One minute your preschooler is drawing a portrait of the cat, when suddenly he throws his crayon to the floor, "I can't draw paws!" he tearfully explains.
Obviously, giving up rather than persevering is not something you want to encourage. "The ability to focus and finish a job is a real challenge for a preschooler because he's still learning how to stick with a task," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a psychologist in Metuchen, New Jersey. Kids this age are just beginning to learn how to rely on themselves. Your job as a parent is to nurture the skills that will help your child transition from helpless to tenacious.
Encourage Can-Do Spirit
At this age, skills and abilities vary greatly from child to child, and your preschooler may be feeling the kiddie version of not being able to keep up with the Joneses. "Preschool can be a rude awakening," says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. "Suddenly, your child is seeing her friend do things that she may not be able to do yet -- like ride a tricycle or write her name. That sense of discouragement could be at the heart of a child's tendency to throw up her hands when things get challenging, so it's a good idea to say something empathetic like, 'When I was your age, I had a hard time riding a bike too, but I practiced every day and finally I just took off!'" This will help focus your child's attention on the effort everyone has to make to learn something new -- even you.
When it comes to fostering confidence and the ability to persevere, the wrong kind of kudos can hinder your cause. Praising your kid for her natural abilities -- "You're the best athlete!" -- rather than her effort -- "I see that you tried really hard and helped the other kids" -- can make your child avoid taking risks because she may feel that the only way to impress you is with perfect results. So cheer for your child's work ethic, how hard she's trying, and the fact that she's not giving up. "Your job is to gently lengthen the amount of time your child is willing to stick with a challenging task," Dr. Borba says.
Stop Swooping In
Your desire to rescue your child from frustration born from a toppled Lego masterpiece or a train track that won't connect is natural -- but totally counterproductive when it comes to teaching him tenacity. "When you avoid jumping in, you're teaching self-reliance and encouraging problem-solving," says Dr. Newman.
Obviously, if your child has already moved into five-alarm-tantrum mode, the best tactic is redirecting him from the activity and putting it aside so he can tackle it afresh. But if you catch him before he's crossed into the freak-out zone, you have a valuable teaching opportunity.
Putting words to his feelings ("I know you feel so frustrated with all those tiny little pieces") will help him feel more in control. Then give him some strategies to use when he hits a roadblock. For example, teach him to "reboot" by putting his hands in his lap and taking a slow, deep inhale and exhale before he takes another go at his project. If he's still feeling thwarted, suggest getting up for a drink of water, or doing a big reach-for-the-sky stretch to help move himself into "ready to conquer" zone.
Be a Guide
Preschoolers can be so verbal that you may be expecting your child to accomplish things beyond her maturity level. Kids this age still have a ways to travel in terms of motor and cognitive development, as well as emotional growth. It's possible that she's giving up because the task is beyond her reach. For example, unless you actually teach her how, putting on a jacket or socks can be impossible for a newly minted 3-year-old. Make sure you set aside pressure-free time to share those skills, and give her plenty of time to practice.
Your job is to model the benefits, as well as the joys, of self-reliance. If you're frustrated because you can't get your pictures uploaded to your Facebook page, get lost even though you're following the GPS directions, or once again have forgotten one of the key ingredients you need for what you're about to make for dinner, get your sense of humor on and let your child see you pull it together -- it might be just the moment to teach your kid that fabled mantra: I think I can, I think I can, I know I can.
Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Parents magazine.