My head hurts after reading some of the recent press about Nicole Imprescia, the New York City parent who sued York Avenue Preschool for $19,000 for the school’s alleged failure to properly prepare her 4 year old daughter for the standardized test (the so-called ERB test) that is administered by the Educational Records Bureau for admissions into NYC’s most elite elementary schools. Yes, you read that right: her daughter is 4 years old.
In a nutshell, Ms. Impresciabased on the preschool’s purported misrepresentations about what it would do to educate her daughter in advance of the admissions tests. For damages, it appears that she wants a tuition refund and attorney’s fees (of course). Is it just me, or is this helicopter parenting at its worst? I’m not talking about parents who help their high school children navigate college admissions, nor do I have a problem with private or preparatory type schools in general (although I often wonder about the class divide they seem to foster). What I am focusing on is this notion of worrying about the path to college when there are sippy cups and strollers still kicking around the house.
To me–wearing my lawyer hat here–this type of lawsuit seems flawed on so many levels (and, to be perfectly blunt, completely asinine). First, there does not seem to be any merit to her claims. I have not yet been able to get my hands on a copy of the complaint, but considering that Ms. Imprescia reportedly pulled her daughter out of the school only a few short weeks after the start of her second year at the school (indeed, why not the first?), and considering that her little one had not yet even taken the ERB test (and ergo hasn’t had a chance to “fail” yet), how can she claim that the school failed to do what it proposed to do? She doesn’t even know yet.
Not to mention, Ms. Imprescia is not exactly giving her daughter (or herself!) a lot of credit. Who knows? She might actually have enough smarts to pass the test with her own innate strengths. Indeed, ERB gives a little sampling (see pages 11-14) of the types of questions that might be asked of the Pre-K through 1st grade set. Personally, I don’t think that these types of questions are necessarily in need of a fancy dancy preparatory preschool. A little parenting elbow grease maybe (if acing these kinds of tests is your thing), although I am pretty sure that most of us can handle teaching our kids about what money is used for and the purpose of a bed.
Second, did Ms. Imprescia really not get what she bargained for? She makes bones about how her daughter was left with the heathens 2 and 3 year olds in what she claims was essentially a “big playroom” where the younger kids were merely learning things like shapes and colors, and, by implication, her daughter was left blowing in the breeze, her brain slowly rotting away. Oh no. Not that! I’m sorry, but I cannot fathom how she can sustain this lawsuit when the York Avenue Preschool’s curriculum is clearly spelled out, and it goes way beyond sitting at a desk to cram for passing a test that, for your typical 4 or 5 year old, would otherwise largely depend on whether a nap was in order, that their little belly was full enough and that their little brother didn’t just throw a toy truck at him in the car on the way to the test.
Either way, even if what she claims is true (that her four year old daughter was placed in a classroom with 2 and 3 year olds, which, to her credit, is arguably not what she signed up for based on how the curriculum and classroom structure are explained on the website), I imagine there will be very few on the jury who ultimately will find that Ms. Imprescia’s daughter was somehow disadvantaged. Given that the school has probably been doing the same thing for years and years with other kids who have done well on the ERB test and beyond, and considering the likely pool of jurors to be empaneled, I think it will be hard to convince a jury that Ms. Imprescia was injured. I would also hedge my bets that the York Avenue Preschool was not naive enough to guarantee any specific test scores or admission to any of the elite schools that parents want their children to attend, and this is probably one of the defenses that will best defeat the claim.
Moreover, I wonder whether Ms. Imprescia has actually stepped inside a quality preschool classroom recently. They are vibrant and full of learning experiences that go far beyond mastering numbers and the ABC’s, experiences that help teach children how to maneuver in organized society. These classrooms teach children how to take turns, wait patiently in line, keep one’s hands to herself, understand acceptable boundaries of personal space, appreciate and tolerate differences among ourselves and otherwise become good citizens. Sure, these lessons can be taught at home too–I did not go to preschool but, thanks to my mom, I still learned that I shouldn’t bite my brother when I want something from him. But there are certain things that a group environment lends itself to teaching differently and in a way that makes it easier for some kids to grasp than in a non-group/non-classroom setting or from a book. There is something also to be said for reinforcing what an older kid already knows and boosting their self-confidence by way of multi-age classrooms and the ability for older children to “teach” the younger kids, especially by way of example. Indeed, multi-age classes are part of the allure and success of the Montessori method of teaching (although the York Ave Preschool is not a Montessori school), and I’ve seen the benefits of multi-age classrooms just by watching my own daughter in her preschool (which is also not a Montessori school). I also question whether Ms. Imprescia (and others like her) have considered the value of play-based learning. (Check out what Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has to say about this subject–when M was first born I enjoyed Einstein Never Used Flashcards ) Based on her lawsuit, I doubt it.
This case also strikes me as being nothing but a huge waste of judicial and civic resources, primarily for the reasons stated above. And if it was done to create a shakedown and generate bad press for the school so that it would ultimately settle the case, then I am not so sure that she is gaining any ground considering the amount of negative public response that has been published in recent days. I often wish that the parents who buy (or litigate) their way to a “better” life for their child would instead stick around and help put those resources toward improving one of the root causes of this whole predicament: the state of many of our mediocre (or worse) public schools. Not only does avoiding the real underlying problem create a further divide between the have’s and the have-not’s, but I think it is cheating our society at large of the next generation of individuals who will one day become our political leaders, writers, caretakers, artists, athletes, grocery store managers, teachers and the myriad other roles that a community requires. I am not suggesting that Ms. Imprescia needs to make an example of sending her daughter to a failing school or otherwise become a martyr to prove a point, but what I am suggesting is that people who obviously have the financial means and/or the chutzpah to challenge the status quo are exactly the kinds of folks that would be able to bring something to the table and effect some meaningful change for the greater good. I wish there were more of these individuals visible in our public schools rather than driving the opposite direction.
Finally, my understanding (from another report) is that the school has parents sign a contract that states that tuition is non-refundable. If this is the case, then reading comprehension is clearly not one of Ms. Imprescia’s strengths. From the school’s standpoint, this type of provision makes complete sense. Otherwise, the school would inevitably be exposed to countless refund requests after little Johnny or little Susie failed to get into the elite kindergarten or elementary school of their parents’ choice. Because, you know, there are absolutely no regular run-of-the-mill public school kids who attend Harvard and Yale (insert sarcasm). The case also raises an interesting legal question about the injury itself and who is the real plaintiff here. Yes, Ms. Imprescia paid for the tuition, but her daughter was ultimately the intended beneficiary. Or was it actually Ms. Imprescia herself? Interesting issue.
Which leads me to my primary problem with this whole mess–wearing my parent hat here–and the other similar kinds of pressures that parents and society place on very young children. Perhaps I am still hot under the collar about the whole Tiger Mom thing, but I really cannot understand where some parents are coming from when it comes to pushing for elite outcomes in early childhood academics. Yes, of course we all want our children to succeed and have access to many different opportunities throughout life. But defining, and in turn demanding, “success” is where I seem to lose common ground with other parents of young children who are wringing their hands about how their 3 or 4 year old spends the day and how it will impact their college applications (or whatever else they might dream).
The conflict is not verbalized of course, but when I compare our laid back, just hang out and be approach with that of the pressure cooker parents, I am often left feeling like the Bart Simpson of parents. On several recent occasions, I have found myself lightyears behind the eight ball when it comes to the sense of urgency of planning for an event that is at least eighteen years away. No, we haven’t really thought too much about trying to get M into kindergarten early (she misses the cutoff by one week in our district). Hmm, that 9AM ballet class might really cut into the unstructured time that M and her dad get to have together on Saturday mornings–time that is already limited because of work. Nope, she’s not taking any classes or playing any sports right now. Not just two days ago I had someone essentially criticize me because we haven’t signed M up for soccer yet. Seriously? Heck, even Mia Hamm didn’t fall in love with the sport until she was six.
I don’t mean to single Ms. Imprescia out, but she makes it easy to do so with this particular sound bite. I must assume her (and even the Tiger Mom’s) heart is in the right place, that she’s just trying to give her daughter the best start. That’s what most parents are trying to do. But what’s to become of these parents who later find out that their child wants to be a ski instructor or a nurse or an interior designer or any other role that does not require a degree from Harvard? That the child wants to do something that makes the child happy? I imagine that they will feel some sense of loss and disappointment, and quite possibly some resentment. I personally don’t want to set myself up for that kind of feeling toward my child, but more importantly, I do not want to create guilt, resentment, pressure or some other equally unhealthy feeling on the part of my daughter.
Even living in this competitive global economy world, I don’t agree that achievement and happiness–mine or M’s–should be measured by A’s and B’s, Ivy League diplomas or racing up the corporate ladder to grab a fat paycheck. This is where I differ with the Tiger Mom and her ilk. Life is too short to have that be the only yardstick.
Admittedly, it’s hard not to get caught up from time to time when I encounter seemingly anxious parents and they trigger a bit of worry. Like whether we should be looking for a different preschool, especially when almost half of her class cleared out this past fall to go to other schools. I’d be lying if I said I don’t get a twinge of second guessing when I tell other parents that she’s still not in a ballet class yet. These kinds of parking lot discussions sometimes make me wonder on the drive home whether we’re not doing something we’re “supposed to” be doing, like when I hear that some kids are already reading in her classroom.
But then I catch myself and remind myself of what I think are her father’s and my primary role is in M’s life. And also that she’s only three and a half. And that she tells really great stories (future writer?), she knows the difference between cilantro and sorrel because we hang out and garden (future botanist?), and she has found at least four different uses for our toilet paper rack to incorporate into her play (future engineer?). She’s enjoying just being a kid, full of wonder, and that’s plenty for me. In my mind, as long as we give her ample opportunities to explore and learn through play, teach her how to be a kind and compassionate person, let her decide what interests her (and what doesn’t) and, down the road, support her when she tries to reach her goals later in life, then we’ve done our job. So, as hard as it may be sometimes, I try to find confidence in myself that by letting M spend hours on end playing dolls or trains instead of shuttling her between this class or that practice, that somehow I am ultimately helping M to realize her dreams, not mine.
This post is dedicated to all of those parents who boldly shrug off the competitiveness that drives so much of today’s parenting of very young children, and who let their children be children because they know that their kids will find their own paths to happiness, no matter how long it takes to get there and no matter where they end up.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
Mini marshmallows. Tiny. White. Unassuming. Squishy. Vague vanilla aroma. Always playing second fiddle to the likes of gooey, melty chocolate and graham crackers.
But, oh, what power this itty bitty confection has over my little one. It is the currency of many a preschooler. And, for good or for bad, in recent months it has turned out to be the motivator supreme in our household.
Indeed, I am living the cliche. Doing things that I said I never would as a parent . . . that is until I actually became a parent and saw the error of my kid-free thinking ways. In this case, using food (just marshmallows, really) to bribe motivate and encourage my lovely little daughter into doing things that,
#1: I know she can if she puts her mind to it, and
#2: I know I don’t have the patience or stomach for taking the long, self-satisfying-in-its-own-right approach.
I always avowed not to use food as a motivation strategy. I suppose I was worried about what long-term damage I was doing by using food as a reward system. I don’t have to look much further than in the mirror to know where that can lead.
But here I am . . . occasionally making withdrawals from the bank of marshmallows that we keep stashed in the cupboard to nudge M in the direction we’d like to her go, just without a lot of drama, thank you very much.
Perhaps the reason it has worked so well is that we really don’t break out the bag of mini-marshmallows unless we’re trying to make some serious headway without a lot of conflict or pomp and circumstance. We don’t use them for stopping inappropriate behavior like the occasional meltdown situation or curbing whining. We also don’t use them to reward her for doing routine things, like her daily “chores” which meagerly consist of putting the cloth napkins in the laundry after dinner, picking up her toys and feeding the cat. I suppose our philosophy on that is that we’re all part of the household, and we each do things to help make it a nice place to live, unwind and play. Heck, no one gave me a chocolate bar (my preferred culinary currency) when I cleaned the hair out of the drain. If they had, we’d have much cleaner sinks.
But there are some things that, while I am sure she could do them with a lot of loving and persistent encouragement from us over many weeks, I just don’t have the energy for it. Turns out I am not necessarily one who needs to make each of M’s life ordeals into a glowing life lesson about finding inner confidence and self-motivation. I’m sure the Tiger Mom would have something to say about that! Two recent cases in point. First, getting her to always use the big toilet instead of her little plastic one. After more than a year of cleaning that little thing out, I was pretty much over the excitement of it all. Second, ending the bad habit of her coming into our bed at night and us indulging the request, EVERY night, since she’s been born (minus a 6 month stretch that I still wish I could figure out what magic made her sleep all night in her own bed those months!) and getting her to sleep on a sleeping bag on our bedroom floor if she wants to come in our room. Those little size 9 feet were just kicking me too much to make the whole family bed thing seem bearable any longer. Not to mention . . . I never knew little kids could have morning breath. Yikes.
Now, mind you, we had suggested changes in these directions for months before. But of course there was some whining, shifty delay tactics, and flat out refusal. Just so happens that the 3 to 4 year old set is pretty crafty in making deals and I am increasingly meeting my match, which probably does not say much for me considering my current profession. This is when I usually curse her preschool teachers for teaching the kids how to find common ground and negotiate better terms. Those skills really should be limited to who gets a turn with the blocks first!
Then things like holidays or sickness enter the picture and it sometimes seems unfair to rip the rug out from underneath what has largely been a smoothly running machine. And past experience tells us that stickers and charts don’t work with her. I mean really, can I blame her? If her father or I only got a Hello Kitty sticker each time we did a load of laundry, well let’s just say there’d be a LOT less laundry to fold around here and we’d need bigger hampers. Cold hard cash just doesn’t mean much to her at this age either, although I imagine that we will be broke when she’s a teenager.
Enter the lowly mini marshmallow. There is something about this tiny treat that just moves her. For the big toilet transition, the deal we struck was (while leaving the little potty out so she could actively choose to be part of the change), she got 1 marshmallow for each time she peed on the porcelain throne, and two marshmallows for each time she . . . again, we’re dealing with preschool logic: you get 1 for #1 and 2 for #2. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, as the saying goes. I think it took all of two days before she completely forgot about the little plastic potties. She had found marshmallow nirvana. Although, looking back, it does seem like she was drinking a whole lot more water to drive up the number of visits to the bathroom . . . hmmm. Same for the sleeping bag transition. She’s been going strong for more than 10 days, and I think it’s only cost me 5 mini marshmallows out of pocket to seal the deal.
The best part? She usually forgets about the extortion reward system within less than a week and eventually doesn’t remember to ask for marshmallows.
So, the lessons here are, #1, why did I not do these things sooner?!
But, more importantly, #2, sometimes you just have to go with what works and what makes life easier, even if you are essentially partaking in blatant bribery. Hey. . . I signed up to be a mom, not Mother Theresa. After about 5 minutes primarily to convince myself much serious concentrated thought, I really couldn’t find a meaningful or philosophical difference between marshmallows and money and stickers (and if one exists, please don’t burst my marshmallow flavored bubble). If I gave her money because it motivated her, she’d want to buy something with it…which is not always in line with my personal simple living goals, so where would that leave me? Moreover, I am probably not far off the mark in saying that most people go to their job (myself included) because they get a paycheck, not because it is so overwhelmingly personally satisfying. Otherwise, there’d be a heck of a lot more volunteers around! And stickers are really no different to the extent that they also represent something tangible in exchange for something largely intangible. Although I find it hard to imagine I’d still be struggling to wear a smaller pant size if I had gone through life heading down the sticker aisle at the craft store after a bad day at work, especially if they still made those oily stickers from the ’80s!
So, we will use the mini marshmallow while it still works. Not for everything, just some things. It forms the basis of a very straightforward deal, cut and dry. And slightly squishy. But once little Miss Negotiator finds out about JUMBO marshmallows, I’m in trouble.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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