When our now 3-year-old was 12 months, I placed him in the kitchen sink with plastic cups and a thin stream of running water. Then I watched in awe and amusement as he spent 45 minutes filling cups and pouring water back and forth, over and over.
These days, he loses himself for hours between the wading pool and the water table, creating a complicated water park on the porch. I vowed we would never own large plastic toys, but our Redneck Riviera is a small price to pay for hours of focus.
My son’s water play was the first clue to one of a young child’s most amazing gifts:
Preschoolers go all in.
Whether it’s for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, your preschooler commits. This can hold true for anything:
Filling buckets with sand
Lying on the floor and wailing
Watching an ant colony
Running in circles and shrieking
Insisting on one more book at bedtime when you can’t possibly twist your tongue around Seuss again
Sitting at the table for 75 minutes instead of touching a single bite of their formerly favorite food
“All in” is wonderful. Exhausting. Delightful. Terrifying.
But your child’s unique all-in nature also provides amazing clues to the person God has created them to become. Where they commit and how they focus will shape several key aspects of their lives.
1. How your child experiences God
One of our highest values for preschoolers is to discover how much God loves them. Watch where your child goes “all in” and you’ll see an avenue for experiencing the God who made them.
Our three-year-old has always loved words. Even though he was a late talker, he turned nonsense words into an art form, and engaged with long stories from beginning to end before he could communicate himself. He and my husband created an entire pageant from a one-page version of the David and Goliath story that had to be performed every evening at bedtime, complete with costumes and sound effects. I’ve seen already how my son experiences Jesus, the Word, through words and stories.
Our 18-month-old, on the other hand, is a purely kinetic being. From day one, he has engaged with the world through kicking, grabbing, squeezing, slapping, tossing, chewing. He loves different textures and the way objects fit into his sturdy little hands. When we go on wagon rides, he tilts his head back to stare enthralled at the patterns of leaves and branches against the sky. I pray often that he will learn to know and love God through the amazing material world God created for us to enjoy.
2. How you “imagine the end” for your child
Parenting is hands-down one of the most difficult things any of us will do. But when you imagine the end for your child, what you hope for them as adults, you gain focus and perspective for the journey. Our culture—and every Disney movie—will promise that your child can be anything. And while that’s true on one level, many parents feel pressure for their child to be everything. It’s a one-way ticket to burn out and frustration.
Instead, study your preschooler and their all-in play. See the unique beauty in the way God has created your child; even tantrums point to something that matters deeply to them.
As you start to discover patterns, you gain tools for helping your child focus as they grow older. Instead of pushing them in a dozen different directions, you can open a few key doors and see where they respond.
My 3-year-old is deeply concerned with how things work. One of his first words was “uh oh,” as he pointed to burned-out light bulbs and escaped Cheerios. He’s fascinated with how objects fit together. And every time we’re in the car, he wants to understand the system that will get us there. Will we take the highway? How do we get on and off the highway? Each road sign and stoplight must be analyzed. As he grows older, we want to give him opportunities to build, create, and invent.
The toddler? I’m not sure yet. But since every single thing he picks up must be hurled, maybe we have a budding ball player.
You probably look forward to the elementary years when, in theory, your quixotic child will reach a more even keel. But don’t miss this one-of-a-kind chance to study your all-in kid … even when they’re howling because you dared to offer spaghetti instead of linguine.
The Question Your Preschooler is Asking
The Truth About Parenting Preschoolers
Helping Your Preschooler Navigate Their Emotions
Using a Feelings Wheel: Why it’s Helpful and How it Works