When my firstborn daughter was just shy of her 6-month birthday, we were invited to brunch in a fancy house in the hills. There would be several couples there who had babies the same age, and a mutual friend had invited me and my daughter along. I imagined an afternoon of new-parent bonding and swapping stories about diaper changes, sleepless nights and baby-burping techniques. (I was also hoping for a lot of good food because, as I mentioned, these people were fancy.)
There was a little of everything I mentioned above, including the best quiche I ever had, but the one thing that seemed to dominate the conversation was the topic of preschool. It wasn’t something that had even entered my mind yet. How could I think about sending this small person in my lap to school when she could barely hold up her own head?
But in between bites of small food and sips of champagne, there was chatter of lists, preschool tours and deposits. When our host asked me if I'd signed up anywhere yet, I quickly stammered, "Uh, not yet," and retreated to a corner. I started to panic. I gazed at my little baby, drooling in her baby carrier, and apologized for the future I was certain she now had: She would be 40 years old and living in our basement because her lazy mother failed to get her on the right list.
Was any preschool that much better than the next at getting a 3-year-old to take a nap or stack blocks?
That was only the beginning. I realized the preschool hysteria was widespread. Parents whose babies weren't even born yet were already researching schools that would guarantee their child a spot in an Ivy League school. While I envisioned preschoolers trying to eat crayons and learning the art of rug-sitting, I was hearing crazy talk of programs that introduced math skills to 2-year-olds and taught French to toddlers. My panic grew, and I wondered if my child would be the only one not cooing "Bonjour" by the time she was out of diapers.
Most of these preschools came with a steep price. I was hearing yearly fees that rivaled college tuition. Was any preschool that much better than the next at getting a 3-year-old to take a nap or stack blocks?
The more I researched it, the more I was convinced that the preschool hysteria was just that—hysteria—and that academics at such a young age aren't necessarily a good thing. I wanted my kid to learn how to get along with others and to learn to wait her turn to use the slide. She'd have 12 more years of academia ahead of her, so why start so early? It turns out a lot of educators agree, too.
"Parents should absolutely not stress about preschool," says Krista Heske, co-owner of Our Village preschool in Burbank, California. "What they should be looking for is a program that emphasizes positive social and emotional development, creativity and not rushing childhood."
Heske, a former elementary school teacher, cautions against putting those math skills ahead of sandbox skills at a young age. "Many programs today push academics, but all the research show that children learn best through play."
And what if you decide to forego preschool altogether? An article published in The Atlantic, "The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids," puts forth some surprising data from a study in 2016: Although children who attended preschool exhibited more "school readiness" skills at first, by the second grade they were actually performing worse than their peers. Researchers chalked up the decline to the fact that the kids, subjected to too much school too soon, had lost their enthusiasm for learning.
I eventually calmed down and didn't think about preschool until my daughter was 3 years old, and we chose a school that was part of our local parks and rec program. It cost us a whopping $60 a year, and was clean, safe and well-staffed. We loved all of the teachers (we are still friends with one of them) and, eventually, our younger daughter went through the program, too. Most importantly, by the time our girls got to kindergarten, their lack of algebra or foreign language skills didn’t hurt them at all.
Flash-forward 21 years and our girls are doing fine. They both got into good colleges and are happily pursuing their careers. I still think about that brunch and how anxious it made me, but it taught me an early parenting lesson: Ignore the hype and don’t let anyone else tell you what’s best for your kids. Even if they make a really good quiche.