Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Preschool: A Second Look

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.

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age? Take a look at my blog:

There's a new post every Thursday.


Anonymous said...

I firmly believe that most decisions are arbitrary (as far as the data/evidence/logical arguments are concerned), so you might as well do whatever you want; and if you can't decide, just flip a coin.

Congratulations, and enjoy your time

Anonymous said...


you should send your kids to preschool because how many hours a week is it of more, varied activity? My son goes 9 hours. There are probably 2 day programs too. I'm sure they'll learn more hands on academic stuff at your side, but you can't give them the class room environment.

When i drop my son off at presechool, he BOLTS in, doesn't even say goodbye to me. I don't think he's a social butterfly or anything, but he gets to use different toys, gets to do different activities, runs around with kids outside his close circle of friends, and has to navigate the social landscape.

I can't think it's anything but a great thing.

at home with you their emotional attachment grows stronger, but they have plenty of room for their brains to grow from new experiences.

dadbloggit said...

Your thought process is very similar to ours. We've gone back and forth on the preschool issue for our almost-three-year-old daughter. Ultimately we're deciding to keep her at home with her younger sister and me for the time being. What's the rush?

Unknown said...

I really believe that you could find the right research to back up any choice you make. And, I don't just mean in the choice you are talking about. Any choice! Heck there is enough information out there, that I bet I could find a website that ticks off symptoms I have that indicate that I'm pregnant. I am a man however. That being said, I agree 100% with your choice, and have made the same choice as you. We sent our oldest to a preschool as a 4yo and now to a Pre-K as a 5yo, and will do the same with our now 2yo. There is no need to rush.

Anonymous said...

I have had the same dilemma several months ago with my 2.75 year old. When I went back to work part time we made a compromise and sent her to a preschool 2 days per week which is next to where I work those same 2 days per week. It's really out of financial necessity that I work those 2 days; otherwise I think I'd be ok with not sending her to preschool at all, and just making sure she has regular opportunities to socialize with other kids her age and exposure to colors/ numbers/ letters, etc. It's great to have options in parenting! said...

You leave out one important reason for not sending your kids to preschool. You. Dads are different. You would be depriving your kids of you. All the slightly different takes on life that men have, and that you have. Not every kid is going to have the experience of being raised from infancy by a man. Being raised by their father. Most will experience preschool.

I am sure Pip and Polly have overheard discussions on this subject. You have just provided a lesson on how to think, how to use facts in thinking, and how to think independently. How to *not* follow the parade.

I loved this!!

Anonymous said...

Why will you definitely have to send them to school when they are five? You have the choice of homeschooling if you can get them enough social interaction from other sources and feel comfortable continuing to teach them yourselves.

Edie Mindell said...

Actually, it's just the matter of basing your decisions on your kid's development. If he's doing well with you in your home, then I think it's fine. But, if socialization is his problem, then you ought to bring him to pre-school instead to hone his social skills.

Anonymous said...

You know, you don't have to give them up in 5 years either...could always homeschool.