Is preschool a New York City obsession, or has the whole country effectively moved up schooling from age 6 to age 3?
We’re personally bucking this trend – I believe early childhood is for family time and free time – but all the preschool bruhaha we’re surrounded by has me constantly wondering if we’re doing the right thing.
This past school year we had our 3 year old (who started at 2) in a two-hours, twice a week play group with 11 other kids.
We would never have searched this out, but I heard the director speak at a free event and it sounded like fun for the kids so we applied – vowing not to enroll if we didn’t get a full scholarship to cover the $9,000 tuition.
We didn’t get a full scholarship, but I got some freelance work right at the same time and it seemed fortuitous so we signed up. Only because we thought our boy would enjoy it, which he does. There are 6 teachers for 12 students and it’s hard to go wrong with a room full of toys and art materials.
As soon as the 2 year olds started in September, a letter went out: “Time to think about preschool applications for next year!”
The $30,000 preschool
Mine went right into the recycling. We’d seen the documentary Nursery University about the preschool application process in New York – parents were in a complete lather over getting their hands on an application, let alone getting in, and the $20,000-$30,000 bill was hardly mentioned as a concern. We knew that world wasn’t for us.
In the elevator at “school” a few weeks later, the parents were aflutter: “The admissions director for [Some Fancy Preschool] is here today!”
Gasps. Hand-wringing. And on my part: some internal eye-rolling.
What was there for an admissions director to observe? A group of 2 year olds playing with Legos and playdough.
Early childhood development is not my expertise, so maybe they can tell great differences between the children. But then the question becomes: if a child is, say, shy or disinterested, or even sitting in a corner for that matter…do they not have the right to a preschool education? Have they already failed? Is their future, as the (New York) parents worry, over?
Competition for admissions
A father was aflutter about the preschool interviews he’d been on and was boasting that he gave a really good answer that morning to a director’s question, “You are giving away your daughter at her wedding. What do you say to her?”
I told him I would have questioned what that had to do with anything and where they were going with that.
The other parents exchanged glances – clearly my son would not be getting in anywhere. (True, but because we won’t apply.)
A mom asked the father what his answer had been that the director had liked so much.
“Oh, I can’t remember,” he said stiffly.
Really? The interview was a couple hours ago and you gave this great answer you’re telling us about, but suddenly you can’t remember what it was? Or…could it be…you didn’t want to give away any competitive advantage?
If you want to see this crapola in action, watch Nursery University! It’s horrifying and deeply entertaining at the same time.
Of course, I brought it up with the other parents: “You guys have seen Nursery University, right?” And just as I added, “It’s SO FUNNY!” another mom said at the exact same time, wide-eyed, “It’s SO SCARY.”
Huh, difference of opinion.
Is skipping preschool a mistake?
Buuut, then at Christmas break, the director asked what our plans were for preschool.
“Nothing,” I told her.
“That’s a mistake,” she said. “He’s doing so well – I’d hate to see him go backwards.”
Well no parent wants to hear the words “mistake” and “backwards” in reference to their parenting and child, so, despite my convictions, I jumped online immediately to research the options.
She had mentioned a school near us that is part-time – I’d said there was no way I would send him away 5 days a week – but when I looked they advertised academics, something pretty much everyone agrees isn’t a good idea at age 3. A few hours a week also costs $7,000 and there’s no financial aid.
Snap! Computer closes, research over. Back to our original plan: playgrounds; play dates; cooking and cleaning and crafts at home; outings to the museums; lots of sibling bonding; no set schedule to interfere with naps.
Freedom. As it should be when children are so young.
Now it’s Spring. Decision letters are arriving. It’s exactly like senior year of high school… except, obviously, these kids are not 18, they are 3.
We have skipped the entire crazy process and I’m feeling almost smug. Then the director takes me aside.
“Can we talk about preschool for next year?”
“Sure – but you probably won’t convince me,” I said.
She said that our son is smart, really smart. Oh, who doesn’t want to hear that?!
And, she said, he’s “a leader.” The other kids want to do what he’s doing, she said. Oh! How flattering! And then…
“He’s doing so well. This is the age when children develop confidence. Without being in a separation program next year, you will see him take several steps backward. Think about it!”
I did. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Was I on some kind of high hippie horse, thinking we were so clever to sidestep preschool, when in fact he might flourish in a preschool environment and I was only holding him back or, worse, damaging him?
Gasp. Hand-wringing. And then: back to the Internet!
Do children need preschool?
At what age do children need to separate from parents?
How to develop social skills for preschooler?
Preschool is not necessarily best for development
I’d done all this research before. I read again until I found on Parenting Science an article on about preschool social skills that said socialization is not the same as socializing, and that putting a bunch of 3 year olds in a room together all day is probably not the best way to advance them.
Phew. Thank goodness there’s always research online to support your original hypothesis.
What I mean is: I believe in following our intuition as parents. When our confidence is shaken by “expert advice,” it’s reassuring that we can go online and find support for our original conviction.
Here’s a highlight from the Parenting Science article:
“Loving, sensitive parents are ideal social tutors. Unlike preschool peers, parents draw on extensive emotional resources when they interact with children. Parents can:
- understand the causes and effects of emotions
- see things from a child’s perspective
- interpret the emotions of others
- match social interactions to a child’s developmental level
- describe emotions verbally
- regulate their own emotions
- appreciate the long-term consequences of social acts
No wonder the core preschool social skills—-empathy, emotional self-control, and communication—-are best nurtured by you.”
Parents as preschool teachers
I’m so excited about all the unfettered time we’ll have together with our boys next school year.
We’ll do sensory bins and small worlds, kid yoga and lots of climbing, play with puppets and put together a dress-up trunk…
We’ll walk around the Met museum on weekday mornings when it isn’t crowded, and go play in the incredible Discovery Room at the American Museum of Natural History, walking distance from us.
P.S. All those enriching activities are free (since we have the museum memberships – a great deal).
I respect the expertise of the director of our son’s toddler center who advised us to send him to preschool. However, I think she might be giving too much credit to “school” and not enough to active, involved, articulate parents who are ready, willing, able and enthusiastic about spending our days with our preschoolers.
Follow your instincts
Is preschool the right environment for some kids? Probably, yes. It depends on what the alternative is. Each of us must evaluate our own family and do what we feel is best for our own children. Listen to yourself more than others.
If you feel torn between social pressures and your own intuition, perhaps looking at the Waldorf-inspired parenting blog The Parenting Passageway will be a help – Carrie’s confident advice there has really opened my eyes to an alternative way of raising children.
For starters, here is an article of Carrie’s on structuring days and activities for a 3 or 4 year old.
If you’re a stay-at-home parent willing to “homeschool” your child for preschool (there’s no curriculum involved – it’s just enjoying life together!), my advice is to ignore pressure to send your child out of the home and do your own thing.
You can do this!