Monday, July 14, 2008

Preschool is not evil

My son had terrible separation anxiety starting at age seven months. Other people could leave their children during playgroup to go pee. My son wailed like I’d tied him to a tree and was throwing water balloons at him. Those first winter holidays at eight and nine months were terrible; no relatives could hold him. The boy was on my back in the Ergo most of the time. Even my husband got the cold shoulder.

In January, our son played on the floor while we listened to a parenting lecture on separation anxiety. The expert suggested that it was likely our son might just always have a hard time with each new transition or new caregiver. At the same time, it was clear that the boy was an extrovert who liked to be around other kids. He lit up while playing with his older cousins at Christmas, as long as I was in view. I figured if I was ever going to get a break or get him comfortable with leaving me, it would have to be in a social setting. Maybe if he got attached to a place and to certain people, I thought, then he’ll feel more comfortable away from me.

I didn’t expect to start preschool earlier than almost anyone else in my circle of friends, but I wanted to know what my options were. I went to two open houses that winter he was almost one, and I found one program that had a class for infants and young toddlers where my son could go the following fall. There were six kids to three adults – one teacher and one aide, both of whom were there every week, and one cooping parent. When I observed the class in action, I got a kick out of kids just a few months older than mine sitting at a table “chatting” about their snacks. Wow, they are already real kids, I thought, cooperating and building community. It was only three hours a week in a gentle program at a place with a great playground that my son would get to play on each week, I was assured, unless the weather was terrible. And there was nothing close to an academic agenda; it was all about play.

So I applied. I got wait-listed. And then I got in. E was not quite 18 months old and a relatively new walker when September rolled around. Before school started, grabbed the face of another boy on our get-to-know-you playdate. I didn’t know what to expect with such intense emotion and still some concern separating from me.

I asked to coop the first day of class, and I couldn’t keep E from nursing, he was so unsure what to think. If didn't let him latch on, he just wailed and grabbed at my pantleg such that I was of no help to the others in the room. The next time I cooped wasn’t for another six weeks, and we made it without a bra strap out of place. Those first five weeks he cried when I left him and a little occasionally after. The boy whose face he grabbed cried so hard one day he threw up. But he and my son both talked about each other at home, and they did have fun at school.

One day in early November, the other boy’s mom requested a playdate on a Monday, the day before we had class. There were no toys in the sandbox, and she explained that only the teacher could get out the trucks. Her son didn’t utter a peep the next day or any day after that all year. My son took one more week to give up the ghost, and then he just never looked back.

What I liked best about our experience at preschool was the fact that he got to interact with other adults and learn new ways of coping with challenges. He and I had been so deeply attached, I think he needed to have some time on his own to find his own footing. He still nurses (at 27 months), and I have to say he still seems rather in love with his mama. I think there were some other factors that contributed to his ability to warm to school, but I do believe that school was of great benefit to both of us in getting him past the intensity of his separation anxiety.

Another thing I especially liked was the longer duration of play. At home I struggle to find even 20 minutes to full-on play with my son without interruptions or distractions. In classes (which we haven’t ever enrolled in, except for Music Together), he gets at most 45 minutes of activity with a lot of hustle and shuffle on either side of that directed “on” time. The one time I observed Gymboree, I felt like the pacing was devised by the makers of Ritalin; it seemed like the program was set up to give kids a short attention span. At school he gets at least 45 unstructured minutes inside twice and 45 minutes outside with gentle transitions in between – no jerky stop-start in and out of the car from the class to the grocery store to home to put in the laundry. I can’t imagine how I could be disciplined enough to give him this kind of temporal space if I tried to homeschool him, and our postage-stamp living room certainly doesn't match the physical space he has at school.

It’s important for my son to see the real world and to see me interacting in it. But I also feel it’s important for him to have time to just be a kid with other kids somewhere safe, with creative outlets I don’t always have at the ready -- and with patience I rarely have.

This year he’ll be at the coop twice a week, and though I know he may be a little sad not to return to the same teacher, I have no concerns about him having separation anxiety from me. He is happily independent but also incredibly attached to his parents and very clued in to people around him. He knows by name – and asks about – at least a dozen people within a block of us and dozens more with family and other friends. When we met the grabbed-face boy for a summer playdate at school a few weeks ago, my son asked where their other classmates and teachers were. He’s learned to care about other people and to take an interest in their lives and to see that he and they all go on and can have a good time even (maybe especially?) if his mama isn’t around. He likes me a lot, I know, but he also realizes that fun doesn’t start and end with Mama.

I’d like to think I could create a program like this myself, a program that wouldn’t have the stuff I don’t appreciate, like artificially-colored and flavored popsicles (at the end of the year) and the daily use of antibacterial soap (also see CDC report and Mercola article . But I have a lot of other things I want to do that I think I’d be better at doing and that would make me a happier person, hence better mom. As much as I’d like to fully buck the system, feed my kid vegetables all day and never have to put snacks in little containers unless we’re both having a picnic together, I know I’m not cut out for homeschooling. Cooping every five or six weeks is plenty.

So we’re also doing a parent-child program at a Waldorf school to see if that approach is for us. I welcome guidance on bringing more of a sense of ritual and rhythm to our lives. Making food from scratch and from organic ingredients is a big plus over playing with gluten-filled boxed mixes. There’s no question that I prefer my son around natural toys. Fortunately, our coop is pretty good about using quiet toys and providing opportunity for fantasy, so I don’t think there will be huge of a leap to the Waldorf program.

However, there will be some significant differences. I worry that I’ve been a little too cerebral and talky with my son and have certainly allowed him to develop too close of a relationship with the camera (and the computer that stores the camera’s photos). But there’s more to Waldorf philosophy than what it has to say about language and technology, and I look forward to learning what that is alongside my son.

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