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Preschool for kids: Is early childhood education necessary?

After being a stay-at-home mother for four years, I was surprised to one day discover my oldest child was the only kid her age at the playground. Or at the library. Or any of the other places we went. Seemingly overnight, all of the other four year-olds had vanished.

Where they all were was no mystery. For months leading up to that September day, almost every mother I encountered had asked me where my children were going to preschool. From the conversations that ensued, I had sensed my stay-at-home kids were going to be the minority. I just hadn’t realized to what extent. Seeing the tidal shift in available playmates for my daughter gave me pause. Was skipping out on preschool the best decision for my kids?

I used to be a teacher. I believe in education. But I don’t necessarily agree with the direction education in America is headed. With so much focus on testing and college acceptance (and even high school acceptance, where I live), getting ahead and staying ahead, school is intense – way more intense than it was when I attended. Kindergarten can be six-and-a-half hours long – before homework. And those days might include little or no recess. From kindergarten it only gets more intense as the kids get older.

My children have a solid thirteen years of full-time school ahead of them before college. I feel like once they start on that path, they close a door to a part of their childhood. I want to keep that door open for them as long as possible.

Quitting my job to become a stay-at-home mother meant there would be some major sacrifices. It has been difficult to make ends meet, but I think the flip side is that I try to make the most of every moment, knowing my time at home won’t last forever. I made a pact with myself that for my kids, I would do the work of their mother and their teacher. I conscientiously set up their days to ensure they enjoy brimming doses of both structured and unstructured play time, alone time, reading time, field trips, healthy meals and snacks, art activities, and science experiments, not to mention innumerable hugs. I also have my kids enrolled in some stand-alone classes, making sure they get used to following the authority of other people in charge. And for a few hours a week, my friend with a three year-old daughter and I get together, switching off being teacher in our “play school,” complete with lesson plans and thematic activities.

I am confident such activities help compensate for any academic advantage preschool could offer my kids. I have read some research that concludes preschool has important long-term benefits for students. But Chester E. Finn, Jr., former assistant secretary of education and author of Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, wrote in a 2009 Washington Post editorial, “The overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school.”

But with some statistics indicating as many as 85% of four year-olds are attending preschool, I can’t help but wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Am I being utterly selfish? A huge part of my decision to stay home with my kids in the first place was due to how much I thoroughly enjoy being with them. I love the hugs and kisses we share, the games we play, the crafts we create, the thoughtful or idiosyncratic conversations we have. I watch them grow and I know the day will come when they won’t be my little kids anymore, when these precious times will be mere memories. I want to suck the nectar out of these few years and enjoy every moment I can possibly have with my kids.

Furthermore, and no less selfishly, I want to raise my kids the way I want to raise them. As my children fumble through toddlerhood into being full-fledged kids, I want myself and my husband and the people I know and love and trust the most to be the ones to help them learn how to resolve conflict, how to share, how to use manners and function on their own. I know sending my kids to pre-school wouldn’t undo the values with which we raise them but I feel like there’s still so much reinforcing to be done in order for them to be more confident and comfortable school-aged kids. Sending kids off to school involves a huge submission of control. It’s possible I’m not ready to relinquish that control. But it’s more that I believe that the more time my children spend with me, this person who loves them more than anyone, the better off they’ll deal with the world on their own later on.

But then there are those days. You know the ones. The ones where the children seemingly become possessed by demons and all we do is butt heads. Those days when I feel like a failure, when I can’t seem to get us back on track, when I become sure my flimsy parenting skills are doing irreparable damage to my impressionable children. Inevitably, when I am in the midst of one of those days, I send a text to my husband proclaiming, “We must investigate preschools TONIGHT!”

On those days especially I see the benefits of preschool. It would be a fun, educational, and social outlet for my children. It would be a chance for them to learn from other people – people who probably aren’t wondering if they’re doing the right thing. And, of course, it would be a way for my children and me to get a little bit of distance from each other.

But by the time night falls on those days, I am too tired to actually investigate preschools. And when I wake up the next morning, I am refreshed and feeling better about my choice. I may never know whether I’ve made the right decision. If my daughter gets bullied by a classmate in third grade, I may wonder how things might have been different. If my son gets a D in high-school chemistry, I may question his lack of preschool. But for now, this time I have with my kids is finite, and the clock is ticking. It may be selfish, but I don’t ever want to voice the regret, “I wish I had spent more time with my kids.”

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