Erika Christakis is an early childhood educator at the Yale Child Study Center and has focused her career on the well-being of children and families. She is a teacher, preschool director, and mother of three. We had a chance to catch up with Erika about her new book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. Her insights into raising little ones are eye-opening even for the most involved mamas. Actually, especially for them.
new book asks an excellent question. “What is it like to be a young child?” In your
opinion, what is the best way for a mother to go deep into the mind of her
child to truly understand his needs for happy + healthy development throughout
first step may sound deceptively simple but it can be hard to do in practice: observe your child, without judgment or
anxiety. The best way to be a good observer is to find times when both you and
your child are well-rested. When we take the time to see our children for who
they are, with “no memory, no desire,” as a famous psychiatrist once described
it, we can better appreciate our child’s strengths and vulnerabilities: the
little boy who struggles to get out of the house each morning is the same one able
to organize his stuffed animals with intense precision; the girl who seems so
bossy and ‘maternal’ with her peers at preschool might be deeply jealous of her
Beyond observation, it’s also helpful to think openly: use open, not closed, statements when you talk to your child.
“Tell me about your drawing” invites the child into the conversation much more easily than praising with “Good job!”
Offer open-ended toys, such as blocks, that invite more than one use. Open up your child’s schedule to the unexpected by encouraging unstructured playtime.
Finally, while it’s true that no one needs a license to raise a child, and many parenting lessons come from trial and error, you can understand the mindset of a little child much more easily if you can read basic developmental cues such as separation anxiety or concrete thinking. It helps to know what the majority of three-year-olds are doing in a given scenario so you can focus your attention on what’s unique about your child.
you have any tips for parents who are trying to follow the advice set forth in
your book? Are there any clues that you have seen in young children to suggest
that their parents are indeed giving them what they really need to thrive?
children are surprisingly good at telling us what they need, but we sometimes require
a ‘decoder ring’ to figure it out! That’s why it is so helpful to observe young
children as naturally and uncritically as possible. Because children are always
in a state of flux (inherent in the word “development” is the concept of change)
it’s easy to overlook what they are experiencing at a given moment, which is why
we need to slow down—both for their sake and our own. Time is in short supply
in a preschooler’s day and one of my most heartfelt suggestions is to buck the
trend for more and more activity and have faith that young children actually
thrive on less: less scheduling, less stuff, fewer transitions, and more
downtime to explore and question and, above all, to connect with other human
More downtime to be a child. This approach can be challenging because our world moves so quickly and we have a great deal of anxiety about allowing our children to fall behind. But the science is clear: sometimes the best strategy is to get out of the way.
do you think social media is influencing parents’ tendencies to “adultify”
their children? Do you think the fact that children are often seen as
extensions of their parents on social media, to be well-spoken, well-dressed,
and well-behaved, impacts parents’ expectations of their children?
is hard enough without the expectation that you have to present a perfect
Facebook façade. I also wonder sometimes when I see Youtube videos of a
stranger’s child doing something funny: What was the parent’s intent in that
moment, and how might the technology be getting in the way of face-to-face
interaction? On the other hand, technology can bring families together, too, as
when a child connects with a grandparent via Skype. Moderation is probably a
good thing in most parenting ventures.
I see an enormous pressure on parents, particularly mothers, to keep up with new trends, new enrichments, and new materials to keep their child thriving. It’s exhausting and also a recipe for failure.
living in a time of unprecedented criticism of parents; much of what they do is
held up to potential public scorn and second-guessing. I was shocked by the
thousands of angry online commenters last summer after an antsy toddler was
yelled at by a restaurant owner in Maine; there are many cultures where such
intolerance would have been inconceivable, whatever the apparent flaws of the
parent who failed to control her child’s behavior. Despite the obvious
challenges of 21st century life, in a number of key ways—such as
mortality rates—children have probably never been better cared for, and I think
it’s worth remembering that when we worry too much about perfection.
mention that opportunities for inventive play and deep connections with
caregivers are too often being replaced with “adult gadgets and expectations.” Many researchers have spoken out on the dangers of excessive exposure to screen
time in early childhood. How do you think adult gadgets, including smartphones
and tablets, are affecting our children’s innate tendencies to crave social
interaction and free play? Do you think there is a time and place for these
gadgets in childhood?
think there is a limited place for
gadgetry in childhood. A recent study showed that children
and parents engage in less conversation when playing with electronic toys than
with blocks. We need to pay careful attention to these findings because
they are capturing something real about human interaction. I’m not saying “never,”
but the science just isn’t there to substitute electronics for face-to-face,
are two ways to look at the role of technology in children’s lives: does it
harm young children and does it keep them from doing other things, like playing
outside, or laughing in the arms of a loving caregiver?
On the first question,
the quality of screen time matters, of course; watching Mr. Rogers is very
But we also have to be more honest about what children give up in order
to play on an iPad.
At the end of the day, young children aren’t awake that
So we have to get more serious about what they are doing when they could
be outdoors or playing with a friend or a puppy or holding a new sibling.
said, I think parental sanity is important, too, and every generation has its
version of a play-pen! But there’s an addictive quality to iPad and iPhone use
that can seriously impede the natural engine for learning: loving, playful interaction.