How to Be a Present and Prepared Parent

As the spring weather (finally) appears here to stay, you’ll likely find yourself thinking about what’s ahead. As parents, we feel the pressures around summer plans, camps, and schedules for our children immediately after the winter holidays. While this time of year is exciting to embrace the growth that has been had and look forward to the future summer months, I’d like to focus on the delicate balance of fostering the present joy and NOW of childhood, while also knowing when and where the role of preparation comes into our children’s lives.

The Days Are Long but the Years Are Short

I recently visited a friend’s brand-new baby in the hospital and was struck by how small newborns are when I held him. At first, I thought he might be even tinier than my own children were at birth. However, upon learning his birth weight, I chuckled, realizing he was the exact size of my son when he was born – I simply had forgotten just how small they were.

Upon returning from Spring Break and seeing our PreK, JK, and SK students, I was amazed at how many appeared a full year older, having seemingly shot up in just a week’s time. As parents, we all understand how time slips away so quickly. The saying, “the days are long but the years are short,” resonates for good reason.

Don’t Overlook the NOW of Childhood

My friend with the newborn recently mentioned how those initial parenting days feel like Groundhog Day. I can relate to that sentiment. There are moments when I still catch myself thinking, “If we can just make it to dinner, then bath, then bedtime,” or “things will be easier at age ‘x’ or at this stage.” Yet, as we reach those anticipated stages, we discover that while some things become easier, new challenges inevitably arise. Whether it will be dealing with sibling rivalries, juggling busy sports schedules, or navigating emotionally charged peer situations, the journey of parenthood is filled with continuous growth and adaptation.

All this to say, it can be easy to overlook the NOW of childhood. The joys of being a child are filled with wonder, focus, enchantment, and appreciation for the present. Children are not bound by the abstract notion of time, and are therefore the most free beings, embracing the world as it unfolds around them. We must take the time to revel in the simple pleasures of their laughter, the sparkle in their eyes, and the uninhibited exploration of the world around them. Because it will only be a short matter of time until this gets stolen from them, as the concept of time will inevitably work its way in.

How To Be in the Present With Our Children

  • Put your phone away. I probably don’t need to say any more here. We all know it. But even being near our phone causes our brain to drift and lose focus on the now. Put it in another room, in a drawer, or out of sight. Then start small. Finding as little as 10-15 minutes of quality, distraction-free play time with your child is far better than an afternoon of play severed by text messages, phone calls, or work email. Your children will be so satisfied with your engagement that even a brief playtime will go a long way. Chances are, once you’re really unplugged, you’ll get lost in the fun and time will become an abstract concept for you as well.
  • Notice when you’re already being mindful or feeling in the present moment and compliment yourself on this. The simple act of acknowledging this to ourselves, helps us feel successful at being more mindful. When we think “I can do this” we’re more likely to keep doing it.
  • Acknowledge when we aren’t being mindful or present. We all drift off in the stories our children tell that seem to last ages and the same word is literally repeated thirty times. Realize when you’re not listening or your eyes are glazing over. Tell them “I’m having a hard time paying attention.” This will help snap you back into the present moment, and help them build the social pragmatic skills of realizing when an audience member stops listening.
  • “Pause, Take a Deep Breath, Respond with Intention” Kristen Race, Ph.D., founder of Mindful Life, an organization that trains parents, schools, and businesses to practice mindfulness, suggests this strategy when we’re least likely to keep our cool with our children. Being mindful not only reduces our stress levels, but helps decrease the levels of stress in our children.

The thing about time is that we are not guaranteed any of it. We are only given the moment in front of us right now. One night, it will be the very last time our child crawls into our bed to snuggle or evade a nightmare. And we won’t know it. It will simply end because they will have outgrown it without any warning at all. They will only be little for so long.

The Problem with “Preschool as Preparation

In light of the above, as an early childhood educator, I have always pushed back against the notion of preschool as preparation for school, or more specifically as some may wrongfully believe, “the more important years of schooling.” There is no greater work for any learner than the moment they are in right now, at any age. John Dewey, father of Progressive Education, reminds us that, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” In Oliver Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, he comments on the nature of humans, particularly in western culture, to become consumed with the idea of something better ahead, always longing for what’s next. He quotes New Age philosopher Alan Watts as saying:

“Take education. What a hoax. As a child, you are sent to nursery school. In nursery school, they say you are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. As then first grade is coming up and second grade and third grade… In high school, they tell you you’re getting ready for college. And in college you’re getting ready to go out into the business world… [People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.”

In the classroom, as we meet children developmentally where they are in their growth pattern, we should not be focused on preparation, which leads to rushing children, but rather the just right challenge for where they are at that particular moment. Your children’s teachers are constantly practicing this using the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development or ZPD. The ZPD is the space between what a child can do on their own, and what they can do with adult guidance or collaboration with peers. Meeting children where they are, allows us to celebrate and harness a child’s strengths while exercising their individual growth areas. 

Moving Up Day: Celebrating A School Year

As children near the end of a school year, it is important to celebrate this milestone and acknowledge the transition that will be ahead: the next grade level. For students at Bennett, we look at this time of year as a way to commemorate the milestone of a successful school year with our classmates and teachers and celebrate what’s to come. This year, the week of May 20th, all students in Early Childhood and Lower School will participate in Moving Up Day. Each classroom will have an opportunity to visit a classroom in the next grade level and/or host students from the rising grade level as visitors. This is a time to find comfort in similar materials and routines from their current grade level as well as notice new or unfamiliar practices. 

The focus of this day is about curiosities, observations, and excitement for the grade level ahead. It is not at all about what classroom or teacher you may have, but rather what Junior Kindergarten, Senior Kindergarten, or First Grade is all about. As the entire Early Childhood will be moving into new classrooms in the new building next fall, emphasis will not be on space or a particular room, but rather the practices of a grade level. 

Transitions: When Preparation is Key

Whether it’s a new home, new school, new baby, new teacher, or new class placement, it’s important to help children prepare for the unknown. However, most important in this discussion, is timing and the narrative that the adult controls. If you have plans to move next year, but have yet to put your home on the market, it can be far too early to talk to your child about moving. Remember, children are just developing the construct of time and anything more than the current week ahead of them can feel like ages. Giving too much information too soon can have the opposite desired effect, causing added anxiety in children. Yet, if you will be packing up your home in preparation for a move that’s a few months out, you will want to give your child enough information to answer their questions, while providing them with a timeline that is digestible for them.

Your child will respond to your cues and emotions about particular situations. Take for example saying, “Wow! It’s Moving Up Day already? I can’t believe you won’t be in [Teacher’s Name’s] class anymore. I hope you get to be in [Teacher’s Name’s] class for First Grade like your brother was.” What your child hears is: I should be sad to be leaving my current teacher’s class and the teacher my brother had is the classroom I should hope to be in. Moving Up Day is way too early to be talking about what class or teacher a child will have for the next school year, and will only cause mixed feelings and messages to a child. Rather, join your child in the opportunity to celebrate the end of a school year, look back fondly on memories of it, and share excitement about the grade level ahead. When class placement time rolls around mid-August, you can begin talking to your child about what familiar friends and new faces will be in their classroom and how excited you are for their new teaching partner relationship. Your ability to shape the narrative for your child is instrumental in how they receive and respond to new information given to them. 

It may seem like this newsletter is in conflict with itself. But the dichotomy of this is the essence of parenting young children. We want to prepare them with everything they need to be successful in the world that lies ahead of them, and ultimately, one of the best ways to do that is to be completely present and embrace the NOW of childhood with them. 

“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.” – Alexander Herzen 

This article was originally published as a letter to the Bennett Day community from Meg Fitzgerald, the Director of Early Childhood. Each month, we share insight with families about the “why” behind Bennett Day programs to reinforce our values and highlight how these philosophies manifest themselves in the lives of our learners.