Stop Worrying About Your Preschooler’s Education

Janet welcomes early childhood educator Tom (“Teacher Tom”) Hobson who shares his optimism and insights about our children’s abilities to learn, grow and flourish outside of a classroom setting. Both Tom and Janet have always asserted that the most valuable education a preschooler receives is organic and self-motivated. They believe that time spent interacting authentically with parents is always precious and can become the most memorable and positive experiences in our young children’s lives.

Transcript of “Stop Worrying About Your Preschooler’s Education”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I have a special guest, Tom Hobson. He’s affectionately known as Teacher Tom. He’s an early childhood educator, international speaker, education consultant, author, teacher of teachers, and my very good friend. Tom’s experience with preschoolers is vast and his ability to see life through a child’s eyes is invaluable. He’s perfected this art, really, and our practices and philosophies are similar on so many levels, starting with trust in our children, valuing independent play, and encouraging organic learning. Welcome. Thank you so much for coming on.

Teacher Tom:  I’m so excited to be here.

Janet Lansbury:  Well it’s a delight to have you. There are a million things I would love to talk with you about. As you know, we’re in a very difficult time, heartbreaking time and strange time, especially for parents with young children, I feel. Is that what you’re noticing too?

Teacher Tom:  Oh yeah. No, these are unprecedented times. You know, all these parents are at home having to do the teacher role. I actually think probably most of the kids are pretty thrilled right now because how often do they get to just spend all day at home with their mom and dad? I mean, for a lot of kids, they’ve been going to preschool as long as they remember, and this is a really special time for them. So I have a feeling more of the anxiety and fear has to do with the parents more than the kids right now. Because for the kids, this might be the best time of their young life.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes. I’ve actually heard from a couple of families that have very highly sensitive children, and they’re saying we’re actually seeing more calm and less meltdowns. So yes, it can absolutely work that way and I think that’s important for parents to know.

Teacher Tom:  Yeah.

Janet Lansbury:  Just taking care of their physical needs and having that be your schedule and then releasing yourself of trying to do the other type of enrichment stuff. You had a wonderful post that thousands of people shared. It’s called, “There Are Plenty of Things to Worry About Right Now: Your Preschooler’s Education is Not One of Them.” And you shared this wonderful insight about your work and what you and other preschool teachers do, which is, you are researchers of children.

Teacher Tom:  Well, and that’s what you do too, right? That’s the right message as well. To me, that’s the piece that I think people don’t understand about what we do, is that we’re not there to instruct the children. We’re not there to tell them what to do. Really, what we’re there is to study them and understand them, to kind of figure out who this human being is we’re with. And when you do that, you find out just how incredibly competent they are.

I’ve already had parents say to me things like, “My kid’s five and they can fry eggs.” And of course they can. They can do all kinds of things at this age. It’s just we haven’t given them the opportunity and now they’re getting the chance.

The other way I think about it is that it’s about listening. It’s about listening, not just with your ears but with your whole soul, your whole being. Because, first of all, you demonstrate to the child you’re connected to them, that you’re there for them and you give them that sense of security. But the other piece, too, is that’s the only way you’re really, really, really going to learn about them, rather than just fall back on your preconceived notions.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely. And my mentor, Magda Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician, Emmi Pikler, they talked a lot about sensitive observation, and it’s a core aspect of the approach that I teach, and actually in the classes that we do, which are parent-child classes that start from three-month-old babies. And we recommend doing these things before the baby’s three months, but that’s as young as they could be taken out into a class.

Sensitive observation teaches us everything we need to know about our child and their needs: how to be affirming, how to support them in their learning, all these wonderful things. So I loved that you were recommending for parents that if this hasn’t been your approach, now’s the perfect time to focus in on that. And I loved how you said to let go of this thing where we have to say “good job” and trying to shape what they’re doing and kind of mold it the way we think it should go by encouraging them to do this over that or whatever.

Teacher Tom:  Yes, we have this misperception that some of our kids won’t do anything without us constantly either scolding them or cajoling them or encouraging them. You just hear that mantra, you’ve heard it all the time, right? You hear that good job thing going on over and over again and some people can’t… I mean honestly, they’re trying, but they can’t stop. It’s become so ingrained for most of us.

And I also want to say that all of this, what we’re talking about right now as far as observing and being researchers — this works with adult relationships as well, because listening, that’s what Mr. Rogers always talked about, there’s almost no way to distinguish between listening and love. And when you’re listening to people, you learn so much about them. That’s one of the things that I’m having a really hard time with. I come from, being 58-years-old and having grown up in the culture I’m in, I’m used to being the one doing all the talking, like I’m doing right now, mansplaining everything. And I’ve really learned a great deal of power in just sitting back and listening to people power in the most positive way.

Janet Lansbury:  I remember when my children, each of them got to the age where they weren’t talking to their toys and having those conversations in front of me anymore. I couldn’t observe them in that kind of play. It went a little more private or they didn’t say it out loud so much and they didn’t put it out there, and I remember just how much I missed that. What I love about working with young children is that they put everything out there. They show you what kind of therapy they’re doing with themselves.

Teacher Tom:  That’s why I became a teacher. I was the stay at home parent with my girl and when she got to be five or six and started going to kindergarten, I didn’t know what to do with my time, and so I decided to become a teacher so I could hang out with those kids.

Janet Lansbury:  I love that. I love your story. And you’ve of course been able to see how capable and competent children are and how they problem solve, how they are able to develop their own motor skills without really any assistance at all and developing their creativity.

Teacher Tom:  I seem to tell this story a lot, I say, what would you think, any parent, anybody out there… you watch somebody hovering over their two-month-old baby, drilling them on vowel sounds, you would think they were crazy, right?

Kids learn how to talk. We would think they were crazy if they had the five-month-old out there and they were trying to teach him how to walk, and any doctor who recommended it, we call him a quack.

And I’m convinced the only reason that we believe we need schools to teach children how to read is because we’ve been using schools to teach them how to read for a long time. There’s incredible amount of evidence out there that reading is a really natural human thing to do. So that the older the children get, they’re much more competent than we tend to think. And we actually have really infantalized young children, even infants, we’ve infantalized them.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, we’ve underestimated them.

Teacher Tom:  And that’s the only way to know, really, that what they’re doing is to research. To me that research is such a key part, because everything children are doing, when they are choosing their own activity, I should say… So that was what the fundamental definition of play for me, is a self-selected activity. And when children have chosen, there’s always, behind everything they do there’s a question. They have a question they’re trying to get answered. We might not know what the question is. They might not even know what the question is, but they are engaged in a scientific pursuit trying to get some kind of answer to something. It might just be, can I do this?

I’ll never forget a little boy. He was walking along. He had one of these, it wasn’t a traffic cone, but it was like these traffic cylinder things… And, you know, I have a junk yard playground, you’ve seen it before, so you know it’s kind of full of a mishmash of stuff. Anyway, this kid was carrying it on his shoulder and I watched him put it down on the ground and he arranged it really carefully. He had something in mind, but I didn’t know what it was. And then he climbed up on this big crate that was beside it, and he jumped off, and crack! He broke it.

And I said, “Henry, what’d you do that for?”

And he said, “Well, I wanted to see if I could break it.”

Duh. He had set up a perfect experiment. He had an idea. He was curious.

And children are doing this all day long when they are engaged, even when they’re just watching shadows on the wall. They have a question behind that. What is that? How is that working? It’s not formulated.

I think the hard part for us is, so often as adults, that we want to go test them, right? We want to step in and say, “Well, what did you learn?” Or maybe we ask in a more subtle way. But we try to figure out what they learned.

And you know what? They might not know at that moment.

And, of course, you’re working with children whose communication is pre-verbal. So they of course can’t tell you. And a lot of these things we’ve learned… I know things I’ve learned in my life… if something happens to me in a moment, I don’t learn it in that moment. It might be six months later or 12 months later when suddenly it clicks for me. Oh, aha, that’s what was going on back then. And I think that happens with children all the time.

Janet Lansbury:  Yes, absolutely. Really what we’re talking about is trying to shift this overriding idea that learning is something that is taught to a child by an adult and that that’s our job. And what we’ve seen a million times over with children is that, actually, the things we’re teaching are more through our modeling and the way that we interact with them. But in terms of all the skills, they are self-taught, if we provide the environment that allows for that and encourages that. They’re self taught.

And what this also does for parents, and this is what I really want to help get across — what you got across so beautifully in your article that we’re talking about is that this is a more fun way to be. This is more joyful. You get to bond deeply with your child by understanding your child and just affirming whatever it is that they’re doing, and that trust that you give them. And it can stop being a chore when we start to get into it and we realize this is the joy. This is why I had children so that I could discover them and learn about them.

Teacher Tom:  I don’t know if you’re familiar with Alison Gopnik?

Janet Lansbury:  Oh, absolutely.

Teacher Tom:  She was a clinical psychologist. I was rereading The Gardener and the Carpenter not long ago, and she mentions the fact that the word “parenting” is actually a brand new word. She did a search, used a Google search to go back through all kinds of documents, back through time and found very few uses of the word “parenting” before about 1962. And it’s really significant because the truth is, up until that point we talked about being a parent. Being a parent was a relationship we had with our children. But by turning it into a verb, by making it parenting, suddenly it made it a job we had to do. In any of our other significant relationships, we don’t do them as a verb. We don’t do friending, we don’t do husbanding, we don’t do childing, but suddenly it’s a job.

And the inner metaphor is really beautiful because she says, once we’ve made it a verb, it’s turned parents into carpenters. And a carpenter, if you’re going to build a table, there’s certain standards you have to meet. It has to be flat on top, it has to have four legs, it has to be functional, it has to be sturdy, and you’re going to be judged by how that turns out.

Whereas, when we just are a parent in a relationship, we’re more like the gardener. We plant the seed, we keep it safe, we water it, make sure it gets some sun. But other than that, it’s the seed’s job to grow. And I think that we have lost sight of that role of parents. We’re always about parenting when really it’s just about having a relationship with our child, and understanding we shouldn’t be judging people for how their children turn out. It’s more like the relationship. I’m not going to get judged by how my friend Janet Lansbury turns out. You know what I mean? I’m not going to be judged by how my wife turns out, but I’m going to be judged by how good that relationship is.

And at the same time this has happened, we have lost our grandmas. We suddenly moved away from our grandparents. Everybody is raising their kids without grandparent’s influence. And humans evolved this post-menopausal period for females because it takes a lot of adults to raise children. You can’t just do it with one or two people. But we’ve broken up our society to such a degree that we have the adults doing the work in one corner, the kids doing their school in another corner, and that elderly people are all in the nursing home somewhere. To me that’s been a foundational shift. And one of the things I’m trying to encourage people to get back to is understanding that you cannot raise a child by yourself. You need your whole village. And that involves, hopefully… if you don’t have grandmas, find some people like that, because older women know a lot about raising kids.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s true. And so what you’re saying is that not only do we have less support, but we are putting more pressure on ourselves and judgment on ourselves to do a job that feels like it’s supposed to be very active and that we are responsible for so much more than we need to be.

So, if we can’t have more of a village, at least we can free people of this other idea that is making our life so much harder as parents, which is that, Oh my friend is doing this many playgroups and classes and I have to do that.

One of the questions I’ve received lately from a few people, and I wanted to answer it somewhere so maybe I’ll answer it here, is concern, understandable concern that because their child isn’t going to preschool and able to have play dates, that they’re going to miss being social. They’re going to be lonely and not get enough of that in their lives. And I loved what Magda Gerber used to say, which is: sure, a group situation can be helpful once in a while, or one friend over can be great for a young child, but they don’t need that every day. That’s something that can happen in preschool, but they learn social skills through their parents primarily — all the interactions that we have with our children, and how they see us interacting with each other and with them. And the neighbor that, now at this point of course, we’re just waving to over the fence and maybe talking to. Or the people we’re seeing when we’re on our walk and we can say hello. And that’s really all they need.

Also, maybe it could be that parents, we have this sense of loss and we’re maybe projecting that our child is going to feel it. But children really don’t. They don’t need that as much. Yeah, they might miss the school and teacher Tom and their friends, but…

Teacher Tom:  That’s why you have to be a researcher, right? Because some kids are going to demand more and some kids don’t want more. I know my daughter when she was as young as three years old she used to say to me, because I’m a homebody, I would just hang around the house with her sometimes and she would start saying to me, “We need to go somewhere.” So we would go to a park or something, I would go somewhere with her because she would want to get out of the house and go somewhere. Didn’t necessarily mean hanging out with other people.

But I think that’s hopefully, that’s one of the blessings that comes out of this time, parents do get to understand their children more and get to spend more time with them. I’m hoping that more and more people take on this opportunity. And I understand that the people who are going to be able to do this are the more privileged people, people who have the opportunity, because many of us are out there scrambling to make money right now and it might not be a good chance to connect with your kids. But your kids are home and there’s no better time now than to try to connect with them. And I’m hoping the legacy of this is that kids look back on this as one of the best times of their lives.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah, I think that’s very possible. We had a situation once, of course no comparison to this, but we were doing some much needed updating on our home and we were given a place to stay by a relative who wasn’t using it anymore, and it was not in great shape. It was tiny and I had my two daughters and my husband and me and our dog all staying there. And we all actually got very, very sick. I had the worst flu I’ve ever had. The weather was pretty extreme in this area and it was rough. It felt very, very rough. And my older daughter was, I think, about six at that time. And when we finally moved back into our house… and this was luxury now, comparatively, she missed that situation so much. She missed us all being close together. She missed that. It was romanticized to her as this wonderful time.

Teacher Tom:  And I think that’s true for all of us in a way.

One of my fondest memories is when my whole family moved from the east coast to the west coast and we spent a week and a half driving across the country in two cars, and that intimacy of us all being together in the same hotel rooms and eating in the same restaurants and driving, it was just incredibly bonding. I would not trade that experience for anything in the world. We could have got there faster by plane, but boy, that was a better way to go.

Janet Lansbury:  Yeah. And that’s a child’s perspective and that’s what we can understand if we see our role with our own children, our role in their play as researchers. You, with all the research you’ve done, you probably see situations from a child’s perspective or you can put yourself there pretty easily. Right?

Teacher Tom:  Well, I sure try to, because a lot of times that helps me understand my own perspective. There’s a purity to the way children are looking at things. There are a lot of aspects of our world that taint what we’re doing, one of which is this constant pressure to earn a living, the constant pressure to get food on the table at a certain time. All these scheduled things that we have in our lives. And I think that it’s really great to be able to step back and let the children lead in that regard. And to me, that’s what I mean by learning from children so much is that, very often, when I don’t know what to do, I just shut up and sit back and let the kids lead.

Janet Lansbury:  Because they’ll show you.

Teacher Tom:  They will show me a different perspective on it and they usually have a better idea than I have.

Janet Lansbury:  Oh yeah. Yeah. Much better. Though I’ve tried to be a practiced observer with children, ideas always come to me how I could make it better, how I could make them learn more, some interesting twist on it. And it’s an interesting fun challenge to try to let go of that and then get the surprise from what they do.

Teacher Tom:  From an adult perspective, the way I think about this is: if someone was doing all that kind of stuff to you as an adult, we would call it unsolicited advice.

Janet Lansbury:  Absolutely.

Teacher Tom:  And I think you could almost argue that almost everything that happens in schools, is unsolicited advice. Nobody likes it.

Janet Lansbury:  Do you have any thoughts about making this role an easier transition for parents or…

Teacher Tom:  What I’m saying to people is right now just relax and try to get a rhythm with your child. We’re so focused on the idea of a schedule. Kids do need some predictability and all that kind of stuff, but instead of dictating a schedule, I’m trying to have people think about it as creating a rhythm. And I think creating those “yes spaces” that you talk about, and I think outdoors is one of the best yes spaces there are, your backyard or whatever. I’m encouraging people that they should get out there and walk your neighborhood. You can stay six feet apart from people. Don’t go to the playground because that’s where the people are crowded in, but just kind of wander your way through your neighborhood and see new things. Walk the dog more often.

You mentioned before role modeling. And this is a great time to do some role modeling. To me, what a great time to pick up your DIY projects and start repairing broken things around the house. Get out your sewing kit and start darning socks or hammer the baseboards back in that are coming off or repaint a wall. Just doing a lot of those kinds of projects around the house, and the kids can take part in that. They can engage with it, or at least they’re going to see you taking care of your world in a different way.

It is not unprecedented in the scope of human history to get work done while your kids are there. In fact, for most of human history, our whole hunter gatherer past, for 95% of our existence, there was no distinction between work and play. The children were just there with the adults and they pitched in where they could or didn’t if they chose not to.

And to me, I think that if we can give kids a chance for the novelty of being home alone with mom and dad to wear off a little bit, we’re going to find ourselves in a position where you’re going to, again, really discover how competent they can be, how productive they can be, and how much they want to participate in the real stuff of life.

I find myself so often frustrated about the abundance of toys that children have right now. And the truth is is that children do not need toys. They much prefer the real world and the real things we find there. When you’re outside, the leaves and the sticks and the rocks are what they want. If you are in your garage and you have a toy lawn mower and a real lawnmower, every kid’s going to play with real lawnmower. They don’t want to play with the toy one. If you’re sweeping up around the house, hand them a broom, they’re going to participate in the sweeping up too. They might not do jobs up to your standards, but that’s not the point. The point is to allow children to develop their competencies where they see fit.

Janet Lansbury:  That’s great advice. Thank you so much again, Tom, for coming on and sharing your wisdom. You always have an interesting perspective to share with us.

Teacher Tom:  Well, and thank you Janet. This has been such a lot of fun. I hope people get something out of it.

Janet Lansbury:  So tell us the best place to find some of your resources.

Teacher Tom:  My blog is called Teacher Tom and the URL is teachertomsblog.blogspot.com, then also, my book, if somebody is interested, up until May 18th we’re offering a discount because it’s pre-publication price, Teacher Tom’s Second Book. And you can find that by going to teachertomsecondbook.com/books.

Janet Lansbury:  Great, and the first book is fantastic too, by the way.

Teacher Tom:  You can also buy that at the same place. It’s on the same page and we’re also offering a discount on that.

Janet Lansbury:  Wonderful. All right, well you have a great rest of your day and thank you so much again.

Teacher Tom:  Take care Janet, bye.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in, and both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the LINK in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.