Friday, January 18, 2013

To Preschool or Not To Preschool?

I've been thinking about preschool, which is pretty weird since my one-and-only kid is already in first grade.  I didn't go to preschool myself, and neither did my husband.  Instead, my mom took me to story time at three different public library branches three times a week.  I'm a librarian at a public library now, so it appears to have swayed my career decision.  My husband didn't have any formal preschool education.  His parents didn't regularly take him to the library.  They pretty much laid off and let him dismantle his toys and figure out how to put them back together and learn to play nicely with others by sharing a bedroom with his brother.  The Montessori method at home, if you will.  Now Will is a wonderful family person who is also good at fixing things, and sharing, as long as you're not his six-year-old daughter who complains about his alarm waking her up while she's hogging his side of the bed.  If you are that six-year-old, you might get a stern, "Well, Punkin, you can always get up and go sleep IN YOUR OWN BED."  That's about as much as Will ever complains about parenting, though, he's such a good daddy.

The family bed idea was mine.  I read the literature that says kids are calmer and healthier and have better cognitive function when they are allowed to sleep with their family members.  Will went along with it because he remembered what it was like to wake up from a nightmare and not want to be alone.  He had his brother to protect him.  Katie's an only child, so when she needs some nighttime comfort from another warm body, we're it.  Will was never as opinionated about the matter as I was, but he goes along with allowing Katie to climb into bed with us because it's important to me.

I similarly went along with his uncommon idea to not put Katie in preschool.  While growing up, Will noticed his classmates who had gone to preschool tended to be more hyper and insecure than kids like himself who stayed home with his dad during the day while his mom worked and then they traded duties in the evening.  He firmly believes kids are healthier if they spend the vast majority of their time with their own parents and immediate family members.  It sounds good to me, and Katie's smart so I never worried she wouldn't learn her ABCs by not going to preschool.  She never has learned how to tie her shoes, but most shoes her size are Velcro, so I'm not stressing about her lack of achievement in that area just yet.  If Will wanted to keep her home with us until she started kindergarten, that was fine with me.

I did worry about Katie's socialization.  I made an effort to get her out of the house and into social settings with her peers: story times at the library, the community center explorer room, outdoor parks , the indoor play area at the mall, and play dates with her cousins and her friends.

Most days I'm happy with our decision not to send Katie to formal preschool.  We did cave a little when she started begging to go to school at age 4 1/2 by sending her to a one-hour-a-week school skills class at Gymboree for seven months before she turned five and started kindergarten.  But for the most part, we raised her in a blend of both our upbringings, amounting mostly to a combination of regular visits to the library and lots of unstructured play at home.

Of course when Katie does not behave like a model child at school now, I worry we made a bad decision.  Maybe she needed more structure when she was young?  Maybe she needed more time with kids her own age each day?  But those worries have more to do with the unregulated perfectionism and chronic self-criticism of her mother than with Katie herself.  Kids mess up sometimes.  No big deal.  That's how they learn.  What can I say, for the most part Katie's an awesome kid and I think we're on the right track, as long as we remember it's OK, and even more fun, to occasionally get lost.

Will and I adore our child and so we set out to provide her with the healthiest life we can give her.  Notice I didn't say the best of everything.  I'm a firm believer in enrichment through a little deprivation.  Nothing major.  But if you give your child everything soon nothing will be special.  When Katie was an infant someone got me a subscription to a parenting magazine.  I remember very little of the advice.  After reading Alfie Kohn garnered an I'm-my-own-parenting-expert response from me, I chucked out a lot of information I had once taken in so diligently as a new mom.

The one thing I remember most from that magazine was an ad.  I can't remember what company it was for, but it had a photo of a toy easel which had a giant pad of paper with a child's painting on it and a generic looking child wearing a painter's hat and apron, holding a palette and paint brush, standing there looking confident and like the kind of kid who gets absorbed in an art project and knows how to leave his tired parents alone.  You know, most parent's ultimate fantasy kid.

It was the text at the top of the photo that caught my eye, though.  It said, "The less the toy does, the more the child does."

Bam!  Go buy our easel and pad set and your kid will summon masterpieces from her imagination.

I never did succumb to the ad's message by buying the thing.  It was too expensive.  But maybe I did succumb to it in a deep way.  I told myself I wouldn't buy it because I couldn't afford it and that all Katie needed was the back of a scrap piece of paper and a nubby pencil to create her masterpieces, but see, maybe I paid too close of attention to the message of this ad.  I can find a way to give my child even less by not buying this toy for her.

Whenever anyone would ask me why Will and I decided not to put our kid in preschool, which is much less common today than it was when we were unschooled youths, I tell them about this toy easel ad and they get it.

Now it looks like I can quote some less metaphorical resources too, although I still like the easel analogy.  I discovered this article in Slate, The Early Education Racket: If You Are Reading This Article, Your Kid Probably Doesn't Need Preschool.  It appears to substantiate our previously un-researched, anecdotal evidence.  I found this part to be particularly interesting, considering our recent dealings with Katie's inappropriate behavior at school and choosing to discuss it with her rather than punish her for it, the good ole Alfie Kohn approach, so she learns the reasons why she can't smack her friends no matter how annoying they are and who is around:

In work they conducted at the University of Kansas and chronicled in their book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Betty Hart and Todd Risley recorded, for two-and-a-half years, a full hour of conversation every day between parents and children from 42 American families of differing social classes. Children with professional parents heard about 30 million words by the time they turned 3, compared with 20 million in working-class families and 10 million in welfare families. In addition, the ratio of parental encouragements to reprimands was about 6-to-1 among professional families, 2-to-1 among the working class and 1-to-2 in welfare homes. These different experiences closely tracked with the children’s later academic and intellectual performance, and other studies have since supported these findings.

To me, you don't have to be a professional to be a good parent.  What I get from that paragraph is this: more talk talk talk with our kids and less scold scold scold leads to educationally-enriched gold.  So no matter whether or not you decide to enroll your child in preschool, talk and be kind and things will work out in the long run.