I like this photo because it’s from when I was in preschool, and my experience of preschool was pretty good.

I went to a daycare center for families that had some sort of problem. This was in the early 1970s, when my mom was programming with punch cards and her job counted as a family problem. No one had a working mom. So we went to the closest daycare center, an hour and a half away from our home.

The last year at the daycare center was, essentially, my year of preschool. The teacher was great, there were only five kids in the classroom, and she taught us to read and write. Even as a four-year-old, I’d rather have done that than anything else.

My favorite memory of preschool is when the teacher had us sing the alphabet and she said, “Does anyone know what LMNOP means?”

None of us raised a hand.

When she told us I remember being amazed that I didn’t know it, and I remember wanting to be around her all the time so I didn’t miss any other good stuff.

1. Preschool is for kids from broken homes.
My memories of preschool are nice, but maybe that’s because prior to that, my parents hired babysitters who beat me and my brother, or neglected us, or both. (Interesting thing about neglect: it is not over as fast as beating, so my memories of it are much worse.) And being home with my parents wasn’t much better (by preschool I had already seen the police break up multiple fights between my parents.)

My experience is consistent with the data that says most four-year-0lds want to be with their parents more than they want to be in a classroom. But that data assumes the parents are capable. My mother did not want to have kids, and she let that be known to us. (She was just being informative.) But either way, if a child has a parent that does not want to be a parent, preschool will be a safer place for the kid.

2. If you think your preschool is a good one, you’re probably wrong.
In NYC when my first son was two, I started investigating the preschool scene. I hired a consultant ($10K) to help us get into a top preschool. (In NYC top preschools have a 4% acceptance rate vs Harvard’s 6% acceptance rate.) I didn’t even get as far as the playdate coaching before I left NYC, realizing how even though I was making $250K, I could never afford to support the family in NYC.

When people tell me their kid is in a preschool that’s great, I think to myself: they don’t know what great is if they have never tried to get into Trinity.

3. Preschool is better than babysitting.
In Madison I launched a startup with very demanding investors on my board. In an effort to get free from my kids, I sent my youngest son to a preschool I really liked. It’s the preschool next to a bunch of University of Wisconsin science labs, so the classrooms are full of children of professors. This is not to say that the preschool was great so much as the preschool was great at appeasing concerned parents with high IQs.

So my son learned to write his name at age three. Totally unnecessary. And started reading at age three. Not just unnecessary but maybe detrimental. And at $10K a year, the price seemed like a bargain. Trinity is $40K per year.

4. Preschool is unnecessary for toddler learning.
I wouldn’t send my  kids to preschool again.

Preschool is structured much more than a kid that age needs. There has to be a lot of structure in place to manage even a teacher/ student ratio of about 1:9. You can’t have 9 kids all doing radically different things. (Yes, even in Montessori.) And a kid that age doesn’t need 20 kids around him all the time. (For example, kids don’t need preschool for social skills, kids learn social skills by osmosis.)

5. Sending kids away sets a bad precedent.
Why get used to having time away from your kid? If you are sure you’ll be sending your kids to elementary school, then that’s one thing. But if you’re on the fence, you should appreciate that you’ve gotten through four years of being home with your kid. Keep going. If you get all your mornings free, you won’t want to give that up.

Instead, set a path for homeschooling. Get involved with those families early. And make friends early. Those will be the people you travel through your kids’ childhood with—not the preschool kids whose families are going to be chained to the school system.

 

27 replies
  1. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    What about completely play-based preschool? It’s getting (very) hard to find, but programs do exist. When all the other kids are in preschool, it’s hard to even find enough peers to keep an extroverted kid happily social.

    Or, here in Berkeley there’s even a “forest preschool,” modeled after the popular programs in Northern Europe/Scandinavia. We are planning to send our kid there when he’s 4- it is all child-led inquiry, but outside (and not on a tiny playground, but in actual nature) every single day.

    The point is that maybe we need to reexamine WHY it might make sense to put kids in preschool- like, to give parents a break. (I’m not an abusive parent, but being with a toddler/preschooler 24/7 is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and when I tried to do it while being pregnant and anxious/depressed, it just about broke me. We put him in a part-time play-based in-home program, and it saved my sanity (and helped a LOT with learning how to effectively parent a toddler- which is NOT INTUITIVE.) Even good parents need a break, particularly from toddlers. Like so many of our peers, we have zero family support with childcare because they all live 1k+ miles away– preschool is the simplest way to get some help with this monumental task of raising a 2-5 year old kid.

    I hope by the time he’s 5 or 6 that full-time homeschooling/unschooling makes sense and seems doable, and when he was an infant I swore I wouldn’t do preschool because it’s a waste of time/money (and in 99% of the ways most of my peers here talk about preschool- ie academic readiness- it is a waste). But, like all those things that we swear we will never do- then suddenly it made more sense to do it than not to do it.

    TLDR; I’m conflicted about this one, probably because I’m in the middle of it.

    • Rayne of Terror
      Rayne of Terror says:

      Agreed. My youngest is 5 and I can tell you it is downright delightful to spend all day with my 5 & 10 year old sons most of the time. I can see how homeschooling them at this point would be enjoyable for me. They are independent and communicative and pleasant people to be around. When they were 0 & 4 or 3 & 8, it was a different story and mom’s (my) sanity is always put first – and that meant 2.5 hours a day of preschool. Even if I were to homeschool (always thinking about it!) I would not feel one iota of guilt about their preschool experience. Our public school preschool was not teaching them to read and write at three, they were playing house and blocks and dancing and learning playground games.

      • Karelys
        Karelys says:

        I’m here to say that your comment wins but seriously, your name is money!

        We should be friends :)

    • mg
      mg says:

      Hi Isabelle,

      I live in Berkeley, too, and my son is turning 4 next month. Your perspective resonated with me. My son started going to a play-based preschool 4 hours per day last August and I feel he’s benefitted from it in many ways, although that small of a window, combined with prepping and shlepping there and back, hasn’t really freed up that much time for me (and has often felt like more of a burden than simply keeping him at home). Your “forest preschool” sounds really neat, and I’m sure your son stands to gain a lot by exploring nature in a way he wouldn’t be able to at home (unlike Penelope’s kids, who have a farm at their disposal, or other kids who live on more land, not the tiny plots in Berkeley). I did find it frustrating to arrange playdates for my son when he wasn’t in preschool, and seeing the same kids on a daily basis made an enormous difference in his ability to feel comfortable and form friendships not just with them but with other kids. Assuming the hours aren’t too long, which I think is taxing for most young kids, and especially for ones who haven’t been in group care before (mine definitely couldn’t handle more than 4 hours), I don’t see what you have to lose by giving it a try.

      I’d still like to homeschool my son when he turns 5, if I can figure out how to do it. I feel like there are fantastic resources at our disposal here, including like-minded parents. If you’re interested in getting in touch, perhaps you could get my email address from Penelope.

      Mara

    • Sarah N
      Sarah N says:

      I’ve been eyeballing that forest preschool. If it’s the program I’m thinking of, they have a once-weekly homeschooling program as well.

      My younger son is three, his brother is seven, and we’re looking at twice-weekly preschool for this year. My big kid’s learning preferences include a lot of one-on-one discussion of reading, and that leaves his brother out much of the time. We could make it work while the we still had naptimes, but they’ve been gone for months.

    • Lindsey
      Lindsey says:

      As a kindergarten teacher I think this “your kids don’t need preschool” is completely false! So incorrect! Students in my class that have gone to preschool stand out by far academically than students that haven’t. Whether they are from a broken home or not. Students that do a full two year preschool before kindergarten are on higher reading, writing, and math scale. I’ve also noticed they are more comfortable and independent than my students that have not went to preschool.

  2. Satya
    Satya says:

    No regrets here about sending my son to preschool. For 8-12 hours a week, I got a tiny break. I’m not the kind of mom to take my kid on a tour of the post office, or expose him to lots of art projects, or teach him songs with sign language, or any of the things he did there that I never would have done.

    I love this blog so much for its focus on what is actually best for the way kids learn, backed up by research. But sometimes I wonder how much the at-home parent must suffer to support it. I’m fine with sacrificing my career, my social worth, etc. But I can’t give up those precious few hours a week to get my teeth cleaned, or stare blissfully at the wall until the day with them resumes, never having a chance to recharge. And I don’t think my son would like that either.

  3. UnschoolingMama
    UnschoolingMama says:

    I agree with this post. I was a preschool teacher for several years before having my son. I came away from it convinced that I’d never send my kids anywhere but a completely play-based program, somewhere in nature, because it’s the access to nature I can’t give my kids. Everything else in preschool can be done much better at home, or in many cases, not done at all. The vast majority of the day, even in the best schools, is playing crowd control and providing the best environment possible in a naturally chaotic setting. Even in the best schools. Just try spending any amount of time as one of two adults in a room of 16 three year olds, with the expectation that everyone stays safe and learns AND hopefully enjoys at least part of it, and you’ll understand. It looks so idyllic from the outside, but when you take a group of kids to the post office, I’m sure a quarter of them can’t hear or see what’s happening (crowded, over stimulating) with fifteen other loud, wiggly bodies close by, or the days when the songs in sign language are great, but there’s the one kid who was completely immersed in something else, but was herded and chided into sitting down and listening to an irrelevant song when other, better learning had been happening.

    Preschool as child care, however, is a great idea. I’ll use preschool as child care at some point, I’m sure. It’s better than a disinterested or uneducated nanny, and with preschool programs literally everywhere, it’s cheaper than the 14-year old down the street who charges $12/hour.

    Still, I agree my time is better spent figuring out how to go without those breaks, finding other young, planning to homeschool families. I’m the type who actually enjoys the preschool age a lot, however, and it doesn’t burn me out as much as infancy does.

  4. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    I tried to homeschool my five year old daughter this past Spring. I didn’t do anything except spend $1000 on books and curriculum. Well, we made two crafts and read a few stories and played with some pattern blocks as well as talked about the calendar. Slept in. Walked the dog. Sometimes did abcmouse.com and a few times worked on handwriting. Generally, I became a HUGE procrastinator – “after we finish cleaning the house, remodeling, working” etc. My daughter is so disappointed in me. “Mommy, you just keep working and let me do whatever I want!” I squandered the chance to start strong. She misses her Pre-K friends. Sometimes she cries about it and says she hates homeschool. I’m embarrassed to even tell her it’s summertime now because she’ll say we never did anything anyway. I’ve broken from my corporate job and trying to start my own business. This is good. I’ve been trying to actually establish a new relationship with her because I was away so much. I do read at night to her now, and I’m really happy that she now has a love of being read to. We visited the library for the first time, and she liked it. Before, her interest in books was not strong. My husband’s business is not bringing in much. We live on four acres. Lots of pressure to put her back in school when I wonder how I’ll get my business up and running. I have however made a good network of homeschool families. I’m so concerned about school safety. Public schools seems to have better security than private. I worry that as an only child and extrovert, she’ll wither at home alone with me. I just signed her up for two weeks of Spanish camp and looking forward to some free time to figure this out. Still not sure what I’ll do next school year. I liked the blog about homeschooling with confidence. I need that as well as just to do a better job at it.

  5. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    So…what about the kind of preschool that’s for like 2-4 hours (depending on their age) a few days a week? Just as a means to get a break and to give an only child the experience of being around other kids, listening to other adults, etc.? We did this and I thought it was OK. I didn’t love the preschool or the people. There was nothing wrong with them, just kind of mainstream and boring, but I figure she’d have to get used to dealing with people like this at some point, right, and I needed a few hours to myself. I had no illusions about it being academic.

    • Caroline
      Caroline says:

      Sure, I could try to find a half-day Kindergarten I suppose. I just learned about a dual-language Kindergarten program that you must commit to from K through elementary, but we are not zoned accordingly. I am a little relieved to not have the choice, as the prospect of it felt like a cop out from the best choice, which I feel deep down is homeschool . . . even though challenging this feeling daily.

    • UnschoolingMama
      UnschoolingMama says:

      This is what I think is important if you choose to send your child to preschool–that you don’t believe it is essential, and you don’t have illusions that it’s all so fantastic, or blissful, or something that can’t be done at home. I really think it can be done better at home, with a happier child, if you are able to meet all of your own needs as well as your child’s needs (including the need for socialization. No need to think preschool at home means leaving that out.)

      It’s not that no one should ever send their kid to preschool. Like Penelope said, preschool is probably the best place for young kids from dysfunctional/abusive/neglectful families. It’s also a better option than daycare for parents who need a break. Breaks are good. Using preschool as a break a few times per week, for a few hours each time, can be very positive.

      What preschool isn’t is what the media and other parents are saying it is. There’s the school-readiness camp that pushes academic learning in early childhood who claim that kids need to be learning phonics, how to sit down and be quiet, how to take direction, all at age 3, or else there will be trouble in kindergarten. And then there is the camp of crunchier, more holistic, child-centered, play-based folks who talk about preschool as this life-giving experience–basically a good preschool can be the epitome of a beautiful childhood, with everyone holding hands and playing outside or with wooden blocks…being free and doing all the things we as over-scheduled, stressed adults want our children to get out of childhood before they turn five and it’s too late.

      I just don’t think preschool is either of those things. I don’t believe that it’s essential academically–I agree that much of what’s done in the name of kindergarten readiness is detrimental for such young children. After working for years at a very “good” play-based preschool, I also am convinced that an occasional nature walk with a parent, and a basket of books from the library, and a few close friends to get together with when it’s possible, can be more joyful and idyllic and child-like than those gorgeous Waldorf classrooms that so many parents drool over.

      • Caroline
        Caroline says:

        I recently had a conversation with a friend who has so much nostalgia for her school days in the USSR in the 70s and 80s. She spoke fondly of these idyllic days and mentioned the wonderful theatre and arts programs they had, including a play in which the villain, a Baptist boy, crucifies his Communist girlfriend in the end. It got me thinking that when we are so close to a system, it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – even in hindsight.

        • Karelys
          Karelys says:

          I remember school so fondly for the most part. It wasn’t bad. I wasn’t bullied.

          But it cost me a lot. It set me on a path of thinking a certain way and I joined the adult world ready to live life like in school and got a rude awakening.

          It was a very high price to pay. Just like watching Netflix is super enjoyable but it costs too much – precious time that could go toward advancing in projects and other good things.

  6. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    As someone who sends his littlest to preschool, I agree with PT’s points, but suspect she dropped a modifier from the first. Perhaps “best,” or “great” would fit between is and for. For us it’s been great too, though our home remains unbroken. Among my many failings as a parent, I just don’t have the energy or facilities to do the kind of things my girl does in preschool, like raise ducklings from eggs over the winter and set the ducks free on a pond in the spring. I’m not even zoned for that.

    My girl goes to preschool on a farm, which I also don’t have. She has a class of ten kids (and three teachers) and spends her mornings wonderfully in song, art, dress-up, and outdoor play. I’m usually ferrying my son back and forth to classes or helping him with math or teaching in our coop or managing our soccer classes or any number of things she wouldn’t help with.

    Even if I end up homeschooling her too we will still be glad we sent her. Because it’s mornings only and on a vacation-rich private school calendar, she still gets to spend time with homeschooled (and more typically schooled) friends.

    I do wish we could keep with morning-only schools forever, though. We will have harder decisions to make this or next fall.

  7. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    My comment is remotely applicable to this post. It’s applicable to the photo included here and the nature/nurture mix of childhood which has been written about previously on this blog. I was of the belief that nurture played more than a 50% role in the development of a child. A few years have passed and I’ve changed my mind over time. The photo above of you and your smile doesn’t look any different to me than your blog photo. I don’t think it has anything to do with the wine bottles either. I don’t think it’s just this one photo either. As difficult as your childhood was, it seems you were born with a level of optimism and happiness that’s made it possible for you to overcome many hurdles. I think back to people I’ve known (including siblings and other family members) and I think it’s generally true. We are making due with pretty much with what we were born with. I’m not trying to minimize your bad experiences. I just wanted to say that I see the nature/nurture debate differently and that perhaps we are more in control of our own lives than is sometimes apparent to us. Maybe that’s where school enters the picture. Nature is able to make it possible for us to maintain our individuality even though many aspects of school made it difficult at times.

  8. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    sigh… i think i’m a parent who does not want to be a parent, but now that i am a parent, I try to be the best parent i can be. that said, it’s too much stress for me to manage two small kids at the same time, all day long, every day, and i won’t get anything done. so i send them to day care and preschool.
    i dread the school holidays.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      Lucy,

      If it makes any difference, I grew up dreaming of forming a family. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I started to think I may not want to have kids because of these messages that “kids ruin lives, ruin your body, put a halt to your career, are annoying, are expensive (…).”

      Then I married the right person and the strongest surge of desire to have children took over my body. I hated it because I couldn’t rationalize it and didn’t want to just chalk it up to evolution.

      Cut to now, I adore my little babes, and yet I have to remind myself that this is hard because I don’t want to do it. I want to parent them and so it well yes. But I don’t want to be captive to having no time and funneling all my strength and creativity to keeping a clean house and figuring out how to provide a safe and intellectually challenging environment.

      When my firstborn was about 2 years old life got so much easier. I’m just hoping that’s the case with my 8 month old as well. She’s not as emotionally high maintenance as her brother so I am really banking on this.

      I’m beginning to think that we say “some women have no option to either stay at home or work outside the home,” and we’re talking about finances. But what if some women have no option because their needs are intensely opposite to the requirements of caregiving? How does that mother love her children and provide all they need? How do they thrive, both children and the parent(s)?

  9. HomeschoolDad
    HomeschoolDad says:

    Indeed. I’m not a fan of pre-school/daycare. It’s really the start of the whole “dumbing them down” downward spiral – intellectually, emotionally, socially,…it estranges kids from their parents. Etc. There was a massive study done (which got no press) that basically proved the more time a child spent in the care of third party strangers…the more likely they were “rotten kids” (spoiled, prone to disobedience, disrespect,…). Daycare/preschool also severely stunts vocabulary acquisition.

  10. MC
    MC says:

    “When people tell me their kid is in a preschool that’s great, I think to myself: they don’t know what great is if they have never tried to get into Trinity.”

    You are a smart enough person that I find it hard to believe that you accept at face value that the preschools of the rich and famous are “better” because they cost a ton of money and are hard to get into. I’m sure that the kids who go to those schools do well in life, but does anyone really believe it’s the preschool that did it rather than their parents’ genes, resources, and connections?

  11. mikkle
    mikkle says:

    This overly-structured, learning-focused preschools really are an American (and probably Chinese and some mentionable places) phenomenon. Our son is at a university preschool here in Germany and it’s all fun and play. It’s also right next to a forest so they get a lot of outdoor time. The facilities are great. The caretakers are great, with a 2/3-1 (kid/caretaker) ratio. These places exist and are far less rare than they are in America. We only do half days even though both of us are supposed to be working fulltime, so preschool’s not an option, it’s a necessity. One day we’ll likely move again, and I’m not looking forward to the time we have to leave this preschool. Our friends just did and found something both worse and more expensive in Miami. Now THAT sucks for both the kids and the parents.

  12. Alice
    Alice says:

    We are probably going to send my eldest son (who will be 3 and 9 months at that point) – to Montessori next year. My mother is really pushing the idea, and, I gradually became for it when I realized a few things. First, I am going to be pregnant (I think) with our third child next fall or the following Spring. I get severe morning sickness where I wind up laying in bed for large periods of time (my elder sister is worse – but it’s no cake walk for 13 weeks there). Looking back, my activities with my son during those 13 weeks last time were very slight; thankfully he was just turning 2 and didn’t notice much but, now he will be fully conscious and I don’t want him wondering – why is Mommy in bed all day and barely moving about? The other thing is, even now when I am healthy, it’s a struggle to find activities *with other kids his age*. We do Kindermusik, tumbling, toddler soccer, swimming, etc. – and guess what, in our area, all these activities end at 3. Even our daytime Kindermusik class flat out got cancelled because the other kids were going to preschool. I know “other people are doing it” isn’t always a great argument – but, how seriously is your child going to interact with peers his age when there are none around? My son has his youngest brother but, he won’t be fully interact-able for probably another year (he’ll only be close to a year and a half at the time). Plus there are SO many activities that required one-on-one attention with my elder son that I’d like to do with my younger son, but can’t because I’m always divided between two. If you couple the morning sickness, with the absence of other children his age, with the fact that he is the oldest and will be the role model for the rest of them -I think even at the hefty price (to us) of 4K we’d send him there for 3 hours a day. I mean, most pre-schools are only 3 hours a day in our area. Plus my son really gets along well with kids 2-3 years of age older than he is; even when he was there this cute 6 year old Indian kid came up to him and was like “here, smell the basil and mint leaves, smell them, smell them!” Such friendly kids. I recognized another one from the library thing we do – he had been really excited to see Nikki there and I was shocked at how friendly he was for his age. I grew up with social phobia at times; I’m introverted and socialization is something I’ve somewhat achieved, but not fully. I don’t want my son to struggle with making friends his age. I always got along great with adults and older kids, but never with kids my age. And that made me lose out in the long run. I figure half a year to a year can’t be that huge of a risk. We would only consider AMI Montessori; it is supposed to be largely unstructured. And I will chaperone on the field trips. I’m told that while they can’t cut it back to just 2 hours for us, some people are “late” and drop their kids off at 9. They discourage this but…I’m considering doing it intentionally as I think 2 hours a day will be enough for my son. I plan on keeping him home after that till his youngest sibling is 4, but, I know he will be the only one without an older sibling (and the class is up to 6 year olds where he will be at). I think this is even more important for only children. Again, osmosis requires other kids their age. I guess if you had a really, really strong homeschool group this wouldn’t be an issue but…we don’t.

  13. Nancy Mitchell
    Nancy Mitchell says:

    Bravo! You’re so right. One of the travesties of the federal government’s emphasis on “academic rigor” is that so many preschool parents are now utterly convinced that they can’t teach their own children — that they must send them to preschool to “get ready” for kindergarten. Hogwash! Scholars in early childhood education are now saying “enough” to these absurd checklists in preschool and kindergarten — know the alphabet, continue a pattern, count to 10 — that don’t acknowledge that young children learn at different rates. They’ve started a coalition called “Defending the Early Years” that advocates for what young learners need: hands-on experiences, open-ended art, and lots of play. There’s no research that shows structured lessons have long -term benefits — in fact, just the opposite. Little kids in government-run preschools are now suffering anxiety and stress. There are more aggressive behaviors. There are more kids who hate going to school. Matt Damon’s mom, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a professor of education who writes and talks about these issues. She says Common Core is a nightmare for young children.

  14. Audrey Copple
    Audrey Copple says:

    I beg to disagree, think the best way to prepare a child is by sending him to a preschool.Preschool gives that foundation to your children which prepares them for the future life, kids get to learn many things which as parents we cannot teach them such,I have a 2 yr old son and intially even I was nervous as how will he adjust to the new surroundings at the preschool, but he managed really well and has become more socially active!

  15. Teach By Type
    Teach By Type says:

    What can a preschool teach that a parent can’t?

    Most preschool programs are preparing children for an overly academic pre-k program. There is a ton of research to suggest that is not in the child’s best interest.

    Many of the popular preschool programs cause long term harm. I don’t understand why parents ignore the data. I don’t know why preschools brag about their focus on academics when it’s been proven to be detrimental to the child’s development.

  16. Lusabs
    Lusabs says:

    I think parents promote preschool not for the edge but to have free time away from kids. Why lie about it? Even if kids like it, all day? no way

  17. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “A growing body of empirical evidence suggests that universal preschool programs fail to improve a range of outcomes for participants. New studies of large-scale preschool programs in Quebec and Tennessee show that vastly expanding access to free or subsidized preschool may worsen behavioral and emotional outcomes. In the absence of compelling evidence that subsidized preschool provides an important public good, the subsidies should be reduced, not increased. Policymakers should recognize that expanding subsidies for preschool is unnecessary, provides no new benefits to low-income parents, and would create a new subsidy for middle-income and upper-income families, while adding to the tax burden for Americans.”
    That’s the summary at the top of this research review ( http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2016/05/research-review-universal-preschool-may-do-more-harm-than-good ) published 5/11/16 by Heritage.

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