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Competitive parenting has led to 'unrealistic expectations' say nurseries

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

The game of competitive parenting begins even before the birth, with heated debates over which food when pregnant will boost their baby’s brainpower as well as the merits of breastfeeding and waterbirths.

Once they become a parent it gets even worse, as bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived parents are tormented by fellow parents telling them how well their babies are sleeping through the night and have been since they were six weeks old.

This continues as they micro-manage their children’s lives determined to mould the ‘perfect’ high-achieving child.

The game of competitive parenting steps up a notch as children start school. However due to growing awareness of the impact the early years can have on a child’s development, nurseries are increasingly finding they have to cope with parents’ idealistic notions of seeing their children writing and reading not ‘just playing’.

'Unrealistic expectations'

Sarah Steel, managing director of the Old Station Nursery chain, has found “parents all want to do the best for their children but some have unrealistic expectations and don’t understand what is age-appropriate for children.”

She says: “The most common thing is wanting children to be able to write their name and the alphabet and complete ‘work sheets’, when sometimes the children don’t have sufficiently developed fine motor skills to even hold a pencil correctly.”

Boys and summer-born children can particularly struggle with trying to hold a pencil and forming letters while still at nursery, as fine motor skills develop later in boys than girls and a difference of eight months can make a huge difference in terms of fine motor skills development.

Educate parents

This is why Old Station Nursery staff “try and work with the parents to educate them with what their child is ready for and how they can support them individually, rather than getting hung up on where they think they should be,” reveals Ms Steel.

“Sometimes we share the relevant sections of Development Matters with them, so they can see what is a ‘normal’ range for children’s development, and how wide that range is. Good communication with parents should help them to understand how we and they can help their children’s next steps, rather than trying to meet a perceived standard.”

To a parent, ‘school readiness’ can mean being ready in terms of their reading and writing. However nurseries do find they need to share an alternative concept of ‘school readiness’ emphasising the importance of social skills, turn taking and listening and personal independence, rather than focussing on reading and writing.

Ms Steel suggests recommending the ‘What to expect, when’ guide which 4Children produced as a useful resource to help when faced with questions on school readiness.

Different child development rates

Sue Asquith, early years adviser at National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), believes early years settings have an important role to play in explaining to parents the difference between the sequence and rate of child development.

Doing this effectively will ease the pressure on the nursery and the child as well as the parent who is desperately trying to push the child before they are ready.

“Most children will pass through certain development stages in sequence, for example, as babies, learning to control their head before they can sit up. The rate in which they develop differs though, for example one child might learn to walk at 11 months, another might take longer.

“Explaining this to parents from the start could help, and be important for your relationship with them. If then they did need support with expectations of development, you could have a private chat or arrange a meeting to revisit the subjects of sequence and rate. You could highlight what their child is doing well and what you can plan next for the child, working together.”

Prepare 'children for life, not just for school'

David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton, reveals their focus is on preparing “children for life, not just school and helping them learn and grow into a unique individual”.

He says: “We work with parents to highlight the importance of holistic development across all seven areas of children’s learning and particularly in the three key areas. We know that some children are ahead of their expected levels in certain areas, that they may appear to ‘know their numbers’ by being able to recite say 1 to 50 in order but we always caution that it is understanding of concepts that we are aiming for along with language, socialisation, independence, imagination, creativity, kindness, etc.”

He has found the majority of parents are supportive of this approach and “understand that ‘academic’ achievement and comparison with other children’s development has little or no meaning at this age and is arguably unhelpful at any age, in my opinion. Children develop at different rates, in different areas.

“Our teams are careful to communicate in a way that does not compare children’s achievements in discussing next steps and puts them into the wider context. It is seeing each child as an individual.”

Holistic approach

Good communication is important and putting the right policies and procedures in place to support anxious parents is crucial, according to Fiona Blackwell, head of operations at Kiddi Caru

She says: “At Kiddi Caru we adopt a holistic approach to this issue by trying to avoid it becoming a problem in the first place. We have an open door policy – the management team at each nursery is always available to speak with parents and support requests but more importantly to help appropriately manage parental and carers’ expectations.

“Our nursery teams work very hard to manage the expectations of parents in terms of stages of development and discourage parents from comparing their own child or children against others when joining the nursery. Overt comparison causes unnecessary anxiety not only to the child but also the parent.”

EYFS and 'school readiness'

Kiddi Caru staff are trained to explain to parents what the expectations of the EYFS are and what ‘school readiness’ means when they encounter difficult conversations surrounding why their child is not reading and writing. The teams are encouraged to explain what activities are carried out with the children to support them to get ready to read, write and count.

Over recent years, the school system has gradually become increasingly pressured and now from 2017, GCSEs will be graded from one to nine, instead of A*–G, with grade 5 a good pass and grade 9 the highest and above the current A*.

This new system is intended to provide more differentiation, especially among higher achieving students and will inevitably lead to even more competition.

Competitive, pushy parents are much maligned but as children are now regularly assessed at every age, it is no wonder parents are feeling that if they don’t push their children, they are failing them.

To counter this feeling of anxiety, Sue Asquith, early years adviser at NDNA, says it is important that parents are reassured that “every child is unique and will develop at their own pace” and emphasises that “it isn’t a race to the early learning goals”.

She cautions that “too much pressure to achieve something specific may have a negative effect and cause a child to feel that they are failing and not living up to expectations.

“It is important to focus on what children can do, and plan to support their next steps.”


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Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw

13 Nov 2016 9:50 AM

Interesting article. As a former playworker, I think the importance of play shouldn't be underestimated as it helps children develop an important skill set including communication and team work skills as well as fine motor skills. Play helps develop a focus on 'us' rather than 'me' and the more kids play in nursery their social skills will be better for it.