I’ve been working with preschoolers for 50 years. When Roseville Community Preschool first opened, what the parents really wanted was a place to take their children so that they could have half a day off to go shopping. But they wanted to make it valuable and kind of fun. When I took the job, I had five children and I thought, “Well, this will give me enough money to buy new shoes.” I never thought I would make a career of it. And here I am: I’ve written books, I’ve given 6,000 workshops, I’ve spoken in every state in the union. I really didn’t plan it.
I was born and raised in North Dakota. I was a twin and I weighed less than 4 pounds when I was born. The doctor said, “The little girl won’t live, but the little boy will.” But it didn’t work that way. We were a very, very poor family in the sense that my dad didn’t make much money, but our lives were really rich with storytelling and singing, singing, singing. My dad and mother used to put the eight of us kids in the car, and we’d just go for a drive so that we could sing. I used to sometimes sit in the back and hope that they had enough money to get us an ice cream cone, but they hardly ever did.
I always know—and I don’t know how I know it—what a child needs. I’m really good at paying attention and watching what children do. I can always tell when something is wrong with a child.
For me, being child-centered means I try not to have preconceived ideas. I watch some people and they’ll say, “Oh, there’s an ADD kid,” or whatever. I don’t do that. Every child, from their toes up, has value to me. I think kids are idiosyncratic and they sometimes do weird things, but I just don’t pass a judgment on a child, and I never think that there is a child who isn’t worth all of my energy.
It is going to destroy us if we don’t start paying attention to letting children play. There are 11 conditions for human growth, and all of them fit into play. They need to be outside. They can do so much there. They can feel a sense of belonging there. They can take risks.
All children need one person who will always stand behind them, no matter what’s going on. They need one person to whom they can say, “Please, I need help.” Someone they can really depend upon. You don’t have to be your kid’s best friend, but you’ve got to be their best defender. You’ve got to stand behind them and hold them tight. You have to tell them, “I’ll always be here. Even if you’ve messed up, I’m going to be here for you.”
If you really want to be a good parent, set some time aside every single day to lie on the bed and just listen to your kid. Make it their time. Don’t be in a rush. Time is fleeting, so you really need to pay attention.