
The emphasis on school readiness for preschool children often leads to an overemphasis on cognitive skills. The major contributions fathers make to school success come from helping children develop positive attitudes about literacy and learning, not from teaching specific literacy skills.
Some ideas for fathers that support children's learning during the preschool years:
- " Introduce your child to nature by taking them for a walk in the park, planting a garden or going fishing.
- " Include your child by taking them on errands to the lumberyard or hardware store so that they can learn about the outside world.
- " Encourage early literacy by telling stories and reading picture books to your child.
- " Model respect for others through your interactions and display of manners.
- " Let your child watch and help as you do household cleaning and make repairs.
- " Take your child on trips to the library, zoo and children's museum.
- " Monitor your child's use of TV and computers and think about the content and values that they are learning through these media.
Adapted from Palm 2007 (7)
- (1) McDonald, K. & Parke, R. (1984). Bridging the Gap: Parent-Child Play Interaction and Peer Interactive Competence, Child Development, 55, 1256-1277.
- (2) (3) Pruett, K. (2001). Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child. New York: Broadway Books.
- (4) Lyytinen, P., Laakso, M.L. & Poilkeus, A.M. (1998). Parental Contribution to Child's Early Language and Interest in Books, European Journal of Psychology of Education, 13, 297-308.
- (5) Allen, R., Pitzer, R., Sprain, J, Swanson, L., & Xiong, B. (1994). Positive Parenting: Alternative to physical punishment of children. St. Paul: University of Minnesota Extension Service.
- (6) Gottman, John, DeClaire, Joan (1997). The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- (7) Palm, G. (2007). "The Developmental Journey: Fathers and Children Growing Together," Why Fathers Count: The Importance of Fathers and Their Involvement with Children. Edited by (Sean E. Brotherson & Joseph M. White) Harriman, TN: Men's Studies Press, 163-176.