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We tried — tried one of those fancy “early childhood education” institutions, with a “curriculum” and a philosophy and a traditionally academic setting. It didn’t work. Now our Apollo spends his weeks at an at-home facility, the kind of place that other, braver parents might refer to as a “daycare center.”
I am not that brave.
There’s a lot to bite your fingernails and worry over. Is your 4-year-old going to be reading ready by kindergarten next year? Should you and your spouse be doing more at home to make up for the schooling he might be missing during the day? Is your child going to be able to share and take turns with other little folks and take direction from his teachers? I might be worrying needlessly, but I’m a parent. Worrying is as second nature as sleeping or driving or sleep-driving.
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The institution seemed perfect. My wife and I were really jazzed about its teachers’ adherence to conscious discipline, in which the students are taught to self-regulate. Self-regulation, according to the principal (and Google), helps produce well adjusted young people, who will not feel compelled to soothe themselves via extraneous means. Like through a bottle or needle. Or a couple of doubles with cheese. Or a ton of lovers.
The problem was that our child could not handle the lack of actual discipline. “Let it go” is not just the chorus to a really popular song from a really popular kids’ movie. It also is a phrase chanted by conscious discipline-favoring teachers at some toddlers who have just had their favorite toy snatched from them by a fellow classmate. In no universe can I imagine that “Give it back and apologize right now!” is not more in keeping with our intrinsic morality. “Let it go,” basically, did not fly with Apollo Joseph Kofi Mariani.
I might be worrying needlessly, but I’m a parent. Worrying is as second nature as sleeping or driving or sleep-driving.
I am not blaming my son. Having spent the first 22 months of his life in an African orphanage with 4 hernias (3 visible) and a partially collapsed lung due to illness created by neglect, our always beautiful but now perfectly healthy boy is different. When toddlers from stable home environments become mad, sad, tired, hungry, or scared, an emotional place to which they can retreat is one of comfort, where they are sweetly sung to, touched, acknowledged. Apollo’s default setting is a dark, empty cave. Words mean nothing. Touch? Yes, but his preschool teachers were evidently really committed to honoring their employer’s rule of maintaining only minimal physical contact with students.
We all knew the breakup was coming. A few weeks before the principal dumped our sweet little boy, I started looking into backup plans. The at-home facility we ended up going with won us over with its small class size and emphasis on discipline the way that most of us, especially us Gen-Xers, envision it (justice-based, basically). The teachers at Stacie’s Angels also dispense hugs freely. And often.
How’s he doing? Let’s just say that at the early learning institution, our son, who is a champion napper at home, seemed to be afraid to close his eyes for any longer than a split second. He did not feel safe. After only his third day at the at-home facility, however, he napped for an hour and a half. And he’s been napping there regularly ever since.
Some of the top school systems in the world are in Finland and Sweden, where children do not start school until age 7. Some of the least effective are in Asia, where kids are being taught to read and write and add and subtract while also learning how to walk. Many socially conservative Americans are still frightened, thinking that China or some other super-smart Asian super-power (South Korea? Japan? Singapore?) is going to what? Cross our borders and conquer us Vikings-style or something? I think our country will be fine, no matter at what age our kids start school.
As long as it’s not 8.
Are my wife and I going to have to make up for the readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic our son doesn’t receive at his at-home facility? We probably should. Since Apollo started at Stacie’s, Dana and I have noticed a slight slip in his ability to count and identify certain letters and their sounds. (Cs, Ss, and Ks never tripped him up before.) We also now worry, naturally, about his lack of friends. At the preschool, he had 4 solid buds, boys and girls he raved about at home, and among them one bestie, a tall and gentle hay-haired soul who appeared to be the Colossus to Apollo’s Wolverine. Joey followed Apollo everywhere, reined him in at times, provided the muscle (opening heavy doors for him, extracting square pegs from round holes, being present). Perhaps Stacie’s accidental reliance on solitary play and dearth of group activities are why Apollo has not established the same kinds of relationships. So far.
But our son is now napping. Every day. That has to mean something.
And even if all he’s doing when he’s not napping is playing, he very well may be doing enough. The authors of a 2002 study say that U.S. children from academic settings earned “significantly lower marks” compared to kids from play-based programs. Playing is learning. Why doesn’t that seem good enough, though? Now or ever?
I am lucky. I have been able to witness my son piece together 2 giant floor puzzles at the same time within 45 minutes or fewer. I know he is smart. I do not know is whether he is capable of following direction all of the time. Or of being part of a group. Of belonging. Of being a good citizen. And as anyone will tell you, having friends and being a constructive member of society is just as important as demolishing standardized tests. Almost.
Anthony Mariani is Editor of the Fort Worth Weekly.