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The preschool bus, part two

Some responses to the previous post came in various flavors of this is not something I obsess over, including I do not worry that my kid won’t be kindergarten ready. My reason for writing this out is so I can feel that way too, so I tend to agree that my anxiety is irrational. But seeing other people be not freaked out made me wonder where my own feelings come from. It’s not like I worry about everything. You might think so, but there are in fact whole domains that I do not freak out about…

I think the yet-to-be-determined Number 4 is shaping up to have something to do with my own educational history, including the things that were going on in my family when I started school, and my feelings about my capacity versus my performance. ANYHOW! Onward.

2. I’m afraid that if I don’t vigorously seek out the best possible education for her she will be disadvantaged. And that I might be prevented from doing this not because of good reasons, of which there are plenty, but because of my extreme discomfort with the drastic change in my socio-economic position. I have gone from working class to upper middle class, and it’s a source of endless weirdness for me, of psychic whiplash.

I recently had brunch with the Lady Professors, and got to hear about how LP 1’s kid totally “failed” his “interview” at Super Uppity Preschool (the entry point to Super Uppity Private School). LP1’s child is 6 months younger than Bun Bun, and she’s been in Rabid Panic Mode about preschool for about a year. Her third-place preschool is one I am squeamish about even thinking about visiting because it’s full of Richy Riches.

I had two reactions:

1. Her level of hysteria about the whole thing is insane. One of the joys of living in Mediocre City is that we don’t HAVE to get crazy proactive to secure decent education for our children. Why live in a place like this if you’re not going to take advantage? Why CREATE the same pressure that exists for actual reasons in places like Berkeley and Manhattan? Actually, are there even children in Manhattan anymore? Probably I mean Brooklyn. Actually, by now I probably mean New Jersey.

2. She’s doing the right thing. She’s investing every particle of her being in setting her kid up for the best possible life, and that’s what we SHOULD do. Her child is going to have shitloads of opportunities and mine will pump his gas. Which is going to be SO CUTE. I hope they get little greasy overalls with their names stitched on…

I voiced neither of those reactions, because either would have left her feeling judged and offended (well, not #1. What’s offensive about that?), and the same may be true for those of you reading about it. If you feel judged or offended, bear in mind that I’m writing about how to resolve my feelings on this subject, not about your choices. And this is basically a post about having options, which may aggravate people without options. I mean, what’s more obnoxious than watching someone dither endlessly over two equally delicious slices of pie?


The crux of the matter: Why is LP1’s natural instinct to research schools and set up interviews, while my natural instinct is to hide? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. In order to figure out whether my kids will be at a disadvantage relative to kids with more proactive parents, I’d have to figure out how to procure the best possible education for them. This is virtually impossible. The best I can do is create an insanely complex algorithm that, given the child’s temperament, history, caregiver parameters ranging from SES to parenting style, massive quantities of data about each available educational option, and some lemon zest as input would output a set of recommendations: Send them to schools X, Y, and Z, and they will be maximally emotionally/socially/academically competent…with a large margin of error. It’s not like I can just opt for whatever is most expensive. Private options are not inherently superior just by virtue of being private, nor are public options superior because they’re public. You can find research to both confirm and contradict your beliefs about education, whatever they are. In short, it would be a shitload of work to amass information, and the predictive value might be quite low.

2. I’m afraid of trying to get my kids into Uppity Schools and having Uppity Schools reject them. I fear that being told my kids aren’t good enough for X would change how I see them.

3. I’m afraid that getting picky about preschool will start me off on a path that will lead to private school for their entire educations. Having kids in private school is not compatible with my social identity. I’ve managed to retain my bitterness towards rich people so far, but having a nanny has made that really hard, and I’m not sure it could survive me telling people that my kids go to Baby Phillips Academy Andover. But accepting that I’m rich would lead to a ton of guilt and shame. Not sure I can handle that.

So what to with these emotions? Honestly, I HAVE NO IDEA. I look at those numbered items and I’m just like, yeah, that is what I’m afraid of. And I SHOULD BE.

But I do think I’ve learned something. I’m not the kind of person who can take LP1’s approach. Whatever the reasons, good or bad. It’s not me. I’m not doing it. I have already chosen not to do it. The Buns will go to a convenient and good preschool, even if it’s not The Best, or they won’t. They will go to our perfectly good local public school. That takes care of the next TEN YEARS.

Panic over.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. The best I can do is create an insanely complex algorithm that, given the child’s temperament, history, caregiver parameters ranging from SES to parenting style, massive quantities of data about each available educational option, and some lemon zest as input would output a set of recommendations: Send them to schools X, Y, and Z, and they will be maximally emotionally/socially/academically competent…with a large margin of error.

    I love you. It’s so nice to know that there are other parents out there whose modus operandi towards Big Life Decisions is complex algorithms.

    February 19, 2014
  2. For me, the objectionable part about the Baby Phillips Eton Debutante craze is what I see as the underlying assumption: if a child does not have the best of everything, that child will never achieve his/her full potential, or get a good/the best education, or have a ‘good’ job, or get into the ‘right’ schools… and on and on. My life, and I suspect your life also, involved going to not the best schools (but reasonably good public schools, and a reasonably good college that gave me a scholarship, and then a pretty fancy PhD program which – crucially – paid me and provided health insurance), and yet acquiring a set of fancy degrees, a comfortable income, and a reasonably happy family. Personally, I feel the Baby Whatever approach breeds insanity, snobbish elitism, and the idea that there’s only one right path to success. I find that far more objectionable than the mere presence of wealthy people around my children. (I feel almost-lucky that the only private school within an hour of here is a right-wing Christian school and, as I’m Jewish, I don’t need to even CONSIDER sending my children there.)

    Bug is currently at the second-cheapest preschool in town (there are only six; two are pricey Montessori which I can’t afford, one is full-time-only, the cheapest one is very rigid, and the fifth is extremely Catholic). It’s fine. Every day he says “I played.” He thinks his pre-kindergarten preschool is play? Great.

    Personally, I try to remind myself of those occasional studies purporting to show that what serves children best, later in life, is resiliency and persistence. (Actually I think the one about persistence maybe claimed it was the only reliable predictor of later success?) As these are, conveniently, things I can encourage in my children (“I know this is hard but I have confidence that you can figure it out”) it permits me to confine my worry to Bug’s emotional instability rather than, you know, actual school.

    February 19, 2014
    • P.S. I don’t have any beef with fancy private schools, merely with the crazed mindset you mention, which is fortunately a non-complete overlap with parents of private-school students.

      February 19, 2014
  3. Thanks for posting these! We’re in the midst of figuring out where Tadpole will go for kindergarten next year and it’s helpful to hear that I’m not the only person who is overwhelmed by these kinds of decisions! One of the things I’ve noticed within myself is that, when I think about trying to pick the “right” school, part of what I start to consider is what I imagine other people will think when I tell them my kid goes to School X. Especially if School X ends up being a good-quality but super-expensive private school (with lots of financial aid). There’s all sorts of baggage for me there about my own class background. Plus some awareness that the “cool” thing to do around here is to send your kid to one of the local charter schools.
    I’m trying to pick a school based on what seems like the best fit for Tadpole (plus some financial considerations). But I would be lying if I said that the other stuff wasn’t also on my mind.
    For what it’s worth, I think my son has gotten a lot out of being in preschool. But most of it has been about social skills (negotiating with other kids when they both want to play with the same toy, figuring out the “rules” of an imaginary game together, etc.). And those kinds of things don’t require attending Super Snooty Preschool for the Gifted and Talented. They just require opportunities to hang out with other kids.

    February 19, 2014
  4. Oh, there are children in Manhattan. So many of them that despite our public school backgrounds and stated resistance to the crazy that is preschool here, we applied to 6 schools when B was 20 months old. And we had to write essays. And have friends write reference letters attesting to what a lovely family we are. And we were interviewed. And B had to participate in group play dates to see if he bit anyone or exhibited other signs of being poorly socialized. It was ridiculous, especially b/c then we got into all six schools and realized that the whole thing was ridiculous.

    If you don’t have to do this ridiculous exercise, don’t. It was a pain in the ass. The kids will be just fine. Really. I didn’t go to school until I was 4 and then went to public school all the way but still managed to go to fancy east coast college and two fancy ivy league grad schools. My Canadian husband didn’t start school until he was 5 and also did just fine.

    February 19, 2014
  5. Huh. Well, I do send my kids to private school. My son is a special snowflake and a private school in town meets those needs. I wish I’d been able to go to a school like his.

    I am the product of public schools and similarly lower SES (we always had food and shelter and eventually bought a house, just not money for extras like VHS or microwave or Atari)– my mom always worked and my dad spent a good portion of his married life unemployed or underemployed. All my life I’ve been wanting to get into the upper middle class and not have to worry about money. Education has been the way that I’ve gotten there. I was fortunate to go to a public magnet school for high school that changed everything.

    My kids don’t need that as much. They don’t need to be as ambitious. They’ll have a lot more second chances. I don’t have to push them as hard. (But still, I can send my children to private school if that’s what meets their needs, and I do.)

    Research supports this idea that once you’re already higher SES prestige is less important– top colleges help poor kids and underrepresented minorities, but don’t seem to affect well-off kids. They do just as well (at least in terms of income) at the state schools.

    I totally satisfice for preschool. There are a lot of very good preschools. We care about our kids being happy at preschool more than anything else. Even the year we were living in one of those fancy cities with the 2K/month preschools with the entrance exams we didn’t try to get in because their waitlists were full even before we even knew we’d be living there. The nice middle-class religious preschool we ended up with (only(!) 1200/mo) was fantastic. Spanish instead of French, and tumbling instead of yoga, (and the occasional happy meal on a field trip…) but still with supportive cuddly teachers and a good culture. He had a blast and learned a lot. I don’t think he would have gotten more at one of the fancy daycares, just different things.

    So I dunno. There really is a lot of class stuff associated with these issues. But there’s a lot of reasons that private schools K-12 and specific university matches can be good or bad for individuals regardless of their class. And preschool– there’s only so much to do with those hours in the day and kids need exercise and activity, and there’s only so much that a preschool can push into that time… even the super fancy ones can’t be that great compared to the good ones. I worry about a lot of things, but competitive preschool is not one of them.

    February 19, 2014
  6. Nicky #

    I hear you on the rich people, I’d rather not have my children associate with materialistic, competitive jerks. I’m sure there are some lovely, kind rich people, but I think the supply of bad’uns might be greater at uber-fancy Baby U.

    So, hooray for the last paragraph of your post!

    My boys went to the Montessori preschool for all of the socialization and life skills reasons mentioned previously, and because it’s 1 mile from our house and really about the same price as every other preschool. C1 is in 1st grade at a Core Knowledge Charter School because it is 2 blocks from our house, and starts at 8:30 am (more sleep, yay!). You’re a concerned, involved parent, and your kids will do well wherever they go.

    My mother was the 2nd of 3 children, all born within 3 years, to a severely depressed mother. In kindergarten she woke herself, dressed, got breakfast, and got off to school by herself without my grandma ever getting out of bed. She went to crowded, mediocre schools, got married at 20 and had my brother at 21, and me at 22. Then, she went back to school full-time for accounting while working full-time and raising a 4 and a 5 year old (with the help of my grandparents as backup babysitters). She got nearly all A’s and has had a very successful career as a CPA. Schools matter so much less than people think.

    I’m with Jenny in the encouraging persistence and resilience. Though I really need to find a book on encouraging resilience, C1 could use a bit more in his life. Sometimes I wonder if the constant stress of my prelim while I was pregnant altered his brain chemistry… Then I look at my husband and think, “Nope, C1 gets it from him.”

    February 19, 2014
    • Mindset by Carol Dweck. There’s a chapter specifically on how to encourage growth mindsets in children. (Growth mindsets being one of the keys to resilience and grit.)

      (Schools aren’t the only thing that matter, but schools *do* matter, on average. That’s why it is so important to make sure that everybody has access to high quality education, especially people who don’t have advantages at home.)

      February 19, 2014
      • Nicky #

        Thank you for the suggestion! I’m looking into it now.

        I should have been clearer: the perfect school matters much less for wealthy, anxious parents of normal children. I’m a big believer in low-income/disadvantaged kids having access to good schools and free preschool/4k. The research supporting that is abundantly clear.

        February 20, 2014
      • Mom of 2 #

        I agree–that’s why, if parents think public schools need improvement, they should put their resources towards making good schools for all and not paying for private school for their select few.

        February 20, 2014
      • Ah, now that’s an argument I saw on one of these blogs not too long ago, but it’s a bad argument. Why limit to parents? Why shouldn’t everybody have to make schools better? Why should parents make their individual children suffer while things are getting fixed? What about kids who are outliers and thus just an additional problem (cost) for the local school?

        No, it’s a lame judgmental argument. I can support public schools (and it wouldn’t be public schools in my city, they have plenty of money) while still sending my kids to private schools. I can support public schools without having kids at all! I could also direct my volunteer efforts to mosquito netting in Africa. There’s nothing that says just because I have children that my volunteer activity has to be limited to my local public school system. Especially when there are public schools more in need of my funds, and other charities equally in need of my time, effort, and money.

        February 20, 2014
    • Nicky #

      I should mention, I do have a cousin who is poor, materialistic, and a jerk. They don’t have money for health insurance, but by God, their kids are going to fancy Catholic private school.

      February 20, 2014
  7. Mom of 2 #

    I’m a proud product of Calif public schools and I fully intend to send my kids to same. Right now they’re at a quality daycare/preschool center that emphasizes play. I am adamantly opposed to private school and gate the assumption that they’re better. In Calif a teacher at a private school doesn’t even need to be credentialed. Plus I hate religious indoctrination and hence am very opposed to school vouchers.

    I was in the mentally gifted minors program and skipped 3rd grade. All to say hopefully my kids inherited that. But I don’t think public school stifled me nor do I think it will harm my kids. I might feel differently if we lived in Watts or something–not that I know anything about how good that school system is.

    Oh, and I hate parents who choose to pay for expensive private schools selling raffle tickets etc. to support the school.

    February 19, 2014
  8. I felt the same about private (which mostly equates to religious) schools too – public all the way!

    Until I got some work at the Reggio Emilia school my aunty founded, fell in love, and she was able to get us a significant discount on the fees.

    So yeah, we’re now going to be snobby private school people after all.

    And I was pretty high strung about the whole school decision thing too – it seems like such a BIG DEAL. Except then I realized it really isn’t, because Monkey can always change schools if the one he’s at doesn’t suit him. So there’s that. Its not as permanent a decision as it feels.

    February 20, 2014
  9. Preschool readiness is also a hot topic around these parts. I am too involved to have an opinion. But hey, I found something with pie charts that made me think of you.

    February 20, 2014
  10. ana #

    So interesting to see your thought process. I didn’t mean to be flippant in my reply to your last post, I definitely have similar contradicting messes of emotions and worries in my head, but basically came to the same conclusion as you at the end of it all without any self-awareness about it at all, it seems!

    February 20, 2014
  11. This post brings up SO MANY FEELINGS. First of all, and I know you know this, the Buns are going to be fine. You are bringing them up in an academically oriented home and you are going to be involved in their schooling. But it’s so easy to go down that rabbit hole (sorry) of anxiety. It’s like tunnel vision — “if I don’t get this ONE THING right, my kid will be RUINED.”

    But you are doing great.

    February 21, 2014
  12. twangy #

    My (admittedly limited) experience has led me to believe that good parenting CAN (maybe, in some cases) make up for a (moderately) shite education. I point to my lovely husband who went to a decrepit rural CBS school in the ’90s which fell apart the year after he left (because the head (a Christian brother!) ran off with the German teacher (a woman!) TWAS THE TALK OF THE TOWN), but because he did TWO HOURS of maths every night in the school holidays with his father, ended up being all brilliant and a PhD. I went to a posh semi-private school where I lazed about devoid of even a modicum of ambition and am now a flakey artist. QED: something..?

    February 21, 2014
  13. theurbanjunglegym #

    Okay, so I went to Fancy East Coast Boarding School for high school. And then Ivy League College for, you know, college. I’m now at Competitive But Not Top 15 doctoral program. And I’m probably going to wind up unemployed when I defend next year. Partly because the job market sucks for the humanities, but also most likely partly because I never learned how to do that valuable “networking” thing that all the cool kids do thanks to my chronic insecurity.

    This all leaves me terribly torn because, first of all, I don’t want my children to have the hideous self-doubt that I’ve had all my life, the imposter’s syndrome, the conviction that–despite advanced degrees and a stable life–I’m not one of the success stories. And I certainly don’t want to be one of those parents who lives vicariously through their children’s achievements and says things like “We’re applying to Harvard.”

    But…my time at Fancy East Coast Boarding School was also the most enriching, enlightening, wonderful educational experience of my life. I was exposed to so much, encouraged to attempt so much. I still keep in touch with my mentor and I hope one day to follow his career path and have the kind of influence over generations of students that he did. If we can afford to give my kids that opportunity (and we probably can’t unless I teach there one day, which is a seriously competitive gig), I would jump at it.

    Yeah, but none of this really matters for us for preschool, since we’re sending Smudgie to the cheapest option we have– the subsidized school at my university for the children of grad students. Which I got him on the waiting list for when he was 6 months old. (And which, coincidentally, is in Manhattan. Though we are in Brooklyn).

    February 21, 2014
  14. Your post made me wonder how one fails the admission test for a preschool. But then, my parents wanted to send me to [public, very common and supposedly high quality where I’m from] school a year early, and I was asked to draw a person. My picture showed a head with limbs. No early school for me. I later skipped one year of high school just to show them because I had figured out what I wanted to do next and am not exactly known for my patience. (I ended up doing something else, but never mind.) So, don’t worry. The buns will be fine.

    February 23, 2014
  15. mmmm…pie.
    Or pie charts.
    Equally delicious.

    I am SO GLAD you are not taking LP1’a approach. It would drive you up the wall. And then you’d have to stop teaching and researching and just worry about preschools and do yoga to counterbalance the stress of it all. LP1 might be developing a nervous condition as we speak (although I do not wish that on her). And you are not.

    Thoughts on points 1, 2, and 3.

    1 – this point makes me think of this TED talk. Maybe I’ve already told you about it, but it’s just a good reminder that too many choices makes us unhappy

    2- I find your fear valid, especially in light of what you know about the brain. But I also believe that you would react with fierce protectiveness of your brilliant children, because you have amazing mama bear instincts.

    3- There is so much to unpack in that one, darling. Once again, I am awed by your courage to look directly at the tough issues in your own psyche, and understand how they are impacting your here and now.

    February 23, 2014
  16. Blurgh. I’m tied in knots over this kind of stuff too. Not pre-school per se, because Moose is already in a good, non-fancy center with preschool classrooms that seem to just play all day. But it comes to the fore with residential decisions. We’re probably going to have to move, so do we move to the fancy public school district (top 100 in the country, whatever that means) in the burbs? Or one with good-enough stats but facing a shrinking student pool amid a large geographic area — what’s that going to do to budgets and offerings? I still feel weird that I don’t do my own oil changes anymore. Throwing my privilege around by accessing the fancy schools feels like a bridge too far. But, then again, why should my kids have to stand on my soap-box about class inequality. *sigh*

    February 24, 2014
  17. Misfit #

    I have been hiding in a winter hole. Catching up. I read somewhere that you can spend $500k on getting your kid to graduate before going to college. I feel all kinds of conflicted. I just don’t feel that getting a pass into uppity world is a life lesson. Struggling with tough bits on your education is more like real life. Rainbows, unicorns and fancy crap is not. I feel like you are doing the right thing. A more expensive school will not make your kid smarter. Happier? Maybe. But learning to BE happy without money and glorious elementary schools with astronaut prep is a life lesson. Getting to be the right stuff with a few challenges makes the first moon mission that much sweeter, no?

    March 6, 2014
  18. I have zero constructive advice – pretty sure what we have in the way of your preschool is kindergarten, which is just playdough and fingerpainting at the local council-run place for a few inconvenient hours a week. That or childcare. Or an Early Learning Centre at a private school, but they’re not competitive, as far as I know, and not considered essential. Yet.
    Having said that, the anxiety etc. has already begun for some people about places for Prep (i.e. the first year of formal schooling). There is definitely an element of public v. private, and although the majority of people seem to be happy sending their kids to the local public primary school, that sometimes means buying a house (or doing dodgy short-term rental deals) in order to have proof-of-address inside the zones of the ‘good’ ones.
    Secondary schooling is another level altogether. Where we live, there are no public high schools. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that the kid has been on waiting lists for two private secondary schools near us for about a year already, to start in 2023. I wish I was joking. We cannot afford these schools. Maybe he’ll get a scholarship? (I went to a private school, for lack of other options, but for a couple of years there I took a cheque for my fees in to the bursar’s office once a fortnight because my parents couldn’t afford the lump sum at the beginning of term. I was a poor kid in a rich school, and I’m not sure how I feel about putting my kid through that.)
    My biggest issue, though, is not where he’ll go to school, but when. He’ll turn 5 a couple of weeks into the new school year, but there will be kids his age who won’t go until the next year. I feel like he’ll be ready academically when he’s 4, but what about physically/socially/emotionally?
    I wrote a blog post in your comments. Sorry.

    March 13, 2014

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