Preschool insanity

I feel compelled to followup on my rant earlier this week ("Kitty Couture: Money Down the Drain") by a reader reminding me that a preschool enrollment race is underway. This is especially true in New York City where 3 year-olds face heavy competition to be accepted at preschools with an annual tuition as high as $30,440. Forbes recently did a piece on the most expensive preschools in America.

It isn't the tuition that bothers me. Infinite money entitles people to whatever expenditures they choose. I don't care that by comparison to the Ethical Culture/Fieldston School rate, the preschool at New York City's prestigious Horace Mann is a more affordable...$26,880. I don't even care - although it is mystifying - that in a 2002 scandal, Smith Barney investment analyst Jack Grubman appeared to have raised the rating of a stock important to Citigroup just as the Citigroup CEO was putting in a good word for Grubman's twins at the prestigious 92ND Street Y Nursery School.


Here's what bothers me. I get nervous that more than a handful of people might actually believe that entering their three year- old in the competitive admission fray might be in his best interest. I actually know people who think this way. Let's look at what apparently goes on here.

Little Joey, who is three years old, is already involved in a range of activities. He has "play dates," has been starting Suzuki, takes ice skating lessons and already knows all his letters and his numbers up to 20! He isn't all that comfortable since he is dressed carefully in expensive clothes (including Little Marc cashmere sweaters) whenever he leaves his East Side coop. He is deeply aware that his mother and father nervously watch his behavior in fear that he might embarrass them. He would also love to do absolutely nothing, something he is almost never allowed to do.

Things are about to escalate.

Joey has had an idea for months that his parents are working on something called, "getting Joey into school." He isn't exactly sure what this means. He has been assured and reassured that preschool is going to be "a lot of fun," and that it would be a good idea to see if he could learn to write his name and maybe print his numbers a little more carefully so that he can go to a very nice school.

Soon his mother takes Joey for a so-called "play-date" at one and then another of these schools. She is all smiles and charm but her face is tight as a drum and Joey knows that she is "a little tense." The schools are nice - they have big rooms, freshly painted and shiny, gleaming gymnasiums, and everyone sings and smiles.

Weeks pass and then the dreaded news arrives in a series of envelopes. Joey has not been accepted to their first or second choice preschool. He will have to go to a school further away and less well-known. His chances of acceptance at Harvard have now been compromised. At three years old, he just hasn't made the cut, he doesn't seem to have the right stuff. Maybe if they had worked with him more, his father thinks, maybe if he didn't bite his nails he would have been accepted.

Of course, Joey's parents don't say so but they are disappointed in him and he knows it.

This is not a story about trying to get a child on the last train out of a war zone. Ultimately it usually isn't all that important that a three year-old go to a prestigious school. Do we think that the CEO interviewing him for his first position is going to want to know where he attended nursery school? Joey might, in fact, be happier and do better in a small, family run preschool where people actually like children. This is not to say that the teachers at the "finest" private schools aren't often wonderful, only that they often teach in a pressure-cooker.

There is a saying in the Waldorf Schools that goes: That tree is strongest which grows most slowly at its beginnings. Grow slowly? Imagine that.

Forbes reports that, "Kindergarten has become the new first grade," and that parents are "pushing academic learning earlier with the fear that their kids will fall behind if they don't meet major milestones like reading well before what is considered normal." Development is not a race, childhood is not the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. No good trainer will push a young horse.

What we are talking about here is burnout. We are talking about children who wind up in psychiatrists' offices and taking antidepressants in 6th grade.

For what? For nothing.

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