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Linda & Richard Eyre: What is the most important thing to teach preschoolers?

Published: Sunday, July 31 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Children's education in formative years is up for debate.

Provided by Richard Eyre

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We mentioned something in our Mormon Times column last week that seemed to hit a nerve, so we thought we would follow up on it here and ask your opinion on something.

What do you think parents should focus on with their preschool children? Is it a time to give them a head start on academics so they will be ahead of the other kids when they start kindergarten? Is it a time to push them toward early proficiency in various skills — athletic, musical and whatever? Are the preschool years the time to teach responsibility and accountability? Or do kids deserve a childhood and are their preschool years mainly a time for play and stories and games and imagination?

Tell us your thoughts via the readers' poll at the end of this article. Here are a few of our thoughts in the meantime:

When our first three children were small, we lived in a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and that place at that time was an incredible hotbed of early childhood education. Kids were going to "preschools" as young as 1 year old, and the prevailing "wisdom" seemed to be that parents better get going or their children would be horribly and irreparably behind and lost once they started kindergarten.

In fact, as we mentioned in our Mormon Times column last week, we were getting ads and flyers for various preschools and early education programs while we were pregnant with our third child, and they said things like "Get your unborn child on our list now or you may not have a place in our program." The implication was that "if you don't start now, your child will never have the time to do all that it takes to get to Harvard and to succeed in life."

And parents were buying it! "What school are your kids in?" we would be asked, and we would say, "Well, they are preschoolers." And folks would say, "I know, what school are they in?" And there was both concern and competitiveness in their voices.

It's not quite that extreme here and now, but make no mistake, there is still a lot of concern and worry on the part of the parents of preschoolers about whether their child is developing as fast as he or she should, and whether or not he or she is excelling and achieving enough to get ahead and stay ahead.

And it's not just in academics! What if your children are not getting the early dance or music or gymnastics or piano or violin or football or tennis training that will help them develop their gifts and be confident when they compare their abilities to those of their 3-year-old peers!?

Underlying a lot of the worry and aggression and pushiness of parents is the notion that "kids develop 80 percent of their basic abilities before they are 6," or "children learn and develop most of their brain capacities in their first five years," or some other variation on the often misstated and overstated theme.

Well, there is no question that preschool kids have enormous learning potential. They are like sponges. They can soak in anything. It really is possible for most children to read at 3 and do long division at 4 and play minuets at 5.

The question is, do we want them to? Kids have a finite number of years, of months, of weeks, of days as children, and we have a finite amount of time as parents. If we assume that they can learn most anything during their first four or five years, the real question is, what is the most important thing for them to learn? What will we choose to teach them and to strive to have them learn during this precious and fleeting time?

Let us ask you that question in the form of the readers' poll below. We will share the results along with a little commentary next week.

The Eyres' next book is "The Entitlement Trap: How to Rescue Your Child With a New Family System of Choosing, Earning, and Ownership." Richard and Linda are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit the Eyres anytime at www.TheEyres.com. For information about preordering "The Entitlement Trap," see www. valuesparenting.com.

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