After a good friend pointed out an inconsistency to me, I edited this post slightly to make my point in a way that does not try to single out a small handful of people I know or make inaccurate or speculative generalizations. The change is in the 4th paragraph. -KMP 12/12/12
So, as you know from this post, M switched preschools in mid-September. When we toured the school before enrolling, we were informed that the school has a very minor religious component to it once a week, comprised of the kids singing songs about Jesus and hearing stories of the overriding message of love, peace and joy that he championed. Despite our household non-religious leanings, we loved the school for its overall approach to fostering a learning and play-based environment, among other things (read: FABULOUS teachers!). So much so that we essentially overlooked the religious part. I mean, we knew what we were getting ourselves into when making the conscious decision to enroll at a school that had a portion of its curriculum at a polar opposite of our perspective. Indeed, our other options at that late stage were quite limited. Nonetheless, we were excited to enroll and hoped for the best. Besides, it’s only for one school year.
Now that M’s got a solid 3 months under her belt, I thought I’d share our experience so far.
I guess the most striking thing to me, at this point, was how much I was preoccupied and tentative about what M would be potentially hearing from the school, rather than the friends and families that also attend. To put it bluntly, I completely missed the mark at how much other folks involved at the school would openly integrate God or Jesus into conversation, or how much religion plays a part in their non-school lives.
Before enrolling here, aside from three very discrete exceptions within my circle of friends, colleagues and family, the balance of my personal exposure to people who self-identify as “religious” or some specific, faith-based equivalent (i.e. Jewish, Catholic, etc.) is that I have observed that they attend church on one or two of the major holidays (at best), and maybe participate in some of the sacraments like baptism. Moreover, this majority certainly does not weave threads of any religious participation or beliefs into conversation, and most disclose one way or another (either explicitly or implicitly) that they do not attend religious services, retreats or classes on a regular basis. Does this mean that they do not go or otherwise participate on some level? Of course not, and I don’t purport to know the ins and outs of people’s personal lives. But certainly given my leanings, it means that any daily discourse or exposure regarding religion has otherwise been nonexistent for me.
Sure, our prior school was a secular/corporate one, with extended hours and geared towards families that need a variety of drop-off times/schedules, so it was a completely different animal. You barely saw other parents due to varied drop-off times, let alone had time to learn about their philosophical worldview. In hindsight, I took that ability to fit in seamlessly for granted.
Because now, even though we were told that there are some families that are not Christian at the school, I am fairly certain that I am one of the few, if not the only person, that does not believe in a god of any kind. Moreover, this assumption of a lowest common denominator (that is, that everyone at the school must at least be aligned with some sort of god-based religion even if it is not Christianity) seems to be understandably pervasive among the families. This has made some social situations sticky for me.
Here’s a recent example. I was in the parking lot with one of the other parents from M’s class and we were talking about Kindergarten for next year and what schools the girls will end up at. We are choosing to stick with the neighborhood public school for M. They live in another part of our city where their neighborhood school doesn’t quite cut the mustard and so they will be entering the school lottery, with M’s prospective school being their number one choice. I said something to the effect of “oh, well I hope that it works out that our girls are in the same school!” (they play together often during the day, and I know M would appreciate a familiar face next year given her hesitancy about the school environment to being with). Then this parent replied with something along the lines of “Well, it’s in God’s hands now. It’s his plan where she will end up.”
Now, part of me thinks to myself, that’s fine if she wants to think that is how the order of the world works. But then another (larger) part of me thinks that I should somehow be dispelling the notion that I agree with this sentiment, not because I want to pick fights or tell her I think she is wrong, but because I don’t want to lead her on or have her think that I have been lying to her all this time (we Atheists get a bad enough rap already, so I don’t want to add “liars” to the list!). I mean, we were having an otherwise pleasant conversation (which, as I talk about below, is so refreshing after where we came from) why go and inject some vitriol into it? Is it necessary? And if so, for whom? Me? Her? I haven’t really figured this out yet.
These questions play out in similar fashion when the Christmas play or a teacher/parent committee meeting begins with a prayer. I know the director of the school is aware of our point of view, and by this time, I would be surprised if the teachers haven’t heard of it through the rumor mill, but I’m fairly certain that among the flock of parents, they are still unaware that there is a wolf among them (OK, that analogy isn’t quite perfect, but you get my drift). From what I understand from my husband, some kind of similar religious overtone was also present at least at one birthday party conversation that he was part of (I did not attend that one).
I’m not sure how much effort to put into getting my side out there, and I think I just need to take each encounter as it comes. I think my approach might be different if I were going to be part of this school for more than a year (I’d probably make it known fairly early on where I stand), but then again some of these kids and their families will become part of the public school system like us. When exactly is the most appropriate time to pull the rug out? My gut tells me now, as the moment or mood may arise. But sometimes I think it will be on secular, public school ground because there might be more of “my kind” (read: safety in numbers) there, not to mention then M might not be left to deal with the possible aftermath all on her own as the grapevine heats up about us. I’ll have to report back on this one if/when it even plays out over the next few months.
In general, I haven’t said much about all of the songs that M is singing around the house (more so this month because of Christmas and the fact that they just had their Christmas school show). Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d have a child singing “risen savior” at the top of her lungs or asking us to pray to the Christmas tree with her to wish for things (for her baby cousin, of course!). So far, I haven’t commented too much about it. For M personally, I can see the allure:
1) she loves to sing,
2) there’s been much ado about “baby Jesus” this month (she LOVES baby dolls and plays with them endlessly…that’s probably even an understatement), and
3) she likes that kind of group/community feeling of doing something fun (like singing about babies) together
It’s all also triggered about a bajillion questions from her about exactly who and/or what Jesus, God, Joseph, Mary and the host of related characters and principles mean. That part, I love. I want her to ask questions. And we can see her starting to figure out, or at least sift through, all of this information and what it all might (or might not) mean. We’ve told her that she can make her own decisions, and that it can take her whole lifetime or not, that she can continue to change her mind about it or not, that she can think differently from us or not — we will love her no matter how it all shakes out for her.
But despite having remained relatively unspoken about my perspective (I did just lay it all out there for one other mom whom I’ve come to know a little better during some recent playdates…she was cool with it all, thankfully), I have been unable to bite my tongue completely. I choose these moments wisely because, again, there is an ultra fine line between me basically telling M what to think (i.e. the way I think) and also her being an age where she could potentially respond to her peers in a way that might come across as being disrespectful or repeating things that her parents say at home (“my mom says…”).
Here is one that I didn’t let slide so easily. One of M’s classmates told her that birthmarks are a sign that God kissed you when you were born. Hey, if that is something that other families want to tell their children to make them feel better about themselves if they have a birthmark or else to make them feel an affinity towards someone else who might have one, I wholly appreciate that approach. As parents, we all do that kind of thing occasionally on some level or another to smooth over rough patches and raise self-esteem. But this particular statement seemed like a good one to incorporate an overriding viewpoint that is based on my appreciation of science, reason and chance. (Plus, I was having a hard time understanding how, even if I was someone who believed in God, you could work this out for those who do not have birthmarks…are they not so lucky? Seems arbitrary, unfair, and also somewhat inconsistent with what is otherwise taught about God.)
Now, all of this said, I have to say that I am so entirely happy with our decision to come to this school. The level of goodwill and charitable outreach is remarkable. I don’t just mean in the sense of giving to those less fortunate, but also with each other on a daily basis. One thing I am entirely pleased by is the sense of community at this school, even among complete strangers. I think the fact that most of the kids are dropped off and picked up within the same 15 minute window (as opposed to over the course of two hours) lends itself nicely to that. At M’s old school I barely got to know more than 2 parents over the course of 4+ years because 1) everyone was always in a rush in the morning before work or after the end of a long day to pick up their kid and get home for dinner and 2) the schedules of the children were so completely varied that you often had days where you didn’t see any other drop-off/pick-up happening while you were doing yours. It doesn’t make for forming friendships, and it was something that always bothered me. Everyone was always in such a hurry. Our kids would swap spit on the teething toys but no one would stop for five minutes to get to know you.
But here, I have met so many other parents in just a short amount of time. Playdates have surfaced almost on their own, and it’s like you already know the other parents when you are hanging out at the birthday parties–no awkward small talk. And a strong majority of these are working parents or have a younger gaggle of children in tow — yet somehow they find the time to be cordial and thoughtfully engaged.
More so, the teachers and the director of this school have gone light years ahead of what my expectations were in helping us and M work out some things that she was (and, to a lesser degree, still is) going through socially and emotionally at the school. I alluded to this a bit with my last book review, and I will be sure to make it the subject of my next post. But suffice it to say that I can only hope that we find even a fraction of that level of care and commitment to young kids when we head on to Kindergarten next year.
Although I think that the power of suggestion is strong at M’s age, I don’t think this one year will have any lasting, or at least unchangeable, effects on her. Her tendency to dive deeply into what’s in front of her plays out in many other contexts as well–case in point: she had otherwise forgotten about her Max and Ruby dolls until having seen a Christmas special with them, and now, of course, that is what she wants to play with. These immersions are usually transient, and so I’m not really concerned that we will need any kind of deprogramming down the road. That said, given that the power of suggestion on such a young mind lasts for many more years before fully autonomous thinking occurs, we will likely not enroll at any other religiously affiliated schools for the foreseeable future, barring any unforeseen circumstances. While I do want her to be religiously literate in a cultural sense, it is clear to me that my initial thoughts about picking them up from various extraneous sources will not always be an elegant solution because I largely cannot control, much less really know, what is actually being said in my absence. That makes me very uncomfortable, more so than I initially thought it would when I first embraced the idea of her learning about alternative viewpoints here. Not that I think we made a mistake (because I don’t), but more so that I didn’t fully appreciate the cumulative ways that religion would ultimately come up in her school life here. As we navigate expanding her understanding of the world and everyone’s point of view, I think we need to have a different game plan that takes place closer to home.
All in all, we undoubtedly made the right choice. I say this with total confidence and peace with the decision, even if it means that our soundtrack for the remaining months is M telling it on a mountain.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.
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.
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