Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A social dilemma: What if we’re the only ones who don’t send their kids to preschool?

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, we went to the playground. The sun was out. The air was warm. And the place was empty. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and Pip, Polly, and I were the only people there. This was a surprise to us. On the previous Tuesday there had been a number of kids running around, whipping down the slides, twisting on the swings, and creating the general commotion that is the specialty of children. Now, the playground was a ghost town. It was so quiet I could hear the swings creaking as they were pushed by the morning’s gentle breeze.

We stayed for about an hour. During that time, only one other kid appeared – a toddler who was probably 18 months old. At first my kids enjoyed having the place to themselves. They ran up the slides. They hopped from empty swing to empty swing. They scurried up the little climbing wall over and over. But soon the absence of other kids to watch and to play with left them bored and ready to leave.

Where was everyone? The answer came to me on the walk home: preschool. With the passing of Labor Day, all the area preschools are now in session. The kids we had seen the week before (and the week before that) are now scattered about the region’s various churches and private preschools. And they won’t return again until sometime in the month of May.

This phenomenon has raised an uncomfortable question for me: Am I going to have to send my kids to preschool to give them the chance to play with other kids? I hope not. We’ve done preschool. Ava and I sent Pip to one last year, and the experience was mediocre for us all. This was not the fault of the preschool. The program was well regarded, and the teachers did everything they said they would do. Pip made art projects. He went to Spanish class. He did music class. He learned some sign language. He got playtime everyday. We went with him on field trips to a local farm in the fall and to a exhibit of live butterflies in the spring. His experience was everything the ‘preschool industrial complex’ (Ava’s term) promises preschool can be.

But we never really were happy with it.

Our unhappiness stemmed largely from two areas. First, it felt like the activities were tailored heavily towards producing ‘things’ for parental consumption. On a daily basis, we were swamped by a deluge of paintings, drawings, collages, paper cutouts, etc. The importance given to all of this ‘stuff’ by the teachers did not align well with our own attempts at living a relatively simple life.

Second, Pip never really seemed comfortable. While he always said he liked preschool, whenever we did something with him there, he never appeared happy and relaxed. In fact, the indelible image for me from Pip’s year in preschool is of him standing on stage at the end of the year concert and nervously pulling the cuffs of his shorts up around his hips while he was supposed to be singing along with the music. His uncertainty in that moment was emblematic of what I saw from him throughout the year.

The main reason we sent Pip to preschool was for him to gain some “socialization.” As a two-year old, he was significantly more comfortable talking with adults than with kids. We hoped that by having the opportunity to independently interact on a regular basis with a group of kids his own age, he would at least get comfortable in a crowd and maybe even make some friends. In this respect, Pip’s preschool time was largely successful. He is much more outgoing now with other kids than he was a year ago. In particular, he is much more willing now to talk to new kids on the playground and engage in the kind of back and forth that is necessary for learning about new people.

That willingness made me hopeful that we could skip preschool this year. Over the summer our family moved to a new city and the potential for non-preschool socialization opportunities seemed high. We now have the great fortune of living in a neighborhood that is crawling with kids of all ages. There are strollers in abundance and tire swings hanging from multiple trees. During our first couple of weeks, Pip had begun to make a couple of friends at the playground nearby. He was talkative and playful and seemed to be figuring out how one goes about making friends.

Then Labor Day arrived, and now I’m facing a dilemma. In a new place where we don’t go to church or have an established network of family and friends with young children, if we want our kids to interact regularly with others their own age, do we have any choice but to send Pip (and eventually Polly) to preschool?

Obviously, I don’t really want to. In addition to my ambivalence about Pip’s earlier preschool experience, the following question comes to mind: what good comes from my being a full-time father if we are just going to send the kids to preschool every morning? I can do all the cognitive stuff better and more efficiently at home. The kids will get more direct attention, read more books, learn more letters and numbers, get exposed to more novel ideas, and have longer periods for playtime with me than at preschool. As a result of all of this, they’ll probably start reading and writing on their own sooner, too.

But what I can’t replicate at home is a social environment where Pip or Polly has to negotiate things with six other kids. How important is that in the long run? Will it put them at a significant disadvantage once they go to kindergarten or are these social development moments ones that they can catch up with pretty quickly? I don’t know. These are questions I’m still working out.

In the meantime, I’m trying a couple other avenues to get them playing with other kids. The most promising is an internet meet-up group for playdates that on the surface looks to be well-organized and highly active. Unfortunately, like the good preschools near us, there is a waiting list to get in. So, while I wait in line there and elsewhere, Pip, Polly and I’ll keep prowling the playground, hoping for that chance meeting with some other preschool holdouts.


KC said...

I think it's another example of parents feeling either (A) little kids need school to 'get ahead' or whatever, or (B) little kids are too much to manage, so we'll sign 'em up for preschool while we go to the gym/store/spa.

William said...

Ugh. The question. Preschool or no? I for one feel just completely guilty about either choice. Ha! And also not ha.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this post. My wife and I were trying to decide whether or not to send our son (nearly 2 1/2) to preschool this fall. Our decision was made easier because our daughter was born and I simply wasn't ready to do the school shuffle and care for an infant. At some point I know he'll need some sort of preschooling, but the kid is smart as a whip and is evolving every day at a cognitive level. We have his Gymboree classes and other avenues for socialization. I'm just not sold on the value of preschool, especially this early.

Unknown said...

I waited till Secondo was born before enrolling 4-year-old Primo in a three-days-a-week co-op preschool. The timing was right, the place was right, but I still worried that it was the right thing. Primo is graduating from high school this year and I am still not entirely convinced I made the right choice back then. Oh well. We do the best with what we have at the time. The inexact science of parenting makes me crazy -- and makes me a better human being. said...

My kids are well past this stage, Grad-School, HIgh-school, etc. So I have some perspective on this. We did the "pre-school" thing when it started. We went to a Montessori and I would recommend a really good Montessori any day. There is no official "Montessori Authority" so some schools just use the name without following the method. One thing I did find out was that I was NOT as good as the teachers in dealing with my own kids. It took some chewing to get that down, but it's true. It's most likely true for you too. It's much easier to teach someone else's kids then your own. Perspective is very important.

That said, in the long run I don't think preschool will make any difference in your kids lives. As long as you're not a sociopath and you send your kids to decent schools in general they'll find their own way. It won't do any harm, and it "is" the accepted means of children of a certain social class/s to socialize. So if you have the money by all means do it. Just don't feel guilty one way or the other. It is also a really good way for you to network. If you don't have the money -- and exactly why was money never brought up before? -- don't do it and do what ever else seems a good idea.

Two things to keep in mind:

Preschool with give your kids a jump start on their immune systems as they catch every cold that walks by. It will also get you use to the extortion racket that modern education has become. Just wait to your kids get to college and the edu-mobsters milk you dry of every last cent with a guilt filled gun to your head.

BloggerFather said...

Yep yep yep... I'm with everyone else: I have no idea what to do. Our boy will be 3 in December, which means that by next year we'll get pressurized to send him somewhere.

There's socialization, and there are things I know I can't give him (art projects are too messy for my neat-freakishness). But at the same time, he's doing really well now, so why mess with success? I really don't know what we'll do. I guess we have a few months to decide.

Beta Dad said...

I may have been conditioned by the preschool industrial complex to think this way, but it seems like you might as well get them used to the dynamic of school: working and playing with other kids, learning from adults besides you, etc. We'll see how my cavalier attitude changes when my girls get closer to pre-school age.

I cant' believe there's a waiting list for the playgroup. There must be others around. I'm in both a SAHD group and an Asian moms group--and there are countless other play groups in our area.

Unknown said...

I have had a similar issue. We started our 4 year old in a KRP program but ended up thinking the school was too big, so we pulled her out. We really wanted her to do something to get ready for kindergarten, but I was prepared for it to be me as the pre-school teacher. We have found a smaller school for her to go to, and we are excited about the socialization aspect of it as much or more than the educational aspect. I have even made mention of it on my own blog. You are welcome to check it out at

PinkAndrews said...

Once I realize we were talking about 6 hours a week, I did not think it was such a big deal to leave our first one at a 'preschool'.

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Johanna S said...

We were torn too. Our daughter turned three on 9/18. We decided on a local Montessori school. They're not about pleasing mom and dad; their toys are all about learning different things. Many Montessori schools have a half day and a full day program, so either 3 or 6 hours a day. If Montessori is affordable, I'd strongly recommend it.

Wolf Pascoe said...

It really hit home when you asked what's the point of being a full-time father only to send Pip to pre-school every morning. Our son's pre-school fortunately included parents; one or the other of us spent most of his first two years there with him, but it's an unusual place.

Have you considered home pre-schooling or un-schooling with other families? This site might give you some ideas:

MRWED said...

If the question is to send or not to send the kids in pre-school, my answer would be, it depends. First, depends upon your budget, if you can afford to send them to pre-school then enroll them; Second is the readiness of your children, they must be ready to mingle with other kids and do some stuff independently. After all the benefits that they can get from pre-school would be very beneficial to them.

The Texas Trio said...

Try looking at your local Churches for a Day out program. You can usually find a 2-3 day a week 9-1 program that is affordable. You still get a ton of stuff coming home but my Triplets love it. It also gives me the chance to do the yard one day and clean the whole house the other day. That way all the chores are done M-F so the weekends are all family time.

Have fun,

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