Saturday, February 16, 2013

Why the Bean is a Preschool Dropout

This post was originally written over a year ago.

Last Sunday I finally picked up my son’s stuff from the preschool he attended for only a few weeks in the fall. There was a plastic bag of extra clothes I’d sent with him, including some Super Grover underwear that would be too small now anyway. I wondered if they would have had to squeeze him into them at some point. There was a binder filled with a few pages of work he’d done at school: some directed finger painting activities, some letter-tracing worksheets. An “All About Me” sheet had been filled in by his teacher in the first week; it said “I’m special because I like to play with Mommy. Seeing that he was talking about me, thinking about me, while we were apart made my heart break a little. What made my heart completely break was the picture in the front of the binder. Taken on his first day of school, the picture shows a child in total distress, forehead scrunched, mouth open in a wail, eyes red. His face is off-center and the image is blurry, as though he were trying to make a break for it, and he probably was.

I agonized over the decision to pull the Bean out of preschool. I’m a stay-at-home mom, a breastfeeding, co-sleeping, attachment sort of parent. I’m strongly considering homeschooling. I’m still not entirely sure why I thought he needed to go to preschool at all. I think I just enrolled him because everyone else does it, which is a seriously foolish way to parent. I expected tears at the beginning but assumed he would adjust, and everyone seems to think separation should be forced at some point. Three is late for forced separation, to most people. To me it’s entirely too early. The Bean had some fun at school, sure. It was only three hours, two days a week. One of his best buddies was in his class. The school is at our church, so he was familiar with his surroundings. But every morning, the first question he asked upon waking was this: “Do I not have to go to school today?” Then followed a long session of begging me to stay home. After a few weeks, I decided to stop putting him through the anxiety.

In the Bean’s binder I found a picture of Noah’s Ark that he had colored and a copy of the Lord’s Prayer, which the children sing every day. Because the preschool is connected to a church, the teachers include Bible lessons and incorporate religious material as often as possible. I’m not completely opposed to this, but I learned that the teachers were exposing the kids to some of the less pleasant aspects of the Bible: people being sold into slavery, Jesus dying on the cross, etc. I understand that Jesus’s death and resurrection are important, but do preschoolers really need to hear about the bloody stuff?

Every week the Bean brought home a folder filled with worksheets on which he’d traced capital and lower-case letters. I have no problem with my son tracing letters, but the idea of him sitting at a desk and being forced to complete worksheets alongside other children just doesn’t work for me. Not at three. In addition, the teachers assigned “homework” each week, which was supposedly optional, with the warning that in the four-year-old program it would be mandatory. I’m not even sure homework is good for high school kids; I’m completely certain it’s absurd for a preschooler. 

On Thursdays at this preschool, the teachers get out the “treasure box,” which is filled with cheap toys and prizes that students are allowed to pick from, but only if they’ve been “good” all week. I don’t like the idea of three-year-olds standing by and watching sadly while their friends pick out a toy, particularly since they’re too young to understand what’s going on. They don’t remember the behavior they’re being punished for if it was earlier in the week, so they can’t connect it to the punishment. In addition, the director told me that the Bean and his buddy often had to be separated at circle time because they got too excited. I understand the logistical need for this but it troubled me. I want my son to be excited and have fun. He’s three, for God’s sake.

I had plenty of reasons for pulling the Bean out of preschool, least of all the simple fact that I’m hoping to homeschool him anyway and I don’t believe he needs forced learning at any age, let alone at three. He learns a ton at home and out in the world, simply through playing and exploring. But the only reason I really need to pull him out of school is presented quite clearly for me in that sad picture from his first day. I know most kids have trouble separating from their parents, and tears can’t always be a dealbreaker or we’d never allow our kids to experience anything. However, I’m not so sure that a three-year-old needs to separate from his mother yet. Preschool can be wonderful when it’s play-based and when the child is ready to separate. Coerced learning, completing worksheets alongside children who may be six months older and more advanced, worrying about homework, being forced to do show-and-tell, and learning about bloody death on a cross: these things can wait. Or perhaps they never have to happen at all. 

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