This fall our school district will implement a four-year-old kindergarten program. I was pleased to hear this because my daughter just turned four and for once I seemed to be at the right place at the right time. Things got even better when her daycare was selected as one of the sites for this free program. As far as I was concerned, this meant that she would be staying where she is very happy but the county would pay for the mornings, four days a week. What perfect timing, I thought, since I’ll be on a full-year sabbatical at reduced pay this coming year.
What surprised me was that none of the other mothers I knew were taking advantage of this boon or had enrolled their children in one of the sites. I was stunned. I mean, it’s free child care! I do not mean to disrespect any mother’s choice: each mother had her own very valid reason. One stay at home mother didn’t want her child to be away that many hours a week, another really liked a private pre-school, and another thought the program would be too disorganized. As the other mothers detailed their reasons not to participate, I felt guilty that I hadn’t given this more thought.
As an educator, perhaps I should be more concerned about my daughter’s first forays into official learning. Although I conduct research on the scholarship of teaching and learning, I wasn’t sure I even knew the difference between pre-school and “four year old kindergarten.” Was I being short-sighted in thinking merely of the money saved?
So I did some research and found out that there is little difference between preschool and four year old kindergarten (at least in our district); my daughter would be getting the same preparation for kindergarten either way. But maybe there were differences of quality between programs. Would a private pre-school better teach her how to tie her shoes, rhyme, or model clay?
As a “Mama, PhD,” I want to give my daughter a great education and the happiest school experience possible. And hey, if there were an expensive, privately-run school that didn’t give tests, had lots of cool hands-on projects, took kids skiing or kayaking once a week, and served organic vegetables for lunch, I’d probably re-finance my house to pay for it. (There is one school like this but, alas, it’s in Missoula, Montana.) One the other hand, I spent the first five years of my own schooling in an unstructured, experimental school where I played all day long and I who didn’t learn how to read until I was in third grade.
It’s funny how soon it starts, this competitive worry that your child might be left behind, might not be learning as much as she could, as much as other children are. As if learning is a race, a zero-sum game. I do think it’s hard to separate the urge to give your children “the best” from the desire for them to be “the best,” to have advantages that other children don’t. And what does that teach them?