It’s Okay—And Totally Normal—That Your Pre-K Kid Can’t Write Yet

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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One of the cardinal rules of parenting is that we shouldn’t compare our kids. We shouldn’t compare them to other kids, and we shouldn’t compare our own kids to each other. I know this, and yet, I’m terrible at avoiding the comparison game. I know my kids are wonderful and beautiful and smart and exactly who they are meant to be. But, like most parents, I worry about them. I worry about their mental health and physical health. I worry that they might not have a friend at recess and feel excluded. And I worry that they might struggle—emotionally, academically, athletically—and what facing those struggles will mean for them as they try to keep up with other kids.

I know children need to face challenges and only by overcoming adversity do they grow into tough, resilient adults who know how to get back up when they fall down. I know that. But I’m a mom, and I still worry. And that worry leads me to compare my kids to other kids and to their siblings, just because I want to ensure they’re okay.

For example, my older two children are very academic-minded. They love reading and writing and sitting and drawing and basically all things “school.”

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As a child, I also loved all those things and ended becoming an English teacher myself in the hopes of imparting my love for literature and analyzing texts and writing character development essays unto my impressionable students. I mean, who doesn’t love a good Hamlet monologue, amiright?! Then, I went to become a writer—as in someone who chooses to write for a living.

That means I can relate to my older two children in this way, and the three of us exist as a circle of book-loving nerds in a sea of stories and journals and post-it notes full of awesome quotes from our favorite authors and characters.

My third child is what we affectionately call our gorilla baby. He isn’t a huge fan of reading (my heart shatters over this daily) and he loathes writing with a burning, fiery passion. His favorite “subjects” in school are recess, lunch, and P.E. and he falls out of his chair frequently because “sitting is hard.”

So you can imagine that even though my older kids could write their names, addresses, our entire family’s names, and were working on short stories before entering kindergarten, the gorilla baby was… well… not quite there.

At age four, just sitting long enough to pick up a writing utensil and write a few letters was a challenge that required begging and bribery of Skittles. To write every single letter of his name? An impossible feat.

And even in kindergarten, he wasn’t there yet as his name is 6 letters and ends in R. On most of his papers the R was missing, which showed me that he couldn’t quite make it to the finish line and his brain and little fingers were just simply too tired by the time he reached that last letter.

So being a parent who compares out of worry, even though I know I shouldn’t, I stressed about his inability and/or unwillingness to write because so many other five-year-olds could do it. Including my other two kids. And including me, at age five.

In hindsight, I wish I had taken a few deep breaths, worked harder at avoiding those comparisons, and realized that my child was okay and that even at five, many kids—not just him—can’t yet handle the mental and physical discipline of writing. And that even getting their whole name on paper was sometimes just too hard.

In an Instagram post shared recently, Perth Children’s Occupational Therapy explained why moms like me should take a breath and know that if their little ones can’t write yet, that in fact, it’s 100% developmentally normal for kids ages three to five to still find this task a challenge.

The post explains that most children cannot form an X until nearly five years old, and a triangle until after turning five. And yet we are expecting to write complicated letters well before this age?! Of course lots of kids can’t do it.

“It is quite concerning then that there are 3 year 7 month olds starting formal schooling, where they’re expected to write,” the post says. “Not only are their visual motor integration skills not developed enough, their hands are also physically under-developed.”

An article from Empowered Parents echoes this, explaining that “A child is not yet physically and developmentally ready to write during the preschool years. They will start experimenting with letters on their own and ‘writing’ on their artwork, but they should not be forced to hold a pencil and form the letters correctly on a line.”

This is why our little ones have such tired minds, bodies, and hands when asked to sit for long periods of time, holding a pencil or marker or crayon, and write. Even though this task seemed to be a breeze for my older two, and seems easy and even enjoyable to lots of four and five-year olds, for many, it’s beyond what they can do that age. My son, upon entering kindergarten, was of the latter.

Also, writing challenges for kids at this age extend beyond hand strength. For many, because of their still-developing reading skills, writing can be too daunting for them.

“In addition, recognising letters, understanding phonics and beginning to read are all needed in order for a child to write meaningfully, skills which children starting kindy typically don’t have,” Perth Children’s OT explains. “We also know that when a child learns something that doesn’t hold meaning, it‘s unlikely to stick.”

So if a child doesn’t have the understanding for what a D is and what sounds it makes, writing that D will be even harder.

The post ends by saying this: “So if you have a 3-4 year old who spontaneously asks or attempts to write letters, that’s great…” (They’re looking at us, moms who did or do have those kiddos who naturally love reading or writing and who naturally have brains that have developed to the point of being able to comprehend basic writing and reading tasks at young ages.) “…Otherwise, there is no need to initiate or worry about this. Unfortunately there is a misconception, particularly with the way that the current curriculum stands, that earlier is better. Earlier is not always better.”

And if we push too hard and force these kids—like my gorilla baby who has to work really really hard on “sitting”—to read and write before they are ready, we are only going to frustrate them, make them feel like there is something wrong with them (there’s not), make us feel like there is something wrong with our parenting (there’s not), and they’ll end up hating school and hating learning. And no one wants that.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we completely stop exposure of letters and reading and writing to our pre-k kids. Empowered Parents shares that there are many valuable activities we can do to encourage our children’s brain development and ensure that we are pouring all sorts of knowledge into those cranial sponges, but also letting them be healthy, active kids who need to move and play and run. For example, we need to expose our kids to print often and talk about it—including books, road signs, cereal boxes, kids’ magazines, etc. Also, when we write and they are watching, we should model the correct letter formation (First letter in uppercase, the rest in lowercase, etc.) And, we should encourage our young kids to play with letters—wooden blocks, magnetic letters on the refrigerator, etc. because kids learn by playing and we must always remember that.

But at ages four and five, lots of kids can’t write letters yet in a straight line, and we must remember that too.

My third child is now seven years old and in 2nd grade. He can read and write. He still doesn’t like either and probably will always choose P.E. when given a choice. And he still needs regular “brain breaks” that allow him to get out of his seat and move his body. But that’s okay. He’s okay. And I wish I could go back and talk to that mom I was a few years ago, that mom whose other two kids were writing away—for fun—at ages three and four, who was panicking when her third child would chuck a crayon across the room if asked to write a letter or two. I wish I could have her read this post from Perth Children’s OT that explains that most kids, at five, can’t yet write an X, so it’s normal if they can’t write a G.

And I wish I could tell her that he was doing great, and that she was doing great. And to really, really stop comparing him to other kids, including his siblings.

Because you know what? He may have learned how to write his name at a later age than they did, but at four, that kid could already throw a mean fastball on the baseball field, could chow down an entire plate of salmon and a rack of ribs, and knew how to crack a good knock-knock joke because of his incredible wit. At four, he was exactly, wonderfully, who he was supposed to be. And I wish I had simply enjoyed that age and all its beautiful simplicity rather than stressing that his name was always missing the R at the end.

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