Positive Relationships: Let's talk about ... pushy parents

Parents who want to dictate the learning agenda for their child at nursery are something every practitioner has to deal with. Annette Rawstrone spoke to practitioners at a private day nursery. Illustration by Claire Nichols.

Q: What experiences of pushy parents have you had?

'Since I have been working in pre-school I have had a lot of parents asking about education - what kind of education we do, do we read books and are their children writing? They seem to be focusing on education very early.'

'Parents can get very competitive, such as asking each other if their child knows what colour something is or can write their name. They do not look at the other things they are learning, such as social skills and learning through play. A lot of the time they just want to see an end product, like a worksheet.'

'We had a girl last year who turned three in August and went to private school two weeks later. Her parents saw it as a status symbol. The school she went to was very structured but in its last Ofsted got deemed inadequate. Parents pay a lot just so their child can wear a posh uniform and receive formal education early.'

'One mother wanted us to sit her child down and do worksheets. They had no concept that she could learn just as much through role play. Counting out numbers in a shop is more beneficial than a maths worksheet.'

'Some parents feel the need to fill all their child's spare time - on a Monday do ballet, on a Tuesday do judo and on a Wednesday they go swimming ... They have no free time to just play at home - it's seen as wasted time.'

'Conversely, we had one mother whose child was amazing and was reading at an early age, but she used to get really embarrassed because she did not want to be seen as a pushy parent. On his first day in nursery he counted backwards from 100 in fives. I thought he'd learned it parrot-fashion so I asked him to do it in fours and he did it. He was naturally bright. His mother struggled with it because she didn't know how to nurture his abilities.'

Q: Why do you think some parents are behaving in this way?

'Pushy parents sometimes think that their child is the only one that we have to care for in the nursery.'

'Close groups of mums often have competition between themselves.'

'A lot of it is to do with the education of the parents. They do not understand that play benefits children or understand how the EYFS works with continuous provision. But they have not been to college and studied childcare.'

'We all want the best for our children - it's a fine line between encouraging your child and being a pushy parent.'

'Some parents also feel guilt-tripped into it, especially those who work long hours. They feel they have to get their children everything and push them to have everything, too.'

Q: How can a pushy parent's behaviour affect their child?

'Parents can push their child to get an end product, such as write their numbers, but a child does not necessarily understand what they are doing.'

'There is a negative effect of not being able to play and not being allowed to be a child, such as affecting their abilities to make friends and self-esteem.'

'Pushing children to learn does not give them confidence and the desire to learn. It can switch them off.'

'If someone is pushing a child too far, the child can hit a brick wall and go the exact opposite way.'

'On the continent they start school later, and the children often have higher attainment levels because they are ready to learn.'

'If your child goes to school knowing everything, they can get bored because the lessons aren't stimulating them.'

'One child is quite oblivious to her mum wanting her to sit down and read. She just ignores her and runs off to play.'

Q: Is being a pushy parent worse than being an uninterested parent?

'I feel they can be bad as each other. I think parents who are not interested in their children and are not bothered about what they are doing can be quite damaging to the child too. It can reduce their self-esteem, because the parent hasn't been there to support them and make them feel valued.'

'I think parents do need to push a bit. My mum pushed me enough educationally. I got lots of opportunities.'

'Mine pushed me in the direction I wanted to go. I wanted to do dancing, so she took me every week and encouraged me to do medals. But I wasn't pushed from two years old to write my name, that was left for the school to do.'

Q: How do you work with parents who are being too pushy?

'We have parents' evenings and show them their children's development books and observations which helps the parents to understand more.'

'We explain that young children need to have time to be themselves and enjoy themselves.'

'With the parent who wanted her child to do worksheets, it was a slow process because she would corner different staff members to see if they'd give her a different answer. We tried to explain that it wouldn't benefit her child. I still don't know whether it has sunk in.'

'We explain what we do and how it benefits the children, how activities are tailored to them and designed to challenge the children who are more advanced.'

AN EXPERT'S VIEW

By Julian Grenier, head of Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children's Centre, London

Managing relationships with parents and carers is one of the trickiest parts of working in the early years sector. Parents make a huge leap of faith when they entrust us with their young children. Yet it can feel far from a trusting relationship, if we experience them as constantly checking up on us.

Underneath this critical attitude, one of the emotions at play for a parent may be the feeling of guilt about handing over the care and education of their child to nursery staff.

In any case, whatever the cause of 'pushy parenting' might be, I think the most useful response is to talk about our knowledge of child development and learning. Almost all the research shows that play-based learning in the early years, with a focus on communication and interaction between staff and children, has the most beneficial long-term effects. The EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-School Education) reports are particularly helpful, showing that this approach continues to benefit children throughout their primary schooling.

It is also helpful to avoid seeming defensive when asked about what children are learning, and what adults are teaching them. We need to be able to explain how we teach children to count, to cut with scissors, to write their names, and all sorts of other skills that parents value. When a child learns to count through trips to the shop, cooking activities and shop role-play, an adult is teaching that child. It does not help if we are afraid to say so.

Parents want the best for their children. They may come across as 'pushy' when they are simply concerned. They may have identified that the nursery is not a sufficiently stimulating environment, or that some aspects of the curriculum are lacking. While this can be hard to hear, it is often through listening to parents (and children) that we come to understand what we need to develop and change.

Finally, there is no reason to expect parents to be familiar with theories of learning and play in child development. It is up to early years settings to demonstrate these ideas convincingly in practice.

FURTHER READING

The EPPE (Effective Provision of Pre-School Education) project is the first major longitudinal study of a national sample of young children's development between the ages of three and seven years. The reports can be found at www.ioe.ac.uk/schools/ecpe/eppe.

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