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Parents: Preschool's Biggest Problem

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Brett Berk: This year, well over one million American 4-year-olds will head out for their first day of preschool -- the highest enrollment in U.S. history. The kids? Ecstatic. The parents? Not so much.

As the director of a New York City early-childhood center, I saw firsthand the difficulties young kids can face in making this transition. It's a major change for them, as foreign as traveling to outer space. But unlike in space, in preschool, everyone can hear you scream. Each fall, we comforted kids who shrieked in terror when confronted with the classroom's controlled chaos. Or those who cried steadily, clinging to their lunchboxes and backpacks, proud of their new gear, but puzzled by the strange place they'd been left in to use it.

Even trickier was helping the parents deal with their emotional tumult. Phone calls reassured fretful fathers that the daughter they'd "abandoned" was now gleefully pummeling Play-Doh. Detailed daily reports -- "Malika drew an M! Rafael used the toilet!" -- helped back-to-work moms vanquish their guilt at missing milestones. But most problematic were the parents of kids who adjusted too easily, starting school like racehorses: Bang. Bye!

"Does he ever ... mention me during the day?" these needy moms would ask at pickup, waiting expectantly for their busy child to notice their presence. Or, "She can't sleep some nights, she's so eager to get here ...." 

I'd explain that school is kids' first experience with something totally their own, a peer-based world separate from their family. "Your child needs these independent interactions in order to develop their sense of self," I'd say. "Don't worry: You'll always be the most important person in their life."

"We'd be more likely to believe that," the moms would reply, "if they'd stop begging us to bring them here every weekend."

"If you love somebody," I'd respond with mocking sincerity (my hallmark), "set them free. I know Sting sang it. But it's still the solution." 

The solution is not -- as these moms attempted -- to instigate tearful conflicts with your daughter just so you can comfort her. Or to remind your son about all the war toys you've bought him, but which his teacher won't allow in school. Or to linger at drop-off, saying so many goodbyes that your twins implode in a transitional overload. 

This, I'd think to myself, is how the spores of psychoses are sown.

I'd eventually confer with these intransigent parents. "Remember the joy and pride you felt on first getting something of your own?" I'd ask. "A nickel, a hairbrush, a gerbil? School -- this school -- is like that for your kid. Let them revel in it. And you revel in beginning your own new thing, too: watching your children become themselves."

next: My Kids' School Supplies Cost a Fortune!
2 comments so far | Post a comment now
XXXX August 22, 2010, 3:07 PM

Helicopter parents!

Anonymous August 23, 2010, 9:12 AM

In my experience as a parent, the teachers are wrong on this one. Kids whose parents leave them crying take longer to adjust to preschool. They resist going back and don’t like preschool as much. They are still upset when their parents leave many days after other kids are happy with it.

I’ve been a preschool teacher, too, so I understand why teachers think this way. It is easier to deal with a kid at the preschool once the parent is gone, but if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t work as well.

In my experience what works is taking a little longer and giving the kid some feel of control over when mom or dad leaves. Ideally the first visit to the preschool is an open house where parents can stay. Playdates ahead of time with other kids in the class also help as does a visit from the teacher. You need to let your child know that you will be leaving because there isn’t room for all the moms, but you don’t have to leave them crying.

The other thing that helps a lot is to wait until your child really wants to be with other kids and doesn’t mind separating. I was lucky enough not to have to send my kids to preschool when they were two and would not have wanted to leave their parents, although some kids are ready at two.

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