Of course, the number one thing every child needs is love. But let's assume you adore your preschooler. What's the top ten list to help him thrive?
Structure: Regular routines help kids feel safe, and are vital for preschoolers, who grapple with big fears on a daily basis. The world is chaotic and scary to them; their household should be predictable. A calm, orderly and fun atmosphere, with regular meal and bedtime routines, will produce happier children who have the internal resources to meet daily developmental challenges.
Enough sleep: Preschoolers may resist bedtime, but without sufficient sleep, three to five year olds simply do not have the resourcefulness to cope with the demands of their day. Develop a regular routine that helps her wind down and start relaxing well before bedtime.
Control over their own food intake: Give them responsibility for how much they eat. Remember that children need frequent small meals, and if you don't provide that, they'll end up snacking all day. If you always provide a variety of healthy food, you can feel comfortable letting them choose which ones they eat and how much. Never set up a clean plate as the goal; instead, when they say they're done, ask them how their body feels. Obesity starts in preschool. If you're bothered by throwing the food away, buy a composter -- and ask yourself why not wasting food is more important than your child's future physical health and body image?
Empathic limits: Kids this age need guidance and limits, but remember that their brains are still developing. They get flooded with emotion very easily. When you set limits, they get upset. It helps them to calm themselves if you empathize with their disappointment or anger. Doing this now will help them learn to control their own emotions over time, and to maintain their equilibrium in the face of upsets as they get older.
School or other peer engagement -- for a few hours. School is great for kids three and older, and usually is preferable to a full day at home with a parent or caregiver. But we need to remember that kids under the age of five have to work very hard to hold it together in a group setting. Their cortisol levels -- that's the stress hormone -- are extremely elevated while they're at school. Most children of three are not ready for a full day of school -- that's why they're called preschoolers! They do much better with a nap and the afternoon at home after school. For three year olds, half days are perfect if you can swing it. And no child under the age of seven is ready to be in an institution until 5 or 6pm daily. The cost of a babysitter to be with your child at home half days after school will more than pay off in a calmer, happier, child.
Downtime: Everything is stimulating to your preschooler, from seeing the dump truck on the street to the candy in the grocery store. While playdates and field trips stimulate his emotional and intellectual development, he needs substantial unstructured time at home to simply play and regroup in the safety of his cozy home base, where he can let his hair down and take a deep breath in a quiet place.
Substantial time with parents: Lots of intimate time with physically and emotionally affectionate parents is critical for your preschooler's emotional -- and even brain -- development. This means what psychologists call "Floor Time," which is getting down on his level to work together building that train track or tower. The point isn't the intellectual work of the building, but the emotional connection you make over it -- and the nurturing support you offer when the project inevitably runs into snags. If you can't bear one more game of superhero or dollhouse, offer your child "Cozy Time" instead. Just snuggle up on the couch with a pile of books for a lazy half hour, and make sure you take plenty of time out to talk about what you're reading, or about her day.
Help in learning to express herself effectively: Whining can drive even the most patient parent crazy. But every child needs to learn to express her needs and desires effectively. For some secrets to minimizing whining, see the Tip of the Week on whining.
Help in learning to structure her own time: Parents of preschoolers in our culture face a big challenge. Kids don't have lots of siblings or cousins readily accessible to play with, and parents have other things to do. How to keep kids constructively occupied? Many parents solve this by letting their kids spend too many of their awake hours watching TV or playing computer. Because preschoolers' brains are still in a critical developmental phase, this changes the way their brains develop, literally shortening their attention spans for life. Every child needs to learn to manage those moments of uncertain emptiness, otherwise known as "Nothing to Do," and practice choosing their next engaging activity.
Opportunities to become competent: Kids develop self esteem from two sources: being loved and accepted as they are, and feeling powerful in the world. Preschoolers need plenty of opportunities to develop their sense of power, or competence. How? Let him do it himself. Praise effort, not results. Offer structure to help him succeed ("If we practice every day you'll get the hang of it.") Model positive self-talk ("Practice makes perfect. Try, try again."). Minimize the number of times your child gets the message that her actions don't matter. Affirm her ability to impact the world.
Dr. Laura Markham