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Jewish World Review July 26, 2005 / 19 Tammuz 5765

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

Preschools put too much pressure on children | It's mid-summer, but August and school loom, and so does the truth that I have only one more year of having a preschooler — Olivia just turned 4. One year. That's it. (This fall the older three will be in school full time.)

But, are there even such things as the "preschool" years anymore? I mean "pre"-school means ... before school age, right? Well, it used to.

Whereas when I was a kid, only about 5 percent of children went to preschool, today about two-thirds of America's 3- and 4-year-olds will attend such programs. Now, I would think this was just fine if we were talking about playing with clay, having cookie breaks and nap times. But no. These days, even preschool is intense.

So I wasn't surprised to see a Wall Street Journal article this week titled "Preschoolers' Prep: Courses Help Kids Get Ready for Kindergarten, Which is Like First Grade Used to Be." The article chronicled the increasingly popular and intense learning and tutoring programs like those found at Score Educational and Sylvan Learning Centers — which cater to ever-more preschoolers with hourlong sessions, including flashcards, workbooks, drills and a semi-private tutor.

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I have to (hope to?) believe such things are a little more common on the coasts. Just before we moved to Chicago from Northern Virginia last fall, my then-kindergartener Madeleine had a few weeks of public school there. The kids were expected to hit the ground ready-to-read and by the end of the year they were supposed to be up and running with their junior books. It was intense.

But when she arrived at her new school in early October, Madeleine entered what I call "real kindergarten." Here, the kids have "the letter people" to help them learn letters and sounds, and they take care of eggs in an incubator in the classroom until the baby chicks hatch and they count to 100 and color pictures and it's a grand total of 2.5 hours a day. Madeleine loved it.

She's not a "functional reader," as it's called, as the contemporaries she left behind in Virginia may be now, and that's fine with me. She will be by the middle of first grade, if not sooner. There's a reason for that. Children's brains reach a physical level of maturity that allows them to more readily "click" into reading, typically around 6-1/2.

Historically, this has been intuitively understood, which is why reading has usually not been taught to 4-year-olds.

Professor David Elkind, the author of "The Hurried Child," says that skills like math and reading are acquired in stages, and those stages are directly related to age.

Learning letters early from "Sesame Street," for instance, doesn't mean a child will read any earlier than he's developmentally able to. Elkind quotes Friedrich Froebel, a renowned educator of a century ago, who said, "Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words."

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In fact, Elkind continues, the soundest way to inculcate skills for a lifetime (and presumably not to unnecessarily frustrate or turn a child off to learning in the process) is to teach children at the right developmental ages.

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that any cognitive advantage that preschooled kids have over non-preschooled peers usually disappears within just a few years. Meanwhile, with preschool attendance way up, recess time and just general free time for school-aged kids are way down from what they were just 20 years ago.

Why do we do this to our kids? Are we pushing them so hard for them — or for us? Or do we get too intimidated by experts who seem to tell us that if we don't get little Junior on the fast track now, we'll ruin his chance at getting into Harvard and his chance at a perfect life.

I like to say that my goal for my children isn't Harvard — it's heaven. Now, if they pass through Harvard on their way to heaven (and believe me, there's no evidence they are headed toward the former), that's great. But I honestly believe that if I make my goal for them Harvard, I will have failed them.

So then, what about my youngest and preschool? Well, there's a little "Mothers Day Out" program at a church a few blocks from us. Two mornings a week, the kids cut and color and paste and have a snack and they love it. It's our speed. Harvard can wait.

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"It Takes a Parent : How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It"  

"Hart urges parents to focus...on instilling industry, frugality, sincerity and humility. She encourages parents to reclaim the word "no." Contrary to advice you may have received, you needn't give your child choices, or offer alternatives, or explain to little Suzie why she can't eat eight cookies right before bed-you're the parent, and sometimes you can just say no."

  —   Kirkus Reports

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JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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