Tuesday, March 1, 2011

School Panic

By Sara Shaw

“You mean, Ella is NOT going to pre-school this year?” The other mothers at the park that Spring seemed to be staring down at me accusingly, shocked as they were, that I dare defy the new “two years of preschool is now mandatory if you want your child to have any hope of success in this world at all” rule that is the norm in our culture. “Um, well, I wasn’t going to, I mean she isn’t three until October, and I thought they went to pre-school when they were four? And I don’t know, I just think it’s a shame to push them into school when you get so few years with them as it is?” I stammered out my unsure response, trying to convince these fellow mommies that this was a Plan, that my husband and I had discussed Ella’s pre-school goals, that we were right on track. This, obviously, was the farthest thing from the truth. I did assume that only four year olds went to pre-school, but the notion was something I had previously thought of in the same way someone like me thinks about “trends in the financial market”; that is to say, not at all. As I sat with these other good moms, mothers who had their children on waiting lists for pre-school minutes after seeing the double pink lines on their pregnancy stick, and listened to them discuss their developing psychosis, or more specifically, what I now refer to as “school panic”, I wondered how I had missed this. I knew part of your job as a parent was to worry about your child’s education but I naively thought that meant worries like; “will my child do well in school?”, “Will they get along with other kids?” or “Will they get into a good college?”. And I also thought those fears weren’t supposed to start UNTIL they actually began school.

For the next few months I couldn’t help but overhear other parental conversations, moms on cell-phones pushing their little darling with one hand and nagging husbands to see about getting them in at _____ School. I also overheard other play date conversations that revolved around this issue; specifically phrases like, “Yes, but I want him to be an early reader. I heard that if you don’t start now, they may not read till, age four” or 
Well, we were going to go there but I’m not sure they really nurture the ‘whole child’ at the school”, and finally, “Oh, yes, if they don’t have two years of pre-school, then they will be behind. I mean, every child is doing that now.” It wasn’t long before I was scouring the internet, wildly dialing the phone, and asking any mother within ear-shot where their child went to preschool and how could I possibly get Ella in there? I was even tempted to ask the tiny tots that I ran into on a daily basis. I pictured myself bending down at the McDonalds play place, “And how do you like your preschool? Do you feel that your “whole child” is being nurtured? Can you please tell me what that even means????” My school panic had sent in.

What is “school panic”? In my opinion, school panic is any educational related topic that creates stress for parents, causing them to obsess on the given issue for any amount of time. At our routine playgrounds the topics of concern are typically:

What is the best preschool?

How old should my child be when starting Kindergarten?

Which is better private, charter, or public?

If I choose public, do I choose my neighborhood school?

However, there are also the side topics such as, test scores, curriculum, teacher student ratio, and homeschooling.

Admittedly, most parents are probably not obsessing about their child’s first day of Kindergarten (What will she wear? Will she like her backpack? Will she cry? Will I cry? Will I be able to stop crying?) years before that day is set to arrive, and you know, neither am I…… But in my experience, every parent, or at least every mommy, has been worried about these big “school” issues to the point of getting stressed out. After feeling that way for far too long, and certainly before our children are even there, we begin to wonder if our panic is necessary.

Just last night, I was out to a rare dinner with the girls, and we weren’t but three edamame beans in before it began. Most of us have children who could potentially begin Kindergarten next fall so discussing the merits of different schools or the benefits to holding boys back versus girls is a relevant and appropriate conversation. But, what wasn’t appropriate was the amount of fear and uncertainty we all felt trying to make these “major life decisions” for our kids. I looked around the table at these incredibly loving, smart, well-intentioned mothers and blurted out, “Don’t you think our generation of mothers has made this a THING when it wasn’t ever a big THING before? Don’t you feel panicked? And do we even need to be?” While I could have been more eloquent, my point was made and we launched into a discussion of what it was like when we were kids. How did we get from “my children attend the school that we live near at the time when the school says so”, to this?

I know this issue is far too complex to adequately tackle here. Some may argue that our competitive culture has created the fear in parents, and is driving the panic to ensure their child gets ahead. Others may say our political system has helped to create broken schools, therefore the fear parents have is warranted, one must be a bulldog with the waitlists, otherwise your child could, infamously, be left behind.

For the purposes of this piece, I suppose the reasons why we are “here” are not crucial. School panic is a reality and we all must choose how to maneuver our way through this maze that undoubtedly has only just begun. For example, I want Ella to go to Kindergarten next fall. I feel she is ready. She misses the cut-off by two days but I have found a school that will accept her. Now, will I question our decision for the next six months? Will I get every opinion I possibly can from anyone who will give it? Will I Google this until my fingers hurt? Or will I trust and know that we are good parents, we love our child, and we are making the best decisions that we can. I realize that if I spend the next six months doubting this, I will miss the precious moments I have left before I send her off to school, into the world.

Besides, I only have six months left to fixate about her first day of school and the backpack issues that may arise…

Sara Shaw


Anonymous said...

Very well said! My kids only had one year of preschool, my son was a summer birthday who I did not hold back, and they are all very successful in school. You know your kids and YOU decide what is best, not anyone else. And once you decide, stick with it. There was a reason you went with that decision in the first place!! And enjoy the extra year home with your child...they are only young once!

Anonymous said...

So funny and true Sara. I have kids 3, 5, 7 and 9 and remember so many questions about this. I did decide to put the girls in 3 and 4 year old preschool but only because they love to be with their friends there. It's a low-pressure, fun, environment, focused on playing together. But I have other friends who haven't and as my sister in law (an elementary school teacher and now principal told me), by the end of Kindergarten you would never know who had been to preschool and who hadn't. It all evens out at that age.

Anonymous said...

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