The (unnecessary) stress of picking preschools

October 10 2011 | Guest post by Avi Nathman
First Day of Preschool Shirt

My anxiety level heightened noticeably while I filled out the paperwork in front of me. My pulse quickened as I worked to keep my breath even and slow, despite the overwhelming urge to hyperventilate. I peered around nervously for a paper bag… just in case. The pen I was holding slipped a little due to the thin sheen of sweat that developed across my palms. I was doing my best to answer each question truthfully and eloquently, and I focused to make sure my penmanship was neat.

The pressure was on.

Three weeks later I stood in my living room, looking down at an envelope that was the direct result of those nerves and anxiety. The envelope in my hands was a business-sized one, not betraying what was inside. My breath caught in my throat as I slid my finger across the flap, opening it. I pulled out the first sheet of typed paper to find out whether or not my son had been accepted into the preschool of our choice.

Before I even looked at what was written, I wanted to laugh at myself. He wasn't even three-years-old yet, and I was already knee-deep in anxiety over my son's education.

That wasn't in the manual.

With all of the unsolicited advice a new parent gets, I would have thought that the sheer panic and guilt over preschool would have been mentioned some place. I still remember all of the friendly warnings about sleepless nights and colicky babies. I have in my possession notes from friends and family with tips on how to calm my fussy newborn, why they prefer cloth diapers to disposables and the best place in the neighborhood to take a "Mommy & Me" yoga class.

Nobody explained to me that I would spend an entire month running around, my son's burgeoning educational experience at stake. It really did start off innocently enough, with the simple notion that it would be fun for my son to hang out with other kids his own age a few days a week without me. We attended a few community groups and classes, but I thought that a preschool would offer a fresh and exciting environment for him, as well as a short break for me. I was not planning on sending him until the following fall, figuring I could begin finding a suitable place for him in the summer.

I was sorely mistaken.

My friends chastised me for being so naïve. They pitied me, because every decent preschool probably had a waiting list ten pages deep and would scoff at me for even attempting to enroll him at such a late date.

So, I did what any parent would do. I scrambled to set up appointments at a few different preschools. Of all the places we visited, my husband and I fell in love with one particular place. Of course, it was the school that only invited nine new students to enroll into their preschool program each year.

When we went on a tour there was a pregnant woman checking out the school with her partner. Another woman in our tour group leaned over and actually asked the pregnant woman if she was there for her baby-to-be. I gulped as I realized that we might have been out of our league. The nerves started to appear, crawling up my spine and settling in my brain. Something inside me snapped, and I wanted in now. For no coherent reason, I was determined to get my child into that school.

After touring the school and falling more and more in love with it, we were handed a packet of forms to fill out. One form included a list of open-ended questions that you had to answer about your child.

I did my best to "sell" my son, trying to figure out if they would be more impressed with the fact that he could take his own diaper off by himself with his pants still on, or that he could empty the kitchen cabinet of all my pots and pans in less than two minutes. In the end, I answered the questions to the best of my ability and hoped that would be enough.

The next three weeks of waiting were agonizing; I was calmer while waiting for my own college acceptance letter. Only a month earlier I didn't even have a clear plan for my son's education beyond which Dr. Seuss book we would be reading that day. Now I was panicking over whether he would be accepted into a preschool program for only three mornings a week. When did all reason and logic fly out the window?

It didn't help that my husband joined me on this insane ride. He was just as invested as I was. After back-to-back days of asking, the phrase "Did we get in?" was banned from the house.

The most ironic part of the whole endeavor? My son remained blissfully unaware, continuing on with his carefree toddler existence, his biggest concern stemming from the fact that we might not have enough worms in our garden. While he plotted ways to "grow" more slimy creatures, I began checking the mail compulsively, internally cursing each time some piece of junk mail got my hopes up.

Finally, during the first week of March, a letter was delivered to our home bearing the return address of the coveted preschool. I lifted the envelope up, weighing it in my hand, as if I could magically tell what the answer was from how heavy it seemed. My husband and I held our breaths as I opened up the envelope. I quickly read the first few lines before pumping my fist into the air, shouting, "We did it! We got in!!"

After allowing ourselves a few minutes of celebration (there may have been a touchdown style dance involved), I looked down to see my son staring up at me with confused eyes, a book clutched in his chubby fingers. What exactly were we celebrating, he must have wondered. I sat down and pulled him up into my lap, giving him a huge squeeze.

"Just your future," I said with a shake of my head as I opened up the book in front of us.

We had gotten swept away in this craze for the perfect preschool while he was more than content to build cities out of blocks and dust bunnies.

With little fanfare, my son shrugged his shoulders and instructed me to read, as if nothing earth-shattering just occurred. And in retrospect, he was right. We had gotten swept away in this craze for the perfect preschool while he was more than content to build cities out of blocks and dust bunnies. He has years ahead of him not only for schooling, but also to give us a few more grey hairs over stress-inducing moments such as these.

Today, my son is four-and-a-half, and just finished his second year of preschool. He has certainly picked up wonderful skills at his new school that he wouldn't have otherwise. He can count all the way till… well, to be honest he just counts and counts and at some point I may tune it out. But it's up there! He can successfully play hide and seek, gently play with a real live guinea pig, and can pour his own juice — all important life skills in my opinion.

Of course, now that he made it in and has been going for a couple of years, new doubts creep in. Did we make the right decision by sending him after all? Would he have been better off staying at home? Was there perhaps another school we overlooked?

However, the one thing that did sink in after this experience was that there's never a right answer. What works for one family might not work for another. Will knowing that help ease the anxiety that accompanies all seemingly big decisions regarding our children? Probably not. But I can at least go into the next big decision with a sense of humor and the ability to know that whatever we choose will be just fine for us.

  1. There never is just one right answer. And remember…no schooling choice is permanent. If something doesn't work out, you can always switch schools or keep him home with you =) There's really not nearly so much pressure as we put on ourselves.

    • I wish this were true for everyone. Living in a more rural area with very few school choices, and needing two full-time incomes, puts some people in a very different position.

  2. I remember when I was trying to get my bean in pre-school. I was panicking because I wanted her to go to a private school. I wanted her to follow in *my* steps. Well needless to say that with me not working, moving 3 months before school started and her shots not being up to date, none of it worked out. I was panicking! My baby is too smart to go to any *average* school. My FH didnt understand my panic and hesitation to put her in a state ran program. Then 1 week before school was supposed to start, I got her in a school. A state ran school. I settled and I am happy I did because she has excellent teachers and she is learning what she needs for Kindergarten.
    You know makes it funnier? I get questioned by other mom in her cheer team because they look down on her school. And guess what? We couldnt be happier.

  3. Even though I am not a parent, I never understood the point of an actual preschool. Up until I went to kindergarten (my sister as well) I went down the road every other day (my mum worked part time) to this older ladies house and she took care of us and a couple other children. We had games to play, she taught us some lessons. I had a great GPA all through school without preschool. I got into a great school and now have a great job.
    I think its fantastic that parents worry over their children's futre and want to send them to a great school to help with their future. My parents opted a different way for me to develop.

    • Preschool isnt required. Some parents like myself dont have the finances nor the ppl I trust to keep our kids at home. It's one of those decisions of whatever works for *that* family.

      • Preschool and pre-k can be important for kids who don't have a lot of socialization or have certain "risk factors" for their future in school. Basically it tries to level the playing field for some kids. For others, it is time for parents to have adult time or work, etc.

        There are some fantastic state and city run programs here in Albuquerque. It is hard to get into the fantastic ones, and the not-so-fantastic ones aren't un-fantastic because they're less charming or whatnot, but because they have a high rate of inspection violations. Like, "Hey teachers, we found needles in the classroom!" http://www.koat.com/news/28545222/detail.html

        …So I nearly had a breakdown while I waited to see if my son got into a quality preschool.

    • I've got a couple years before I need to think about preschool for my kid, but I do intend to send her to one. I think it used to be that neighborhoods were more kid-friendly and kids as young as 3 or 4 could hang out with the neighbor kids, or at the least parents could take them to the local park and count on finding other children there. Now it seems like the only way for kids to meet other kids is through structured programs. I'm less worried about my child getting a great job because of her preschool and more worried about her figuring out how to share toys. 😉

      • I totally understand the socializing aspect! There were several kids in our neighborhood to play with, our family never had to think about socializing via preschool. I grew up in a very small Wisconsin town where you never locked your house or car because you knew every person which made finding friends for kids easier I guess.
        Its strange, but if I had kids here in Vancouver I would have no idea how to introduce them to other kids. People around here look at me crazy if I even say hello in the hallway of our condo building.

    • I don't know if this is true country-wide or not, but in my state kids are expected to have a really specific skill set BEFORE entering kindergarten – sitting still to hear a story, sharing and taking turns, counting yp 20, their letters, colors, etc. Kindergarten is no longer the social-skills class that it was when most of us were five!

      • My state does not rqurie that but they do highly encourage it, which makes me so sad. I feel like all the pressure we put in our children to excel is not fair to them. I feel like it is not important for a preschooler to be able to sit still for half an hour, my attention span isn't even that long! 😉

      • Here is Ga, there are certain 'goals' that must be met, or at least strongly pushed, that all pre schoolers must know before going to Kindergarten. I really is sad. I know my Nene-bean loves to learn and loves her hooked-on-phonics, but I do it at her choice not forcing her.

  4. Yeah, remember that our parent's generation didn't even have kindergarten. They usually started school straight in first grade at age 6. A little one can learn everything they need to know before that age from their mama and papa =)

    • On the other hand, in our parents generation there was usually one stay-at-home parent and often more brothers and sisters.

      • I guess I am truly the odd ball out because the only ppl in my family who had a stay-at-home anything (both sides) was my great-grandparents. I have only *recently*, as in the last 3.5 yrs, known ppl to be a stay-at-home parent.

  5. The funny part about this post is that I wrote it a while ago. My son has just started his 3rd year of preschool at our local Montessori. We love it. I feel like he's getting something from it that I wouldn't provide at home, has a chance to play with kids of various ages, and he really loves it (which is the penultimate test, right?). He's only there in the mornings, so I feel like it's a great balance between being home and getting in a little school/socializing.

    I do, however, look back at my anxiety and panicking about the whole process, with a bit of humor and head shaking. Knowing what I do now, of course the worrying and nervousness over whether or not we got in wasn't necessary, but there wasn't anyone around to really tell me that.

    I think schooling is just one more arena that falls into that whole "myth of the good mother" and folks either neglect to share or actively omit their own fears and worries, leaving others to wonder about their own!

  6. Actually according to research it isn't preschool but a mother's level of education which is most like to determine a child's success in school. Getting into a 'good' pre-school is as much about gaining social capital for your child as it is about education.

    • I think personally that is craziness. My mother has a MBA and my dad has the military equilivant of a BA in carpentry and electronics. I was raised to a very prestigious private school and was ranked very high in school. I on the other hand, am only going for my cosmetology license. My choosing to only go so far in my education doesnt dictate my child's success in life. Yes, a child's enviroment contributes to the child's schooling but so does genetics, learning styles, school teaching methods and the child's ability to "want to learn".

      • Sure – but note the other things you mentioned – that both of your parents are educated and that clearly you are intelligent as well. Level of education is often an imperfect short hand for intelligence, work ethic, etc. I don't think whether you pursue a degree affects your kid's chances, but the underlying things that would have allowed you to pursue a degree had you so chosen are the things that are really underlying that study result. The environment your child will have is with a highly educated mother, regardless of eventual degree level. 🙂

        • Point proven, in my case. But there are plenty of other examples that have proven this study wrong. Look at Will Smith, P. Diddy, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z; all these ppl are very business savvy and intelligent and their beginnings were considerably less than that. And I am quite sure their are other of not so well known ppl who have excelled well past their parents educational level.

          • This type of study is almost always done survey-style, and shows trends, not individual cases. Most often, children of educated parents do better – but that doesn't mean that there aren't many exceptions to that trend.

  7. I used to think preschool was insane, but now that I have a) been to some amazing preschools and b) seen some kids who REALLY needed preschool often with blissfully unaware parents, I am a firm believer in them for some kids.

    I think one thing I love most about the preschools I have been around is their emphasis on independence and taking risks. So many children don't want to try new things these days. I remember jumping from stupidly high heights with a garbage bag cuz I thought it would be like a parachute. Also, so many kids are used to Mom and Dad doing things for them (especially eldest children because Mom and Dad aren't always sure when they can do things independently). Preschool teaches them to have confidence in themselves.

    I am not necessarily going to put my own kids in preschool, but with the ones I have seen lately, I think I will put my kid in preschool and maybe kindergarten and then pull them out to homeschool for Gr 1-9.

  8. On the note about preschool being a great way to level the playing field for some kids: I think it is kind of funny that the kids who don't necessarily need any help (children of educated people and average or higher income families) are the kids who's parents spend way more time worrying about preschool. On the other hand, the kids who COULD really benefit from the extra help (the ones who DO have those risk factors) are less likely to actually attend a preschool that would help them (either due to financial concerns, general lack of interest in education, or what have you).

    So really the playing field is not being leveled at all.

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