In her movie out this weekend, Sarah Jessica Parker ditches sex and the city for kids and high finance, and I feel for her. I picked up the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It back in my pre-child days hoping for some chick-lit comedy, ala Bridget Jones. What I read felt more like a stomach-churning thriller, say, Gerald’s Game: replace the woman trapped in a house alone as a murderer walks in with a working mom trapped in a cutthroat job when her child care walks out, and you get the idea. From all the daily juggling the character Kate has to do to at the start of the book on through to the trade-offs she makes in the end, there’s not a whole lot satisfying in the tale of a work life so out of sync with family life.
It feels like we’re living through powerfully out-of-sync of times. These days, nothing’s in alignment. More people want jobs than there are jobs. More parents wish to stay home than can afford to. More families need help, but politicians cut what helps them.
Austin ISD came up with a creative solution to that last mismatch. To make up for big reductions in its preschool budget, the district opened up its programs to more 4-year-olds whose parents can afford to pay. Tuition-based preschool at our local elementary school became the hot, “what to do” topic in both my neighborhood and household this summer. Lots of neighbors liked the idea of getting their kids into elementary school sooner—we’re lucky to have a dual language program and a school close enough to walk to—but the hours were a sticking point. (If you didn’t know, “full day” means 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m.) We went down to the wire with the choice but ultimately decided to keep our daughter in her private preschool one more year.
Still, the preschool choice made me think of this as a rarely discussed example of our out-of-sync era: the fact that school starts when kids turn 5, when most need school a lot sooner. Does that sound radical? Well, hear me out. It’s not just that most women (and men) have to go back to work well before their kids turn 5, though there’s that. It’s how this whole notion of starting school at 5 reflects outdated science and outdated reality.
First, the science: Presumably, some time ago educators noticed that around 5 years old is when children reliably start to do a lot of “school-like” things: recognize letters and associate certain sounds with them, sit still for more extended periods of time, take directions as a group, etc. The problem is this is a pretty limiting definition of learning. Neurologists say 90% of our lifetime brain growth happens before the age of 5, meaning the early years represent a critical window. A child whose brain isn’t built for success by kindergarten will have an incredibly tough time succeeding there. That foundation gets laid not by teaching toddlers letters and numbers, but by teaching them the skills preschools specialize in: how to relate with others, how to muster self control and focus, how to sustain interest in new things. The research is astonishing: for children, particularly low-income ones, quality preschool doesn’t just prepare a child to do better in school—it provides a lifetime of better odds, from job success to staying out of jail to graduating from high school and college. The bottom line for taxpayers: economists think society could save $7 in welfare and prison costs for every $1 it spends on good preschools.
Many moms count every pre-kindergarten minute with their kids as precious, and some would ask, “Who’s to say a school could teach better than I can?” I get that, and I’m not advocating for compulsory pre-K. But I would say, in terms of the reality most families face, most parents are feeling unrealistic, unprecedented pressure. They could use better options.
The problem for moms like Kate isn’t just that they work and have children. It’s that they live in an era where neighbors rarely lean on each other for child care support and where mothers and fathers act like independent child-rearing laboratories, minus the networks of relatives and friends traditionally around to help. Meanwhile, technology constantly tempts kids away from simple play and talking, and the world pushes families toward greater competitiveness. In yesterday’s world, Janie could sit out back and make mud pies. In today’s, she’s advised to learn the violin and Cantonese.
Above all, in earlier generations, young children learned self control and how to play well others and what to do with their curiosity from their mothers, yes . . . but they also learned those things from adults outside the family they interacted with nearly as often, from exploring a lot outdoors, from growing up in a society where people were connected and focused, by and large. Does that sound like 2011 to you?
And if it doesn’t, is this notion that we need high-quality preschools where more kids can have those things really so radical?
At what age do you think public schools should start welcoming children? Why do you think better early childhood programs haven’t caught on as a political priority? For those of you with kids in the new school-based pre-K programs, how’s it going?
Written by: Christine Sinatra