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Around this time last year, my son got the boot from his allegedly progressive preschool.
“We think we may be doing more harm than good,” his principal whined to my wife and me from behind her desk. I had to stop myself from correcting her.
“Actually,” I wanted to say, “you are doing more harm than good, because classroom philosophies shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.”
But I kept my mouth shout. Because I didn’t want to make a scene. And because I’m not a know-it-all jerk.
The philosophy practiced by his teachers at his “daycare” (changed from “preschool” by my wife and me to more accurately reflect the goings-on under that roof) is called conscious discipline. The main objective is to help children become self-regulating, meaning that they will not feel compelled to seek comfort or consolation from outside sources, only from within. Self-regulating kids apparently become self-regulating adults, who will not need to resort to drink, drugs, or any other vice to negotiate life.
Groovy, man, right? For most kids, it probably is. For our son, it wasn’t.
Apollo, as agreed upon by all of his caregivers (and he has several), is still experiencing some form of trauma, one we may never be able to identify fully. The first several months of his life were spent in Ghana, first, in an orphanage and then in a foster home, and when Dana and I met him, he had 4 hernias and a partially collapsed lung from illness. Though we don’t believe he was abused, we’re pretty sure he was neglected. As legendary child development expert Dr. Karyn Purvis has said, “Abuse says, ‘I don’t like you.’ Neglect says, ‘You don’t exist.’ ”
But you’ve got to find what works for you. And what works for us is an iron fist.
Dana and I may not be child development experts, but we have Ph.D.’s in Apollo. We know him better than anyone else does, and we know that perhaps because of his painful past, he responds best to authority. Strong authority.
Having read a parenting book or 5 over the past couple of years, I like where the privilege is headed: more thoughtful, more complex, less stressful for everyone. When you know going into a situation fraught with tantrum-inducing triggers that you’re not going to raise your voice at your child or, dare I say, engage in a “debate” with him or her, your stress levels drop considerably. As a fellow father told me the other day, “Y’know, I don’t think there’s anything that a kind smile and a calm voice can’t fix.” And he’s right. But you’ve got to find what works for you. And what works for us is an iron fist. Respect my authoritaaa!
But what is a little concerning is that most preschools’ and daycares’ adherence to only certain philosophies doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for Apollonian children. The running around that my wife and I had to do before his expulsion was brutal. Every day around noon, my stomach would start to sink. “They’re gonna text me,” I’d moan to myself. “I know they’re gonna text me.” And, sure enough, one of his teachers would message me. “Apollo’s not napping, and he’s being disruptive. We don’t know what to do.”
And, even though I was on the clock at my day job a 15-minute drive away, I would drag my beaten self into my car and hot-foot it to his “daycare” to do whatever I could to rein him in. I started working on my laptop at the coffee shop around the corner every day, my heart aching, my brain frazzled.
I wish we had known that some classroom philosophies aren’t for every child. The key is to shop around and find the right one for you.
I think other parents would like to know, too, especially if they live in as unforgiving a part of the country as we do. The teachers and principals in our public school district kick more kids out of school than the U.S. men’s soccer team does soccer balls. In the 2013-14 school year, according to a study published by the nonprofit youth justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed, Fort Worth placed 5,417 pre-kindergarteners through 5th graders in out-of-school suspension, nearly 8 times more often than the Austin school district did its students, though the 2 districts are roughly the same size.
I started working on my laptop at the coffee shop around the corner every day, my heart aching, my brain frazzled.
Across the state, black students like Apollo were more than twice as likely as whites to be sent walking, accounting for 42 percent of disciplinary measures, even though black kids make up only 13 percent of elementary students.
Where do these kids go? Home. How do they get there? When home may be a couple of miles away and when Mom is working 2 jobs and can’t miss another day? Fort Worth couldn’t care less.
“It’s really hard to wrap your head around what a 4-year-old could do to merit being suspended from school,” Texas Appleseed’s Morgan Craven told the Dallas Morning News.
Indeed. What did Apollo do? Other than having the gall to not feel safe around his “authority” figures? While watching him from the closed-circuit camera feed one afternoon, I saw another child pluck a toy out of my son’s hands without asking and run off. As Apollo does at home when injustice strikes, he promptly consulted an adult, in this case a teacher’s aide. “Let it go,” she told him. “Let it go.”
The only time our son hears “let it go” at home is when Frozen is on TV. Naturally, he threw a fit. Naturally, he was sent to the principal’s office.
“We’re not a therapeutic school,” the principal later told my wife and me.
I wanted to shout back. “We’re not asking for freaking therapy, lady! All we want is justice.”
But I didn’t. Because my wife was tightening her grip around my arm.
In nearly a year at his “preschool,” Apollo rarely napped. After only 3 days at his new daycare, an at-home facility run with an iron fist by a no-nonsense broad just like my wife, he napped for nearly 2 hours. What do you think that says?
Anthony Mariani, editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and a former freelancer forThe Village Voice, Oxford American, and Paste magazine, recently finished writing a memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org