Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny is 3 years old, goes to preschool, and…

he loves it! Did you get that line in one of your Christmas Newsletters last month? Every Christmas season we receive an assortment of holiday greetings which give a rundown of the particular events in the sender’s family over the previous year. And every Christmas season my wife and I chuckle as we read of at least one child like Johnny (not the child’s real name). We chuckle because we almost always find the addendum "and he loves it!" tagged onto the end of the sentence. Why do parents choose to add those four words? Why not simply state, "Johnny is 3 years old and goes to preschool"? Could it be that Johnny doesn’t want to go to preschool? Could it be that he really doesn’t like it? Or maybe he truly does love going to preschool. But, even so, why do they feel the need to bring attention to the fact that Johnny loves preschool? Could it be, dare I say it… guilt? Now, I am well aware that there are some families who, by virtue of their economic situation, are forced to send their toddlers to preschool. I doubt, however, that most of those families have space in their budget to send out Christmas Newsletters with 5x7 glossy pictures of the family. The first four or five years of a child’s life are immensely formative. In a "traditional" father / mother / child environment (i.e., a family) the child will bond with the mother in ways that the father will never experience. This happens not only because the mother is with the child for longer periods of time, but also because of the inherently different physiological makeup of women. In such a setting the child is typically sent off to public school at about age five or six. Thus, the child’s formative years are spent mainly under the influence of the mother. Until now. In Pressured into preschool (registration required), Michelle Quinn, from the San Jose Mercury-News, writes,
Susan Nell had planned to keep her son, Jimmy, home with her at least until he was 4. But panic struck when Jimmy was still a baby. The word at the playground was that preschool could make all the difference for kids, socially and academically. Other parents were madly researching preschools and signing up to reserve spaces two to three years in advance, fearing that choice schools would be filled if they waited. Nell began signing up, too. ``I don't want to say I was keeping up with the Joneses,'' she said. ``But I didn't want him to fall behind.''
For $11,425 a school year, a 3-year-old can attend Stratford School five days a week, including after-school care until 6 p.m. The Stratford School, with campuses in San Jose, Los Gatos and Sunnyvale, focuses on academics as well as socialization. Amid the playing, teachers devote a portion of the day to activities such as counting and saying the alphabet. ``My belief is that children are capable of learning a lot at an early age,'' said Joe Wagner, Stratford's founder and president. ``But I think socialization is equally as important.''… …When she began her preschool search for her daughter, Susanne Millar kept track of 20 preschools on a spreadsheet with categories such as Teaching Philosophy, Adult/Child Ratio, Teacher Turnover Rate, Diapers/No Diapers and Music Programs. Preschool, Millar said, ``is becoming, at least from a socialization perspective, a requirement.'' Her daughter, Samantha, 3, attends Alphabet Soup in Cupertino twice a week.
One can’t help but wonder how different Samantha’s socialization skills would be had her mother ignored working on her spreadsheet and, instead, spent that time with her daughter. One also can’t help but wonder why educators and parents think that the socialization skills of a three year-old should be shaped by other three year-olds. If lessons in socialization are that important, why didn’t the mother consider the Adult/Child Ratio at her own home? Misguided choices by the affluent, however, are not the only issue at hand. Enter a television commercial from First5 California, an advocacy group that is spearheading the notion of universal (albeit voluntary) preschool in California. In the commercial we see two police officers cruising in their squad car. One of the officers says, while motioning to the back, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep kids out of this back seat?” The other officer chimes in, “There’s already a program which does just that!” She (yes, it’s a female officer that ultimately gives the punch-line) then rhetorically asks, “So, what is this great crime prevention program?” And, with a look of motherly reassurance, she simply says, “It’s called… preschool.” We’re then informed that studies have shown that children who attend preschool are, among other things, less likely to end up in jail as an adult. Well sure, I can see where a kid from an impoverished family would stand a better chance in a healthy, safe environment as opposed to being locked up at home waiting for mommy to get home from work. But the push by preschool proponents is that all children benefit from attending preschool. It is purported that children who attend preschool do better academically and are better adjusted socially as adults. So, while preschool proponents claim that it is “grossly unfair” that preschool is available only to the rich and, consequently, that we should have state funded programs available for the needy, we are also shown that there are logical reasons why we should embrace preschool for children of all socio-economic levels. While proponents of universal preschool stress that their concept is strictly voluntary, their media rhetoric says otherwise. After all, if attending preschool is beneficial for all children, why limit it to the needy? Why not make it available for all California toddlers? Indeed, the California legislation faced a bill in 2004 which, while heralded as providing voluntary universal preschool, also proposed that kindergarten be mandatory. The initial text of the bill AB 56 stated,
(1) Existing law, commonly referred to as the Compulsory Education Law, subjects pupils between the ages of 6 and 18 to compulsory full-time education. This bill would, instead, subject pupils between the ages of 5 and 18 to compulsory full-time education, and would make conforming changes, including, but not limited to, changes relating to kindergarten services and the full day of instruction. By expanding the Compulsory Education Law, and by changing related crimes, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program. (emphasis added)
It was opposed by the Home School Legal Defense Association and eventually amended to exclude the mandatory kindergarten provision. A four year-old could just about see where such legislation would lead – once mandatory kindergarten is firmly entrenched, along with universal preschool, how could anyone object to the obvious societal benefits of having mandatory universal preschool? One doesn’t have to dig very far to find that First5 California promotes healthy care for children starting at birth. How long before the healthy care availability for infants becomes mandatory government run infant care? Opening a Christmas card in the near future might reveal something along the lines of: Johnny is in infant care… and he loves it! Additional reference: Mandatory Preschool in California?


Paul said...

I don't send out one of the "Boast in the Post" circulars that you refer to, but if I did I can well imagine that I would add the "and they love it!" line for my two kids. But unlike the scenarios you mention, I think I'd include it because, erm, they do. We tend to think of school as a chore (at least I do, I didn't much care for it), so it's just so heartening to see how much they enjoy it.

On the other hand, I quite agree that preschool shouldn't be compulsory. I'm used to a system that supplies much more schooling than in the US, so naturally I'm somewhat biased towards that, but I don't think starting before 5 is so clearly beneficial that it should be required. We're lucky enough that my wife can work 9-3 and pick the kids up at 3:30, so they get to have good socialization time at school, plus a good amount of family time. At the same time my wife gets to do something intellectually challenging that is outside of the family, which she finds extremely beneficial.

Constance said...

In general, I don't have a stand on the issue of pre-schools.
Personally, my first child had my attention 24/7.
My second child was in several day-care centers that I didn't know much about. I had more issues with the transitions from one to the next and how to take her OUT of the centers. If she was "really liking pre-school(day-care)", what did she get to supplement that interaction when she was pulled out?
I can't make a viable analysis of which is the better adjusted. I liked being a mother much more than a carreer woman. Both girls continually said they did not want me to work. My working led to personal disaster. If I had had a choice, I would have stayed home. Now they both seem to be doing fine. But I wouldn't claim they are "really liking it". In fact, there have been times I'ld say they "really hated it". I'm glad they have school though, because they have the same mixed feelings about home.

Bonnie said...

Rusty, I practically could've written this post (except for the references to CA :-) ) This is the 2nd year of universal Pre-K in my area and I know that moms love it, for obvious reasons. Do the kids? Well, what choice do they have?!

My gut feeling (for whatever that's worth) is that the crucially formative years extend past age 5 or 6. Kids ought to be raised/educated under the family umbrella at least past that age, although I'll allow for differences in kids.

I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, when the time came for our first to be on his way to kindergarten, that it was the wrong thing to do. Send him away for upwards of 7 hours of the day? No way! He doesn't need to be raised by teachers and peers for that length of time, every day, 5 days/week. Why educate a kid in such a schizophrenic way? Why compartmentalize his life (into "school" and "home")?

That said, we have sent our otherwise-homeschooled kids to preschool 2-4 hours per week from age 3-5. Why? Because their preschool is at our church, we know and love the people who run it (they are part of our church family), and because we feel it's a great experience for our kids. But it's not a substitute for what we could be doing; it's a complement/supplement.