It's me, on a soapbox today - FamilyEducation

It's me, on a soapbox today

October 21,2008

I have been hearing from more and more parents of kindergarteners about how rigid and, frankly, unrealistic the expectations placed on five-year-olds are becoming. Maybe it's just my county and state, but I hear a familiar lament every time I talk with a parent in the walk-up line, or talk about school with the parent of a kindergartener. I have to say my memory of kindergarten is foggy, but also different from what I perceive happening now as a parent. First of all, I didn't go to all-day kindergarten, the way kids in my state do. I also didn't start preschool until I was four, just like a lot of my friends did. Kindergarten back then seemed an extension of preschool. If preschool was learning about being social and interacting and learning to share and be a "team player," then kindergarten was more about establishing basic academic foundations for reading and writing. Now, though, everything just seems so accelerated. Is it just me, or have we accelerated kids by a year or two across the board?

I think there are two main culprits for this. One is that kids today start preschool at much younger ages than they used to. T. started when she was 19 months old, and by now--as a four-year-old, she's learning basic phonics skills, working on the alphabet, learning Spanish, and learning about some basic science principles. All of this is wonderful, but more and more kids are entering kindergarten ready to read and even write, which then skews the curriculum so that the teachers must teach more to the kids who have "overachieved" in a way, compared to the average kindergartener from 20 or 30 (or more) years ago. Also, the practice of "red-shirting" kids--keeping them back a year or more before kindergarten--is changing the classroom dynamics, so that more and more kindergarten classes are made up of six- and almost seven-year-olds, and fewer and fewer five-year-olds. A mom in the walk-up line was lamenting this very fact to me the other day. She didn't hold her five-year-old back on principle, because she strongly disagrees with red-shirting kids. This is in stark contrast with the mom I overheard some weeks ago, telling another parent they were holding her son back "so he could excel in sports" later.

All parents have to make their own decision about when to send their child to kindergarten, but I'm beginning to wonder about hearing so much from parents of kindergarteners about five-year-olds who are burned out already, and it's only October; and about kindergarteners who are being pegged already as "behind" or "overactive" or "slow learners." Five is so very young, really (five!), and some kids just aren't ready to learn at the same pace as others. This doesn't mean they won't catch up, or even swoop ahead of their classmates down the road. It just means they are five, and when we don't work hard to cultivate a love for learning and instead push on them reams of worksheets and assessments so we can plug them into a narrow means of measurement, we risk ruining the learning experience for them for the rest of their lives. Not to mention heaping piles of stress and disenchantment on the parents. I wonder if we aren't teaching kids to be producers, rather than learners?

I think I'm just steeling myself for next year. L.'s kindergarten year seems far away to me now--I think I've blocked it out of my mind, really, since it was not a pretty one. I worry about T. and the homework; I worry about my eager, excited learner, who is working hard at her own pace, and who loves learning so much, but who is a very young 4-1/2 right now, and who will, I'm sure, be a very young five-year-old next year. Sometimes I look at her and can't imagine her keeping up with a playground full of today's kindergarteners--she struggles sometimes with her class of preschoolers! Sometimes as a parent (more times than not, I'm finding) you have to hold your breath, cross your fingers, and watch your kids plunge in. More times than not, they'll emerge again, holding their own, and it will all work out in the end. I think it will. I hope it will.