So if you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I have a three-year-old son. What you may not know is that I didn’t grow-up with siblings and so having my son has been the first time that I’ve had any sustained time with children. My experience of sending my son to what I call “Play School” has been eye-opening.

For starters, I call it “Play School” instead of “Day Care” or even simply  “School” because we were invested in finding a safe, clean place where my son could play and socialize with other children. My son, Miles, watched Caillou when he was a baby and on that show, they called the school Caillou attended, “Play School,” which I thought was a good name for the things I saw them doing. “Play school” seemed like what I remember of Kindergarten: kid sized everything: tables, chairs, coat rooms; kid stuff going on: singing; circle time; graham crackers; milk; playtime outside; hugs; crafts. Well, my son is a pretty tall kid for three and he is also physically competent; agile, quick, strong. Too, he actually seems physically confident. He doesn’t carry himself awkwardly and though he falls down and has had his fair share of cuts and scrapes, he’s not timid. It’s very hard to ignore what looks like athletic promise. Anyway, when we would look in upon the children who he was supposed to be grouped with, Miles seemed older than they were. Since we had not enrolled him at “Play School” until mid-summer, the administrators thought it best to place him with the teachers he would be with at the start of the school year so that he wouldn’t have to make several adjustments once the school year began. However, upon noting the size of the children my son would be grouped with, my husband asked about Miles staying with the kids he was with and moving on as they did. At first we were told that there would be an assessment and depending on how Miles performed, they would decide if he should advance with the four-year-olds or be placed with the other three-year-olds. I must admit, I thought this rather silly. What exactly would this assessment involve? It’s not like the four-year-olds were using theorems to write geometric proofs or diagramming sentences. My kid needs to learn how to play well with others and we didn’t imagine that the assessment would focus on that, but what was clear to us is that if our physically competent, rather high strung kid got angry like the Hulk, which is how he sometimes describes it, we thought it best that he be with kids who were at least his size. We don’t really know their rationale, but the administrators and the teachers told us one day that they felt that Miles should move up with his four-year-old classmates. Thus, Miles started Pre-K today.

O.K., so here’s what I don’t understand now: Why the emphasis on ownership and personal property for three and four-year-old children? Parents were asked to buy a list of supplies for each of our children that included the following: one 3 ring binder; one box of 24 crayons; one box of 8 washable markers; one pair of blunt tip scissors; one bottle of school glue; two 2 pocket folders; one pack of “big” pencils; one school supply box; one box of wipes. It wouldn’t have bothered me to purchase each of these things as classroom supplies for everyones use, but I don’t understand why my three-year-old needs to have his own crayons, scissors, and glue. When I was a child, a big container of glue or paste was set in the middle of the table and some might be set aside for each individual child on construction paper. The eight children at each table may have been given three or four pairs of scissors to share. Here’s how that worked: one child used the scissors and when they were done, the child without a pair at their disposal was given the available pair. That seemed to work just fine. That method helped me to learn how to share. My son, who already has a very hard time sharing, is being encouraged to claim property. We have been asked to label everything–including the scissors. It makes sense to me that we label the extra-change of clothes and the blanket we are asked to bring for our children. Not only can these items be expensive, but they are particular to your child’s body, your expectations for cleanliness, and may even be designed specifically for your child (for example, when my husband forgot to bring home the blanket that we usually send to school with Miles so that it could be washed, I sent the blanket that a friend crotched for him), but glue and scissors?! Why does my kid need his own pair of scissors? Glue? Crayons? 

My husband had an experience as a high school football coach where players whose dues were not paid in full were prevented from eating the pre-game meal with the team. Those children were forced to sit in one part of the cafeteria while their teammates, whose dues were paid, ate. That story haunts me. It’s hard to imagine how those children who did not have the money felt being forced to watch their teammates eat. According to my husband, those whose dues were paid did not seem at all disturbed that they were eating and their teammates were not. Not a single player shared his plate or refused to eat in protest. Modern day schooling, from what I see now, seems to prepare children to expect these dynamics as a consequence of failing to accept personal responsibility. While I am a proponent of personal responsibility, I don’t think that it has to be solely measured in the harsh, economic terms in which it is set. I want my son to learn that being personally responsible includes recognizing another person’s needs and responding to them with the resources that you have at your disposal. Sometimes those resources are material and sometimes they are not. There is an adorable little girl in Miles’s class who has responded to several of his meltdowns with kindness. She stands out to me as a result of her kindness and my son’s brusqueness in response. We have tried to address this with Miles but it seems as though we’re doing it in a context that doesn’t support our efforts because ultimately, if that child’s parents fail to buy her a pair of scissors, she will be met with the brusqueness that my son gives her.

I also think that accepting personal responsibility means that you show gratitude for the things that other people do for you. My son has a responsibility to show us gratitude for the school uniforms that we purchased, the tuition that we paid, and the supplies that we bought. To that end, as we explained to him, we wrote his name on the items that he will use in school but they actually belong to us and we expect him to share those things with the other children.

I wish that progress and development did not seem to mean laying waste to old ways. While it has been years since I attended compulsory schools, I know that some of their methods worked. As a parent now, I turn to some of those old ways quite often as a model for raising my son and I plan on turning to some of those ways for schooling him as well. At least those methods clearly produced children who became citizens who expected to have to negotiate with other people for resources. Those methods responded to human limitations and the opening they necessarily create for you to turn to another person for assistance. Charity wasn’t constructed as an extreme act of generosity or of need but as a consequence and an expectation of living.

From what my friends tell me, what I have been seeing of contemporary schooling, even Play School, mirrors what they have seen and experienced with their own children. To that end, it is really hard for me to imagine how these new school ways will prepare these children to be cooperative later in life. That you ever get children to work together as teammates in sports, as bandmates in a marching band, or even as collaborators in a group project seems nothing short of miraculous.

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