Who Goes to Preschool?

Today, while I was shoveling yet another jar of peas and rice into Joaquin's open mouth, NPR had a segment on Talk of the Nation on how parents are overwhelmed by the consumer culture that we live in today. Was the overwhelming variety and availability of goods and services aimed at parents (and their children, of course) really improving how our children experienced their childhood, or for that matter, how we adults experience our being parents? If you want more information, here's a link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89434940

What had me wanting to call in today was the idea of classes for children. Namely, the popularity of the idea of classes for very young children; some parents think they are essential. What cracks me up most is the regular question, well-meant, on whether I will place Joaquin in preschool when he's old enough. The reason this makes me laugh is that everyone knows I am, by profession, a childcare provider.

When I was pregnant, Joe waxed nostalgic on his days in preschool. Sleeping on a little cot! Playing with his friends! He suggested that Joaquin should go to preschool. When I told him how much a two-morning a week program cost, I think he decided that the little cot was quite spendy and that my working while providing stimulating care in our home for our son was just fine.

The people who ask me if I will eventually place Joaquin aren't silly people. Last week, a girlfriend of mine asked more out of curiosity than anything else. Some folks ask in order to get some ideas of what they might do when they are ready to find care for their child. Many mothers would like to go back, if only part time or to work from home, to the professional careers they had before having children. Because of the innovations in so many professions today, time away from working in your field can be considered a deficit that hinders working mothers from holding positions they once had. So, I understand that time is of the essence for some parents. And while there are some mothers who stay at home to raise their kids and don't understand another woman's desire to reengage with her work, I understand it completely. Before I was back to working with four year old Clara, I wanted that stimulation of working with another, older child so much I could taste it. It's one thing to drink in those magic moments with Joaquin, but it was quite another to plan art activities again, to engage in dramatic play, lose a few games of mancala, pretend to "eat" endless amounts of playdough waffles... all those ways in which I simply could not engage with a then-six-month-old. My brain needed to stay involved in my work in this way, and it has worked out well.

So back to my comment earlier...would I put Joaquin in preschool? Not unless the economy changed and Joe got a very large raise. Preschool is expensive, or at least the programs that I would like my son to be in are. If we had the time and money, I would most likely go back to school to learn more about child development. But, overall, I can give him a lot of what the other schools can. When he gets older, we'll have a little school here at our house, with a couple other kids. Observe a preschool busy at play and you will see children playing in clusters of 3-5 kids, not usually any more than that. So what's the benefit to a child of having 11 classmates? Usually, preschools enroll up to the ratio (1:6 at that age) to best cover costs, pay teachers and make some profit. And there are a lot of great programs out there. But for me, having a little morning school is hard to beat.

Some people will say that a child needs to attend preschool to learn how to be in a peer group setting, learn to listen to other adults besides their parents, and to be independent from their parents and family in general. Well, can't kids get the first two from playgroups? Your child will learn to listen to other adults if you give the other adults authority to correct and redirect your child when need be, and when you let your child understand that you expect them to listen to their elders, period. It's really not difficult.

Sometimes, finding an appropriate peer group can be a little tricky, but even libraries have "literacy and music" programs based on age. You won't find that all the kids there behave exactly as you would like, nor will all the parents parent the way you will, but preschools are the same to that degree. There will be families that will make you mad, sad, laugh, and scratch your head. There will be a child in your kid's group that you will hear about day in and day out that will be the bane of your existence for that year or so. "Craig's mom lets him have Lunchables every day! How come I hafta have a lousy sandwich?" or "Craig calls me a baby because I can't go fast on the tricycles" or "Craig said that his brother is the biggest guy in the world and he's gonna pound me"... trust me, you will have your Craig, or Tyler or Sylvie or whoever, no matter how expensive or exclusive your preschool is.

What I want to challenge, most of all, is the notion of schooling in general. There seems to be a popular belief that children should go out of home to school. That this is what is best, and right, for all children, and that keeping children home "shelters" them in a harmful way. No longer are people even content with their local schools; often, there is pressure to send one's child to a magnet school because they are "better". I think they are for some children, but I'd also say that there are a lot of great public schools too. Or, what about homeschooling? My sister has done this with her three and it has worked out well. This decision was not made to shelter her children, but to best teach them in an environment that promotes their exploration, thoughtful discussions and allows their little boy energy to express itself in ways that classrooms don't always allow. She wants her boys to fall in love with learning. That is the opposite of "sheltering". My sister admits that it's not a forever situation, but that it works for now.

So, what about school? Here are my last thoughts: It's a very consciously made choice for any mother to find childcare, be it daycare or preschool, so let's not judge her. It's a consciously made choice to stay home with your child to care for them and put a career on hold, or to decide to turn your house over to the development of little people, even for a few years. Let's do these things because we choose to, not because we feel we should, or because someone else says so. Let's make sure that we can look back and say that we have spent our money, and most importantly, our time, well.


Amanda said…
As usual, well spoken. Like so many other issues, birthing plans, nursing, parenting styles...we moms need to support each other and work to understand each other and enjoy our common interests.

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