Preschool has become an increasingly fraught proposition for parents eager to give their child an academic head start. Though conventional wisdom suggests that high-quality preschools are the best way to prepare kids for kindergarten, the reality is more complicated. Though attending preschools with a rigorous approach is correlated with success, it’s likely numbers are skewed by money and parental mindset. The truth is that preschool provides the most value when it creates an environment in which children can learn social skills as well as the alphabet, but also that preschool is not a prerequisite for success. It’s a good-to-have, not a need-to-have.
Decisions made around preschool are, almost by definition, complicated. The harsh truth is that while preschool offers educational solutions, it also presents a ton of new problems that parents may not have been prepared for, starting with the fact that preschool may not be necessary at all.
Harsh Truth #1: Preschool is Unnecessary
Preschool is not unhelpful. On the contrary, it can help kids who would not otherwise have the opportunity to gain equal footing with peers. That’s one of the reasons New York state has a thriving “preschool for all” program. But just because it’s helpful does not mean it’s necessary. It turns out 4-year-olds need a lot of things, but a building where they can practice their ABCs is not one of them. Research shows many of the academic gains associated with preschool are lost during the primary school years. By the time kids hit 5th grade, most are on equal footing whether they attended preschool or not. Why would that be? The answer is Kindergarten.
Kindergarten teachers understand that kids will arrive in their class with varying levels of ability. Their task is to get everyone keyed into the basics by the end of the year. Some kids come in with number and letter skills. Some kids come in barely knowing their colors. All of them need help before they move on to numbered grades. What kids really need prior to kindergarten is socialization and exploration. A lot of that is baked into preschool. But if a kid can get those things outside of a preschool, they’ll be totally fine.
Harsh Truth #2: Preschool Can Be Really Expensive
If you’re a parent outside of a state that offers free preschool for all, or you don’t qualify for subsidized preschool programs like Head Start, then preschool is going to be pretty damn expensive. And that expense will increase with the level of preparation touted by the administrators.
But there’s something to remember in choosing a preschool. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently noted that preschools should be places that are focused primarily on play and socialization. So if parents are looking at the average U.S. cost of $1000 a month for preschool, it will probably be best if they apply the cost to those schools that will have the most benefit for their child, with ample time for exploration and unstructured cooperative play.
Harsh Truth #3: Preschool Comes With Parental Obligations
Once a kid gets into preschool a parent’s life will likely change just as dramatically as their child’s. Because not only is preschool a training ground for kids, it’s also a training ground for adults.
Preschool will introduce parents to the idea of being an engaged school parent. They will be asked to volunteer their time. They will be asked to donate and collect items for projects. And they will also be asked to attend programs, lunches, holiday parties, and “graduations”.
That’s not particularly a bad thing. And in fact, it’s better to get used to it when a kid is in preschool rather than spending the entirety of their public schooling struggling with school obligations and feeling guilty for not meeting them. Because aside from being a booster, guilt and self-loathing is really the only other option.
Harsh Truth #4: Preschool Drop Off is Terrible
Four-year-olds aren’t that great at saying goodbye. And saying goodbye becomes even more problematic when the kid has spent most of their life hanging out with mom and dad. Which is all to say, that the first preschool drop off will be a doozy. But tears and terror may not be confined to just the first drop off. It can take kids weeks before they feel secure enough to say goodbye to parents and join their peers in class. It will help if parents take the time to talk about the process and develop a strong goodbye ritual. Some kids do well with carrying a little memento in their pocket to feel close to their parent.
As for the parents, drop off can be just as tough. The tears don’t end after the kid is safely inside.
Harsh Truth #5: Preschooler Art is a Storage Nightmare
When a kid gets into preschool they may as well have started working at Warhol’s Factory considering all of the art and projects they’ll be bringing home. And parents really have two options: Make a point of keeping it all or act as a sharp-eyed curator. It’s important to note that your preschooler will likely be proud of the art they bring home. But they’ll be proud of some projects more than others. It can be a good idea to follow the kid’s lead on their excitement. A hastily colored handout brought home in their folder? Maybe it’s not a keeper. A carefully crafted “bowl”? Yeah, maybe put some paper clips in it.
If a parent is committed to saving everything, then they should also commit to a storage solution that makes sense. The refrigerator only has so much room and this stuff piles up really quickly.
Harsh Truth #6: Preschoolers Learn to Share … Diseases
Along with the adorable artwork, preschoolers typically bring home less-than-adorable viruses. This is the beginning of a very long struggle. It makes sense when you think about it. Kids are gross and have questionable hygiene. They also like to touch each other. Things get passed around.
There is a way to protect the home front, however. One of the best ways is to keep school stuff isolated so that it is kept in one “hot zone” of the house where dirty stuff dwells. Things that do pass into the house proper should get a thorough disinfecting with antimicrobial wipes. Kids should leave shoes at the door and wash hands thoroughly. Also, everyone should get the flu shot. It’s just a no-brainer. Will it keep everyone 100 percent healthy? Probably not, but at least it gives the family a fighting chance.
Harsh Truth #7: Preschool Birthday Parties Are Unavoidable
While parents of preschoolers might dread school obligations, at least there’s a chance that you’ll get to see your kid can do, or make, something adorable. That’s not the case with the slew of birthdays parents will feel obligated to attend.
In truth, birthdays are the byproduct of that awesome socialization that the kid is experiencing in preschool. So it’s a very good sign to be invited to birthday parties. But it’s also good to have a plan of attack. Try to split birthday party duties between parents so the resentment stays at a minimum. Also, put a hard deadline on how long party favors will stay in the house. Make it a rule: the kid gets a wild 24 hours to blow the heck out that toy whistle and then it goes bye-bye forever.