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Preserving Your Child’s True Self

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An interview with Dr. Madeline Levine

When my son started kindergarten, I feared he would turn into a rule following, fact memorizing robot, who wouldn’t be permitted even the slightest seat wiggle. Well, I can safely say that didn’t happen. But, now homework is about to kick in and I’m concerned what that will do to his run-wild-after-school time. How can we parents preserve our child’s joy of life when many schools, especially public ones, pressured to achieve high test scores, push young students hard academically? What kind of home environment is best for our kids’ development during this time? How do we encourage them to grow into who they are, and not what we or their educators want them to be?

Dr. Madeline Levine, best-selling author and psychologist, lends some important insight into what’s happening in our schools, and with our kids. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

How do you define authentic success for our 3-6 year olds?


A child who remains enthusiastic, creative, curious, connected, and engaged with life.


Some kindergartners are sent home with daily pieces or large packets of homework to complete weekly – what’s your take on that?


All the research about the best way for kindergartners to learn suggests that large packets of homework are not a good idea. It’s clear that working a kindergartner in that rote way is counter to learning.

A large body of information shows that sensorial and experiential learning is the best way to produce engaged learners. On every level – academic, social, emotional, physical – it’s overwhelmingly clear that children do better in a play-based preschool because 3-6 year olds learn best through play. And these kids end up pulling ahead in kindergarten and 1st grade.


It’s troubling to me that there are still schools and communities that accept loads of homework or might even desire it.


Parents need to band together and confront the school administration about why kids are being pressured to learn in a way that is not conducive to creating engaged learners.

There’s this push to have children learn to read in kindergarten. But, a big body of research says there’s no advantage to learning how to read at four, five, six, or seven. Finland, right now, is the world’s exemplar in education. There, school doesn’t even start until age seven.

I want to be clear that it’s not as if kids in a play-based preschool aren’t doing anything academically oriented. Pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills are offered all over the place in a play-based preschool. For example, pick three toys you want to play with, now take one away, now how many do you have? The child can feel the toys which is much more in line with the child’s experience of learning – opposed to looking at a chalkboard with the numbers 3-1=2. Kids at young ages are still primarily learning through their senses.

Let’s say your child likes doing homework. It’s still not optimal for learning because kids need pre-literacy and pre-numeracy before they can parrot back 3+1=4. Sight-reading a word doesn’t mean they understand that word. If they see an equation on the board and they can parrot back that 2+3=5, it’s not deep learning, which is what we want for our kids. Homework takes away time from the way young children learn best which is with exploration, physical play, sensory play, and it’s taking away from time with the family, which is critical. Kids are learning when you ask them to take four plates and place them on the dinner table, or when you bake with them, like when you ask them to pour you one cup of sugar.

Your baby or toddler learns best while s/he’s sitting in your lap, playing with your hair, looking into your eyes. It’s warm, loving, and intimate. They’re motivated. It’s about the relationship and it’s sensorial.


School age kids don’t always share what’s going on during the day. When we parents sense our kids are feeling pressure from testing, or their worth or intelligence is being judged, what can parents do to nurture their authentic success?


At the end of the day, parents’ approval and disapproval matter more than anything else in a young child’s life. The house should be set-up as a collaborative, non-competitive environment. There should be no one-upping, no comparing child A with child B. Parents should never put just the “A’s” on the refrigerator. The home should be a safe-haven from that kind of competition because young kids are in absolute development.

There are too many unknowns to be able to predict their outcome. We do have some clues that point to authentic success in children, for example, a good relationship with their parents, socio-economic status, opportunity, parental availability, reliability, consistency, and non-interference.

You tell kids how incredibly smart they are, and they become less capable learners because there’s so much riding on hearing how smart they are. They can’t afford to try something they might fail at or take on a more difficult puzzle. So you end up with constricted learners.


Nobody knows what the workplace will need in 15 years, when your children enter it.


What we do know is, as young adults, they will need to be flexible, adaptable, they’ll need to be able to work in a group. The problems they’ll be solving will be so complex, and people will be working across time zones, and in different languages, and schools should be putting a strong emphasis on those things.


So, how do parents “stay out of the way” of their children’s authentic development?


Don’t project on your child what you want them to be. Accept them for who they are. Encourage them in their particular strength. Parents focus way too much on strengthening their child’s weaknesses.

With parents of young kids, you have no idea what they’re interests will be. They’re interested in all kinds of stuff. Parents just need to go along for the ride. You have to learn to speak the language of your child. For one child, it’s an academic language, for the other it’s creative, the other it’s literal and practical. Speak their language, otherwise a child will never feel known. Unfortunately, some kids do a good job creating an inauthentic self out of a want to please their parents.


Parents of three, four, and five-year-olds should not be worried at all about their children’s academic success.


It’s at the bottom of the list. In order to get to academic success, kids have to feel comfortable doing so many other more important things at this age like being okay when you leave the house, saying hello to the new kid in the class, feeling comfortable in a body that’s growing rapidly, falling asleep peacefully at night. The number of tasks they have to accomplish is mind-boggling.

Here’s a metaphor – kids are like three-legged stools. One leg is academics, one is social, and the other is personal growth and coping skills. To the extent that you keep targeting one leg, the other two don’t get robust enough, and that turns into the teenager that comes to me saying, “Nobody knows me. I’m living a lie.” Kids need to play, be loved, explore a lot, and they need their parents’ time, attention, support, and tolerance for mistakes.

How can parents help their kids be more internally driven?


  • You turn learning back onto the child. Ask questions. Get curious. We want a child who is able to self-evaluate kindly, not in a harsh way.
  • Focusing on the process of things is really important. Personally speaking, I’ve written this book, which is fun, but writing footnotes for three months is not fun. Process is critical and it’s great for children to learn to focus on it at a young age.
  • Kids internalize parental values. They don’t come with a predetermined knowledge of right and wrong. Parents are critical to developing the internal voice of their children. I have this quote on my site, “Your voice is the internal voice your children will hear for the rest of their life.”



Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a psychologist with close to 30 years of experience as a clinician, consultant and educator. Her New York Times bestseller, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her new book, Teach Your Children Well, outlines how our current narrow definition of success unnecessarily stresses academically talented kids and marginalizes many more whose talents and interests are less amenable to measurement.


This article was originally published October 11, 2012

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out our Emmy winning children’s series, “Ruby’s Studio” along with our beautiful children’s books, music,  and more. We want to be a truly helpful parenting tool… For you!

Posted in: School