Back in September, I posted an entry wondering if the seeming ubiquity of preschool attendance for three-to-five year olds around our neighborhood made it an unavoidable necessity for my own children to go to preschool (The link is here). My biggest concern in that post was how my children would learn to interact socially with their peers if they were with me while everyone else was at preschool. In many respects I was not actually trying to answer this question in my post. My intent was more to highlight, and vent my frustration at, one of those moments in parenting when the choices others make significantly constrict or complicate my own range of options.
In the two months since publishing those thoughts, I have returned several times to the question of whether I will ultimately have to send Polly and Pip to preschool. In the process I realized that I wanted another crack at the topic. I wanted to write something that would clarify my thoughts from the first entry and bring them to a definite conclusion. I wanted to write something that would end with a period instead of a question mark. And so, here we go again:
There is something potent about the notion of going to ‘school’. I’ve never had anyone suggest that I should send Pip or Polly to daycare for a couple of mornings a week. In fact, it was not until Pip passed thirty months – the age at which many preschools start accepting children – that anyone brought up the idea of turning him over for a while to someone else, even under the logic of giving myself a break or creating some more one-on-one time with Polly. But once the idea was in the air, it was hard to get rid of. There was some kind of unarticulated power at work, a sense that having mastered walking, talking, and eating, Pip’s next natural milestone would be going to preschool. Being conscientious parents, Ava and I dutifully sought out and found a quality preschool that we could afford and enrolled Pip in the two-day program.
As I described in the first post, Pip’s year in preschool was okay but not great. It ultimately left us wondering what he really got out of it. Preschool was supposed to introduce Pip to a whole series of things that would over three years culminate in his being “ready for kindergarten.” But in looking at some of the kindergarten readiness check lists available on the web (like here and here), I found that Pip can already cross off just about every item listed. He recognizes almost all of the letters in the alphabet. He can count to twenty. He knows how to use scissors and glue safely. He can write his name with help. In the past two months he has also demonstrated a willingness and capacity to play with other kids. Two more years of preschool are not going to make him significantly more ready for kindergarten.
And Polly at eighteen months is not very far behind Pip. She follows him everywhere and mimics him relentlessly. In the process she has learned – and, I expect, will continue to learn - much of whatever he is into. For example, she is already grasping some of the things Pip and I are working on at home. She can count to four, recognize some letters, and identify a couple of shapes. She is also becoming more capable with writing instruments like crayons and markers. And she is quite skilled at managing interactions with people of all ages. Preschool can’t hold a candle to the education gained from having an older sibling.
The one item on the readiness lists that Polly and Pip will not be able to check off before they enter kindergarten is the possession of an intimate familiarity with the dynamics of a formal classroom setting. This is not a small thing. As a commentator on one of my later posts suggested (see here), ‘school’ is a completely different world from ‘home.’ The rules are different. The routines are different. The organization of space is different. The personal relationships are different. Managing this difference is not just a matter of learning how to deal with more people. It also means understanding how to function within an additional array of power and authority centered around the classroom teacher and, further along, the administration of the school writ large.
There is an intuitive logic to this question of familiarity which says the sooner a child gets familiar with this alien world and the sooner she can start functioning within it, the more opportunities she will have to gain whatever benefits are possible. The implication of this logic is that, on average, children who attend preschool should have some continuing developmental advances over those who do not. But does it really work this way? Are the cognitive and social development of children essentially a process of linear accumulation? Does it matter whether Pip and Polly get institutionalized as three-year-olds instead of five-year-olds?
I took a look at some of the scholarly research on preschool outcomes to see if I could find any solid answers to these questions. The results of this search were interesting though not particularly definitive.
First of all, most of the preschool research I found focuses on low income populations and whether preschool attendance by these populations can reduce a frequently observed “achievement gap” between children from lower and higher income families. While most find that preschool programs do create some positive impact in this regard, these findings are not that applicable to Polly or Pip as they are members of a hyper-educated, professional class family with an income that falls somewhere within the middle bracket.
Secondly, much of this research is conducted in the context of policy discussions regarding whether the public provision of preschool should be pursued through universal or targeted programs. For parents like Ava and I who are trying to determine how many thousands of dollars we should be willing to pay for our children to go to a good preschool, these discussions offer little guidance.
In the few papers I did find which held some relevance for our context, the results were circumspect about the overall value of preschool. On the positive side, there seems to be a consensus that middle class populations do derive some advances in cognitive development from preschool (see this report for more). However, these gains are small. One report estimated that the difference between children who attended preschool and those who did not amounted to the ability to answer one more question correctly on the test instrument. This same study also found that this effect fades over time. On the negative side, another paper concluded that any cognitive gains come paired with a negative trend in measures of social development, though exactly how social development was measured is not clear to me.
Given the ambivalence and the relative lack of evidence regarding what preschool does for kids like Pip and Polly, I feel justified in deciding that actually attending preschool is a largely neutral proposition. So, what benefits might be gained from keeping them at home with me? In my original post I tried to answer this question in a comparative way, claiming that my kids will do more and learn more with me than they would at preschool. While I still believe that to be true, it is a very subjective measure and one that obscures a simpler and more self-centered reason for my ambivalence about preschool: I don’t want to give up my kids yet.
Not only do I love Polly and Pip, but I really like them. They are smart, funny, and impossibly sweet. For example, Polly blows kisses to every animal she sees – in books, in stores, in people’s houses. She has also, in her imitations of Pip, taken to crawling around the house on all fours and pretending to be different animals, woofing when she is a dog and growling when she is a bear. For his part, Pip is currently in a stage where the sophistication of his thoughts and the language he uses to articulate them is rapidly increasing. Just yesterday he told me, while talking about our upcoming Thanksgiving trip to his grandparents, that “My heart hurts because we have to wait so long before going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.”
As a full-time father, I have the rare opportunity to be immersed in all of this and to be on hand for almost everything that happens to them. While this positionality comes with its ups and downs, the cumulative effect of my experiences with them has been one of great joy. By sending Polly and Pip to preschool I would be giving up some of this, and that is not an idea I relish. More importantly, sending them to preschool effectively outsources all the fun stuff about being a parent while requiring me to spend much of my time playing the less enjoyable roles of nag and chaperone. If the roles were reversed and I got to play with my kids, read books to them, or do art projects with them while someone else cooked, cleaned, and made sure they got out of the door on time, then I would sign up for that immediately. But that’s not how preschool works and so for me, sending my kids to one doesn’t make sense.
I have five brief years to spend with Pip and Polly before I have to release them into the wilds of institutionalized education. That time is precious to me. I don’t want to waste it on preschool.
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