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All I really needed to know I learned while my son was in pre-K

All I Really Needed to Know

Life lessons from my son’s Pre-K.

by Amy Wilson

April 13, 2010

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My five-year-old son is in pre-kindergarten this year. While dropping him off each morning, I have been reminded that pre-K is about more than learning to write your name; it’s a place to learn life skills: how to make friends and how to coexist peacefully with the not-quite friends. Similarly, motherhood is a continual learning process: how not to shriek at your children, how to maintain some semblance of order in the pandemonium that is your home. Fortunately for my entire family, I have learned some valuable lessons this year along with my five-year-old. Turns out, all I really needed to know I learned (from my kid being) in pre-K.

“Is It a Big Deal or a Little Deal?”

If someone in my son’s class tattles on a classmate, his teacher will calmly respond, “Is it a big deal or a little deal?” Most of the time, the child will sheepishly admit that it is, in fact, a little deal, and return to playing without further incident.

I often forget to use this one with my kids, but I use it on myself all the time. When someone spills their milk at dinnertime – every single night – I ask myself, as I dash for the paper towels, whether it is a big deal or a little one. My frayed nerves scream “Big deal!” but my better angels know otherwise. This works pretty well for me, whether said “deal” is a delayed flight or my two-year-old wearing the same ratty polka dot leggings every day. An earthquake is a big deal; an unexpected rainstorm is not.

Put it in Writing

Kids love to see their names in print. When we arrive each morning in pre-K, my son takes great pride in signing in and checking for his name on the Jobs Chart. Usually his job is something like “Line-Ender” or “Sponge-Holder” (it’s a challenge to find seventeen different ways for four- and five-year-olds to be useful). What his assignment for the day is hardly matters; that’s his name up there! At home, we now have such signs in every room, like a “Stay-in-Bed-Until-It’s-Really-Light-Outside Chart” and a “Get Ready for School Checklist.” Our household rules (“No Punching,” “No Bothering Your Sister When She Is Eating”) are illustrated with crayon and construction paper all over our kitchen. When one of my kids commits a transgression not yet on the wall, part of the punishment is to create a new sign specifically prohibiting that activity. The latest addition to the wall says “Don’t Drill Your Sister.” My five-year-old drew himself holding the play drill and looking less than repentant – but he put it in writing.

Celebrate Lots of Holidays

In pre-K, there is at least one major holiday per week, once you include seventeen birthdays, a cake for Kwanzaa, and dumplings for Chinese New Year. But my son’s class goes far beyond the more traditionally recognized festivities: in pre-K, each color of the rainbow gets its own dedicated day of celebration – as does “Pastel Day.” My son was up with the dawn on Pastel Day, pawing through his drawers for the perfect spring-colored outfit, and he was so excited you would have thought he himself was one of the pale hues being honored. Everyone loves a party, and in our own home, I’ve realized I don’t have to wait for someone’s birthday or the Superbowl to have one. For a pre-K’er – for anyone, really – the holiday matters far less than the celebration itself.

It’s Not Nice to Say the “S” Word

“I know the ‘S’ word,” my son reported at dinner one night. I almost choked on my hamburger. Then, before I could stop him, he announced, “It’s ‘stupid.’” I was, obviously, rather relieved. But my seven-year-old was horrified. “It’s not nice to say the ‘S’ word!” he hissed, looking at me with wide eyes, wondering if there was any punishment in existence cruel and unusual enough for this extraordinary crime. To me, saying “stupid” was a little deal. But for my two sons, who have not yet become acquainted with the real “S” word, it’s a pretty big one. And they’re right. Words like “stupid” and “dumb” and “lame” are not allowed in pre-K, and they shouldn’t be allowed in my home either. They hurt feelings, plus, they’re: stupid – or at least not very creative. Since then, I have become much more aware of using any sort of put-down words either to or in front of my children. I’ve been surprised by how often they want to spring to my lips.

(Re) Cycle the Toys

In pre-K, my son’s teacher sets up the tables every morning with different activities: MagnaTiles Monday, sandpaper letters Tuesday, and so on. There is a large enough rotation that toys only come out once or twice a month. The kids are beyond excited to come in and see what awaits them each morning, and they fall right to work with such extreme concentration I reconsider the merits of child labor.

Once in a while, before I go pick up the kids at school, I pull out some of their dusty and forgotten toys from the back of the closet and arrange them in new (and random) combinations. One time I found a long-abandoned doctor’s kit and arranged fourteen stuffed animals around it. “This is an animal hospital,” I announced when we all walked in from school. The kids dropped their coats at the door and were completely engrossed until dinnertime fashioning tiny bandages out of Kleenex. Taking five minutes to set up a newfangled play area is well worth the two to three hours of peace and quiet it can bring.

Anything Can Be a Toy

I mean anything. I can’t believe some of the stuff that my son’s teacher gets the kids to be excited about. One day she took about a hundred blue tops from Nesquik bottles (someone is apparently a big fan) and dumped them out on the floor; the entire class ran over, squealing. One day last week she took their dormant “water table” and filled it with several bags of uncooked pinto beans; the kids shoveled and measured and crowed like it was Christmas morning. Watching this, I have learned that I should spend less on toys that squawk and light up and do one thing, for $49.95, and which will bore my children in a day or two. For $49.95, I can buy several hundred pinto beans – as well as $49 worth of something I want – and have the shopping bags to make giant puppets with as well.

The Block Area is Closed

Each morning before the doors to pre-K open, my son’s teacher will label certain areas of the classroom either “open” or “closed.” On a given day, the dress-up corner may be declared open, but the block corner closed; the next day, the opposite rules may apply. All the children follow the signs’ directives without any backtalk. If the sign says the paint easel is closed, it’s as if it’s not there at all.

I have tried to apply this to my own work time, with somewhat less success. Simply telling myself “Facebook is closed” has not been, for me, enough of a deterrent, and so I have downloaded a software program that will not let me get on the Internet until I have worked a certain number of hours without it. Once my computer tells me my online world is “open” again, I can surf to my heart’s content. But having times when I know I’m not allowed to see what’s up on gawker.com (since I last checked five minutes ago) has upped my productivity considerably.

“You Get What You Get, and You Don’t Get Upset.”

I kept this in mind when my husband gave me granny jammies for Christmas, even if they were a little bit the “S” word.

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This article was written by Amy Wilson for Babble.com, the magazine and community for a new generation of parents.

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