Last spring, I sat on the new brick back patio my husband had made, drinking iced tea with a friend while our children romped. I asked her how she liked her son’s preschool—he was going twice a week for a few hours each time. She hesitated.
After the usual nice-lady hedging, she said, “But then I volunteered to help one day, and I was so surprised, because all the things they did in preschool I do better or at least as well at home. They read books—okay, we do that every day, and visit the library every week. The kids had free play; my kids do that in our neighborhood every day. They ate a snack, and did a ‘fine motor activity,’ and some games, but I guess I just expected it to be so much more.”
This mother, by the way, is a Pinterest queen. She’s crafty, energetic, and fun. Her boys are the ones whose super-cute ladybug number charts and homemade lacing cards you envy when spying out their fridge. This vivacious, capable mother put her little boy in preschool because she didn’t want him to miss out. Turns out, putting him in preschool was what actually had him missing out—of his rich home life and further bonding experiences with his mother.
Mismatch Between Need and Behavior
This is, in fact, typical. In the United States, 42 percent of three-year-olds, 68 percent of four-year-olds, and 84 percent of five-year-olds attend a pre-primary program. But if you’re reading articles titled “How to Pick a Preschool,” your child does not need preschool. That’s just a fact. The preschool research field is aimed overwhelmingly at children in desperate, emotionally abusive and intellectually starved home situations, because the children outside these situations already have all the help they need inside their families.
Back to this in a minute, because I know just saying this, although it’s the gospel truth, will not convince you. All the other moms are putting their three- and four- and five-year-olds in gymnastics, swimming, tap dance, piano, Lego STEM camps, and the like, besides evaluating this Montessori preschool or that Kumon tutorial. If you don’t have a similar list to tick off, you feel sort of naked during these discussions.
You also may feel that your family needs a child to be in some sort of program. Perhaps mom wants to work more. Or you feel the crushing, maddening social pressure I just mentioned. Perhaps, like my one friend, you need to get your most intense child away from your home for a few hours a day so you can focus on your other children (they homeschool). Perhaps, like me this past year, you have a new baby and two toddlers, and you need a temporary lift.
Notice that none of these will address your child’s own needs, because your family is already meeting them, but they may address other legitimate family needs. Preschool is typically more about family convenience and suburban virtue signaling than it is necessary to help the kids themselves ahead. People are just not that honest about it, probably because it feels better to say “this is helping Susie get ahead” than it does to say “mommy is tired of this little kid stuff.”
So if you are going to put your child in a program, you first need to be honest about why. If it’s mostly to make mommy feel less awkward in grown-up conversations, you may decide it’s not worth $6,000 to $15,000 and the risks of damaging your bond with your child, or turning him off to academics and increasing his aggressiveness, to ease a collective hour of odd-man-out feelings. Remember, this decision, like nearly every one in your adult life, is about tradeoffs. You may be getting something out of preschool, but in exchange you are giving something away, and a lot more is on the bargaining table than tuition money.
School Readiness Means ‘I Had a Mother’
To evaluate whether your family or child needs preschool at all and prove that yours doesn’t need it for academic reasons, let’s learn a little about childhood development.
The first, most important thing to know is that ever since there has been research on early childhood development, it has backed up traditional wisdom about young children: Most of all, they need married parents who treat each other decently. They also need a deep, close trust bond with one caregiver from birth to at least age three and preferably through age five or six. Because of plain biological reality (pregnancy and nursing), that deeply bonded caregiver is optimally mommy.
Sorry, not sorry, moms. You’re the big thing to your babies. Whether you think it was God or science or both, you’re the baby incubator, not your husband. They don’t stop being babies who need their own mother, with her familiar smell and heartbeat and voice, after they’re born or even three years later. No matter how kind your chosen alternate caregivers are, those wee ones in their deepest heart just want, and are biologically keyed to want, you.
Just watch them scream when you leave. It’s not all an act when they’re that little. By responding to them instead of walking away day after day, you are cultivating in them the emotional stability they need to begin reaching out and exploring the world in ways that ultimately lead to advanced learning. If a child’s emotional needs are not met, it will be extremely difficult for him to feel the internal locus of safety and confidence necessary to contemplate the world around him, to explore, to learn. This is a non-negotiable precondition for lifetime mental strength.
So when you run around all day wiping noses and kissing boo-boos and responding with love at the five-thousandth interruption, you really are preparing your children for school—and, far more importantly, life—in the best way possible. Your wee children truly need nothing but you there for them.
Three Main Things Small Children Need
More formally (although not much), babies, toddlers, and other pre-readers need lots of spoken (as opposed to recorded, or digital) language—songs, nursery rhymes, directions, read-aloud picture books, and plain old chatter. They also need lots of physical interaction with the world around them—nothing fancy, but things like dumping out the silverware drawer and tossing the contents about the kitchen, throwing bundled socks into the laundry basket, and smearing banana through their hair (and high chair and clothes).
Pinching, smelling, poking, and other forms of physical play actually create the neural pathways in a child’s brain he will later use to read and retain and combine ideas. So messing about in the cupboards actually directly contributes to your child’s later academic success. This is a chief reason the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents do not allow children younger than 2 to watch or play with screens, and that over-screened children in Europe physically cannot pick up blocks and had learning delays. They were deprived of the physical forerunners of cognition. So limit screens and expand outdoor play. If you live in town like we do, take your kids to parks as often as possible. Let them explore their neighborhood just about as far as you can see or call them back home.
The other major thing mothers seek from outside help is better behavior from their kids. This is a tricky thing to evaluate, because as I’ll show later, removing children from home when they are young often exacerbates bad behavior. Change and cognitive demands they can’t meet stress children, especially the sensitive kinds of children more prone to acting out.
True, sometimes—although usually for older children, around age 7 or so—external caregivers can provide needed accountability for a child who is sick of mom. Rather than seeing shipping a child off as the way to solve a child’s discipline problems, however, parents first need to evaluate whether they can and should solve these problems themselves by developing better parenting skills and habits.
It is not fair to teachers or classmates to send them unruly children you have failed to discipline. Mostly I see this scenario with young boys, who are developmentally a year behind girls at this age and therefore naturally have worse impulse control. They typically respond better long-term to daddy discipline, but often nowadays mothers strangle rather than enjoy the fruits of their husbands’ unique virtues in childrearing, such as briskly enforcing rules, evenly, immediately, and without remorse or equivocation. Leslie Loftis is excellent on untangling this.
All this means school readiness truly consists of three things, and three things only: words, play, and discipline. In other words, school readiness requires, not a program, but a mother and a father. This research overview shows that in spades. As an example, see this representative comparison of good parenting versus good preschool. Parents clearly trump preschool.
Look How Simple ‘School Readiness’ Is
If you’re wondering how on earth “untrained” parents are better than “early childhood experts” at bringing children up well, let me show you how “expertise” is mostly “common sense” (that is, when it’s not “highfalutin attempts to justify insane ideas”). Just Google a few of those ubiquitous “school readiness” checklists. My favorite is from the Core Knowledge Foundation (no relation to Common Core). But here’s an easier one to read from United Way, which is also representative of these benchmarks (I’ve been examining these for years because I’m writing a set).
For those of you who aren’t going to go over that item by item and obsessively rate your kids against it, let me give a sampling of things schools want kids to have when they walk in the door for “real” school: Recognize 10 letters. Follow directions with at least two steps (a pre-math skill). Match two pictures that are alike (another pre-math skill).
My oldest two children were able to do all these things at the age of three, and we do nothing special with them besides read books (alphabet and counting picture books are how they learned those items, easily and naturally), play outside, and talk a lot. They are not geniuses, either. They are normal middle-class children whose parents treat them like people. If you are a parent like that—which, again, you are if you’re reading this article—you are your child’s best chance at a solid start in life, emotionally and intellectually. Not preschool.
The Little-Known Negatives of Institutionalized Childhood
This can lay to rest the concerns of the anxious tiger mom types and other “suburban strivers,’” but many other less neurotic parents aren’t really seeking academics from preschool or daycare. They’re looking to give mom a break, or for their kids to have some extra fun, to make friends, alleviate boredom, etc. It’s all the better that these parents are not pressuring themselves or their kids as much as the anxious types who flashcard their two-year-olds, but they also have some tradeoffs to weigh.
It’s important to note that preschool is not all the same. Two or three mornings of glue sticks, storybook-reading, and block-building time will hurt just about no four-year-old (although the long-term benefits directly to the child will be few). It’s the full-time, more than 30 hours-per-week types of preschool and daycare where children start to show anxiety problems and increased acting out. Typically, as this research summary says, the earlier a child leaves home and the longer he is away, the more anxious and distressed he is going to be about it:
our many research reports revealed that the more time children spent in any kind of non-familial child care, and sometimes specifically in centers, the more aggressive and disobedient they proved to be at two (but not three) and 4.5 years of age, as well as across their elementary school years; and the more impulsive they proved to be at age 15, at which age they also engaged in more ‘risky’ behavior than children who experienced far less non-familial care across their first five years of life….the problem behavior associated with early, extensive, and continuous care emerged irrespective of whether quality of care was good or bad. (emphasis added)
See these graphs depicting kids’ externalizing (acting out), social skills, and conflict according to earliest school level enrolled and whether the children were home with family or in institutional settings, starting with preschool. Across the board, kids in institutions act out more, have poorer social skills, and higher conflict, while the opposite is the case with children who remain with family.
Many studies have found both academic and emotional harm to children of institutional preschool. Tennessee second-graders who had attended preschool performed in math than non-preschool peers, liked school less, and had a weaker work ethic. They also frequently find that preschool attenders know more things than non-attenders for a few years, but this early cognitive “bump” disappears by grade three, while their behavioral problems persist.
Quebec implemented universal childcare and preschool (at this young an age the two are synonymous), so that 75 percent of its 1- to 4-year-olds are now in non-parent care. For comparison, that number in the United States is 62 percent, so we’re almost there. A recent long-term study on the program’s effects found it had done nothing to boost kids’ knowledge, but it had dramatically increased hyperactivity, aggression, and, later, crime, particularly among (no surprise here) boys. It decreased participants’ health and happiness.
Bring Home to School, Not School Into the Home
Managing a class of children, even if the class size is an unusually small one such as six to eight children, requires treating children differently than one does in a family. One must employ more crowd control. That fundamentally alters the character of preschool as compared to a home environment. The more a program is like an orphanage—in giant cinderblock buildings, masses of children walking down taped lines in hallways—the quicker you should decide against it. Here’s an increasingly typical recent scenario from a mother (and this sort of thing is moving into preschool rapidly):
My daughter’s first day of kindergarten — her very first introduction to elementary school — consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task.
By the time I picked her up, she did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters.
Parents are often impressed by these kinds of programs because, gracious me, Sally’s kid was reading at age FOUR after preschool, and Bill and Jenn’s boys can write words already! I confess to feeling similarly myself when I received a family newsletter when my oldest was four. Our friends’ four-year-old had enclosed a letter she’d written herself. I was horrified, because my son could hardly hold a pencil. Luckily, I was able to control myself, and a good thing, too, because the child demanded reading lessons at home (Cheap! Fifteen minutes a day! All the tutor needs to know is how to read! Phonics-based, so highly effective!) a few months later and at five now has at least a second-grade reading ability.
This is an illustration of the tried-and-true principle of child development that they do not all grow at the same pace. As eighteenth-century educator Charlotte Mason wrote, “Children are born persons.” Yes, they are human, so will generally fit the human pattern, but they are also individuals. Variations on a theme.
While my oldest son could read at four, I fully expect his brother to not read until something like seven (too antic—but hey, he might surprise me). While my oldest son figured out how reading works halfway through the curriculum and did the rest entirely on his own, my daughter has already tried and failed at that now she’s the same age. I think nothing less of her. She’s not missing out on anything (now her brother reads to her on top of mom and dad reading), just like my oldest isn’t a genius. They’re just persons.
Why More Earlier Is Not Better
The U.S. trend is clearly to separate children from home earlier and earlier, and on the guise that it’s good for them, because if school is good at eight, obviously it’s good at four. Unfortunately for the children—and consequently the rest of us, since these kids are Americans who will vote and create our economy and such—“an emerging body of research indicates that attempts to accelerate intellectual development are in fact counterproductive.” For example:
In 2006, Dr. Ashlesha Datar, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, conducted a study comparing children entering kindergarten ‘on time’ to those whose parents held them out for a year. Professor Datar reported: ‘I find that entering kindergarten a year older significantly boosts test scores at kindergarten entry. More importantly, entering older implies a steeper test score trajectory during the first 2 years in school.’
In another recent study, “Researchers found that children who were held back from kindergarten for as little as one year showed a 73 percent reduction in inattentiveness and hyperactivity compared to children sent the year earlier.” By age eleven, putting children in kindergarten a year later had virtually eliminated above-average hyperactivity and inattention ratings among them. As a bonus, fewer ants-in-the-pants meant these kids learned more.
Whoa, whoa. ADHD diagnoses are skyrocketing, as are many other diagnoses of mental and emotional instability. Perhaps it’s not so much a coincidence this has happened as American parents have placed increasing percentages of children in non-family care. But that would mean there are not only benefits for families and society when we pressure mothers of young children to work full-time outside the home and when we create massive taxpayer-funded preschool entitlements. But we don’t want to discuss that, because that makes grown-ups feel uncomfortable.
Resources: Your Options Are Broader Than You Think
So now we are at the part of the article where I discuss your options in more concrete terms. I will divide them into two: home-based experiences, and center-based experiences. There is a perhaps-surprising amount of variety in both. Here are some fabulous resources I’m aware of.
Home-based early childhood: You truly can spend your time at home with your babies as you like, doing absolutely no formal program. Read to your children, sing to them, play with them, stack and count cans of soup and make cookies. The number-one most scrumptious book I have read on this topic is called “The Home-Grown Preschooler,” by Kathy Lee and Lesli Richards. My children call it “the fun preschool book.” It has a full overview of what little people need from you and why, and then lays out in concrete detail exactly how to do that, including play-dough recipes and book recommendations. Highly recommended.
The authors also offer a full at-home preschool curriculum, “A Year of Playing Skillfully,” that is also highly user-friendly, appropriately so for a mother of preschoolers, and beautifully illustrated. Disclosure: They sent me a free copy, with no expectation of any subsequent review. I was interviewing the author, one thing led to another, and she generously sent me the book after I mentioned I have preschoolers.
You can find superb book lists for reading to toddlers and preschoolers at Ambleside Online, Memoria Press (here and here), and Read-Aloud Revival (which is just awesome for readers or wanna-be readers of all ages). I highly recommend all these organizations in general. At the library, you can find “Books to Build On” and “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know,” again from the Core Knowledge Foundation. My children adore that last one, as well.
Part-time group activities: This may be the best fit for most families and children. Mothers of preschoolers need to get out of the house and socialize, and so do their kids. Many have gotten together to use things like “A Year of Playing Skillfully” as a small group. Joy Preschool exemplifies this niche. It offers a plug-and-play early childhood program that families can do alone, with friends, or use to start a part-time, home-based preschool program.
Another well-known program that fits this description is Mothers Of Preschoolers (MOPS). The one I have done with our oldest son this past year, and recommend, is Classical Conversations. Children may start at age four. This is what we plan to do until our children are approximately age seven, and ready for more formal schooling. And, no, seven is not at all too old. Scandinavian countries delay formal schooling until ages 6 or 7, and their children outperform U.S. children on international achievement tests.
Full-time programs: I do recommend, based on the research, that you try to restructure your life to avoid full-time out-of-home care for your child if at all possible. As I’ve outlined, they put children at risk of behavior and attachment problems, and on average offer no long-term academic advantages.
Having been a continuously working mother since my first child was born, however, I understand that some mothers must work. Our solution was to find flexible work that allows us to keep our present brood of four all in-home. For families like ours, an at-home mother is a luxury we can’t afford merely by buying a less ridiculously sized home or foregoing family vacations (because we already do that).
If you must, however, do all you can to reduce your child’s discomfort. The more home-like the circumstances, the less disruptive and distressing it typically is for children, and so much the better for their receptivity to learning. Remember, they need to feel emotionally secure before they can learn.
So going to grandma’s, or a grandmotherly lady’s house, to read and bake cookies three days a week is far preferable for a little child to a structured, institution-based group care or traditional, school-like preschool. In-home daycare with four other little children, or childcare inside the home of family friends, is likewise preferable if you must leave your child for many hours a week. Specify that your little person get lots of picture books and fresh air.
Montessori and Waldorf preschools don’t fit neatly in either of these last two categories, but they merit mention because they are philosophically well-suited for what small children need (although I reject their premises once extended to older children—perhaps a soliloquy for another day). Their atmosphere is also peaceful, homelike, and open-ended, all good for young children.
Also, again, if you have money to burn or an externality like a new baby arriving, putting your child here part-time will not hurt him. My mother put me in a Montessori preschool two mornings a week when I was a tiny child, and I don’t remember a thing except later learning it had a two-way mirror, and she was spying on me. It made me feel safer, once me and mom were together spying on brother, to know she had been there the whole time.