A few years ago, my kids’ school district (the NYC Department of Education) unveiled a promising new initiative: “Pre-K for All,” a program that guaranteed all 4-year-olds in the city a spot at a free, full-day pre-K.
I will admit that I had mixed feelings about the program from the start. On the one hand, I thought it was a great opportunity for many kids, and certainly a great financial break for working parents. But I knew that it also meant I would have to put my then-3-year-old in a full day school program, and I just didn’t think he’d be ready to jump into something like that. After all, he was still basically a baby, as far as I was concerned.
Now, as a work-from-home parent with flexible hours, I knew that deciding not to enroll my son in a full day of free school was a freedom that not all working parents have. Although I certainly could have used the work time, I knew I could also work evenings or weekends to make up the lost time. I totally got that I was privileged in that way.
But the bottom line was this: I knew my son and I didn’t think he’d do well spending six hours a day in school at that point in his life. When the school year started, he would still be 3 years old (one of the youngest in his class), and he had never been away from me for more than a few hours at a time, let alone in the structured setting of a school day before. I also knew that he was often slow to warm up to new social situations.
So I asked our local pre-K if they might let me gradually ease my son into the full-day program. The director of the program didn’t really jive with the idea at first, but after a few phone calls and explanations, she rather begrudgingly gave me the green light. (The teachers themselves, thankfully, were very accepting of this plan, and understood that not all young kids do well with such a long day of school).
He was still only 3 freaking years old. What was the rush?
I definitely got some continued side-eye from that director, but I stuck to my guns, because I believed this was best for my son. Along the way, I also got some flak from family and friends about my decision. Some thought that I was coddling my son too much, that I couldn’t just let him go. Others thought that I should just throw my son into school, because kids are durable, and “he’d be fine.”
Maybe they were right and he would be fine, but I didn’t really care. You see, this was my son’s last chance before elementary school to just be a kid. The way things are going now, with academics being pushed at such early ages, I wanted my son to take his time being eased into that world. After all, he was still only 3 freaking years old. What was the rush?
So, we did just that. We took our time. For the first six months of school, my son had a ton of hesitations. He liked school sometimes, but very often, he’d much rather be at home playing superheroes (naked, ahem), than get dressed and trek off to school. Most days, I’d eventually get him to go, but he would come home three hours later and happily strip down to his underwear to jump around the house singing and playing, just like kids his age should be doing.
Anytime I’d broach the subject of him staying for a full day, he would tell me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to do it, and absolutely never would. He would become visibly upset. A few times, I was asked by the school when I might push him in that direction, but I told them that I would know when it was time.
Even as I said that, I would sometimes question myself. Would my kid ever warm up to the idea of school? I certainly didn’t want him to associate school with anything but fun and enjoyment, especially at this very young age. But would he eventually acclimate and start to love it, just as I hoped and believed he would?
Fall passed, winter passed, and almost every day, my son would cling to my legs, urging me not to leave his side. There were still many days he begged me with all his might not to go to school. He’d be fine once I left, and he was starting to relax and make friends, but he was still clearly not totally sold on the idea.
But as spring started, he became quicker to push me out the door and go play with his friends. He asked a few times if he could stay for lunch, and he began to enjoy staying that extra hour. And then, one day, out of the blue, he told me that the next day, he would be staying all day, and could I please bring him a pillow and blanket for naptime (he said this all in one breathless sentence).
I was moved to see that (my son) really could make that decision himself—that he had the inner resources to understand his feelings, own them and allow them to change.
Tears stung my eyes. My little boy was growing up, right before my eyes. It was bittersweet to have him gone all day that first day. After 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, I wasn’t sure I’d know what the heck to do with myself (Don’t worry, turns out I had plenty of crap to get done). I wasn’t surprised when he wanted to go back for a full day the next day, and the one after that.
I was proud of my son, for making the decision to try the thing that he had felt uncertain about doing for all those months. But I was also moved to see that he really could make that decision himself—that he had the inner resources to understand his feelings, own them and allow them to change.
The logic usually is that kids need to be pushed into the next stage of life, and that if we keep “babying” them, they will never grow up. The argument is that they will be stuck like glue to us for their whole lives, that somehow if we don’t push, it’s like we are forcibly holding them back.
But time and time again, I have seen the opposite come true with my kids. It is a human drive to become independent, and we really can give our kids the space to discover that on their own. I know that sometimes we have no choice but to urge our children into independence (I mean, we can’t be changing diapers and wiping butts forever!). But whenever we have the luxury to let nature take its course, we absolutely should. It truly can be a beautiful thing.