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The Preschool Pressure - PDX Style

We've heard stories about the preschool frenzy in cities like New York where waitlists are eons-long and parents wake up at the crack of dawn to spend days in lines to sign kids up for preschools.  Here in Portland, is the story the same?  After the recent post on the Portland Preschool Scene, Tracy got to thinking:

The recent question about preschool has me thinking about a bigger issue, which is why the pressure to start kids in preschool at age 3 anyway?  I'm a mom who has arranged life to avoid group care settings for my little ones on purpose.  I've really struggled with whether or not to send my oldest (age 3) to preschool next fall and get all kinds of messages that I'm missing something if I don't.  He gets plenty of social opportunities through Parks and Rec classes, play groups, etc where I'm present to help him work things out and develop social skills.  He gets all kinds of exposure to letters, numbers, books, etc at home.  I have no doubt that at age 4 he'll go because I don't want kindergarten to be his first school experience.  But does it have to be so soon?  My solution has been to sign up at a cooperative so I'm part of the program, but I haven't fully committed to sending him yet.  I'd love to hear what others think and whether or not I'm the only one questioning this pressure.

Not only do we question the pressure, we also wonder whether all children will have access to the same resources, regardless of familial situation.  Kris recently emailed:

I am a mother of an 18 month old girl and have amerced myself in everything motherly including reading mommy blogs, having regular play dates scheduled, being a part of several moms groups, and basically just networking with other mommies like crazy.  On a regular basis I find myself upset and confused on the issue of single mothers unable to find quality daycare that they can afford. I myself am married and we do well financially, well, we make ends meet anyways. Daycare is hard enough for us to pay for and I know, because I have met some, that for single moms without a lot of support it gets close to impossible to afford good care. I know how hard it is to leave your child with another person and couldn't imagine having to leave them with someone that I didn't feel good about.  I am wondering if anyone knows how to get active on this issue. Are there single moms out there who have any ideas on how to make good care for their children an option?

Mamas, what say you?  What are your thoughts?  Is it a matter of the "haves" and the "have-nots"?  Do you feel like these differences are less pronounced here in Portland?

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This site is a great start to learning about what you can do to help moms find quality care for their children. http://www.momsrising.org/ It lists numerous "take action" suggestions on many issues being faced by parents and children, but especially working moms. You can also order the book The Motherhood Manifesto from that site, which also discusses some heavy issues faced by moms.

Speaking to the necessity of preschool for 3 year olds, as a preschool teacher I definitely do not believe that preschool is needed, or appropriate, for every 3 year old. Especially with the academic end, if kids are ready for that, parents can do everything a school can do to provide exposure to letters, numbers, etc.

Socially, though, it is easy for teachers to spot the kids who have only been in play situations with a parent in attendance, versus experiences independent from mom (or dad). Self-sufficiency, problem solving, intricate social relationships, even willingness join the group look different when a parent is accessible. (I even sent my own daughter to someone else's preschool part time so she could experience school apart from me.) For some kids, development of these skills might appropriately take a back seat until age 4 or even 5, but for others, age 3 is a good time to start. As with all things in parenting, listen to your heart, and try not to feel pressure from people who don't know your child as well as you do.

On the preschool question, as a mother whose two boys each started preschool at 3.5, I don't think it's necessary for kids to start preschool at age three. Not in the slightest. Nor do I think it's necessarily detrimental, either. And parents have all kinds of reasons for sending them.

Why did I? Two reasons: with my first, I knew he would really enjoy it, and I also had a new baby. My 3yo had a very rough time when the baby came. His whole world was rocked, and while I sympathized with his plight, it was a horrible time for everyone.

When he started preschool, he finally had something in his life that was just for him, no baby getting in on the action. And I finally had some time alone with my new one. Sending my oldest to preschool honestly saved my sanity.

As for the second, after seeing his brother go off to preschool and then kindergarten, he couldn't wait for his chance. (Both kids really thrived in preschool).

And as a writer and sahm, I felt as if I'd entered the promised land on the day my second boy started preschool: one kid in first grade + one kid in three mornings of preschool = 10.5 hours of freedom for me to write.

I think it is a really personal decision, and there is no place for pressure here. That being said, some form of nursery school/pre-K can be really healthy for children and their parents too, if the situation is right.

Unfortunately, the accessibility issue is real. My suggestion is to find your ideal place, the one that just sings to you, regardless of cost, then see what scholarship or work/trade options there are. Some programs will also take DHS and other forms of state and federal financial aid; a paperwork nightmare, but really important to make quality early ed. accessible to all.

If you are taking your child only for enjoyment and you don't need child care hours, there are many churches and co-op preschools that run a few hours a day, 2-3 days a week for under 200. per month.

I contacted St. Matthews Lutheran in SW Portland/Beaverton and Gabriel Park Preschool by the SW community center, but there were many others.

As to whether a child needs preschool at 3, I would say it is an individual thing and definitely not mandatory.

I just read the article about the preschool frenzy in New York...wow. I have watched the preschool scene change in Portland over the last few years, but I hope it never gets like that. This is Portland, a city known for liveability, let's keep it mellow! There are plenty of good schools in town, and DOZENS more opening every year, so if you do choose to have your child attend preschool, my hope is that there will always be a quality place out there for you. I have seen several of my favorite programs come up with last minute openings, which tells me the "waiting list" phenomenon is, for the most part, just hype.

Just another perspective...

...and I'll try to make this my last post!

Re: affordable child care. I'm involved with an excellent child care center in NW Portland - the Fruit & Flower Child Care Center - with a goal of providing scholarships to 25% of enrolled children, specifically to make child care more affordable for lower-income working (or going to school) families. There are also state subsidies available to help pay for child care through DHS, but the income limits may be just low enough that they're not available to many of the so-called "working poor."

Unfortunately, public opinion surveys show that most Americans feel that affording and accessing child care is a family responsibility and not the role of the state. Without the public will to support change, there's not much incentive for policy makers to do much about the problem that you described. However, there are movements that have made real progress across the nation in the past few years around expanding access to universal pre-K and afterschool programs, so perhaps things are (slowly) changing.

Tracy,

There is no necessity to sending your child to preschool (and some would even argue school at all, but that's another subject). Trust your heart and your child. If you are happy staying home with him then by all means stay home with him another year. I believe there is no better 'teacher' than the parent. You may be interested in the book "You Are Your Childs First Teacher".

Love, A mom who is sending her kid to preschool at age 2.5

I experience some pressure about preschool from other moms at the playground or at music class, but having just escaped from new york, I'm not particularly intense about sending my daughter--who's now 2.5--to a program, let alone the "right" program. Still, I worry she might benefit, socially speaking, from a setting that is independent from her mama or papa or auntie. How do I tell if this is the case? And how do I tell if 3 is a better age to begin introducing her to said classroom than 4? That is, for you folks who say it depends on the child, which children seem to benefit more so than others from the social atmosphere of preschool?

I'm sure the desire to start preschool at age 3 varies with each child and family.

But I can tell you for sure that the discrepancy between childcare situations for those who can afford more and those who can't is very real, and not absent in Portland at all. I work in a field of grant writing where I work with data on the quality of childcare centers in our city and it varies A LOT, and lo and behold, nearly all the very poorest quality ones are utilized by families with less money.

There are some excellent opportunities for families with fewer resources in Portland - even for very poor families - but they fill up just like high quality childcare centers and many many families are left with lower quality childcare that includes few books, lots of TV, etc.

I'm not sure what to do about it big picture. I can say that there are some nonprofits you can support which work to improve poor quality childcare centers (I happen to work for The Library Foundation so that is one I know about that provides books and effective reading programs in existing childcare situations). And nonprofits which directly provide childcare at affordable prices, sliding scales, or on scholarships.

The issue of accessibility to quality childcare is something that has certainly been top of mind for me in the past year. I feel like I went to Hell and back trying to find a childcare situation I was comfortable with for my son, and affordability of group care isn't really even an issue for us.

First I had to get on multiple wait lists when I was three months pregnant, at which point I was often told I had waited too long. (I should note that I lived in Washington, DC at the time where finding childcare is amazingly brutal.) By the time I was ready to go back to work when my son was four months old, we still had not gotten into any centers. So I started an in-home care search, which turned up several disappointing options. Not being able to afford a nanny or find a suitable nanny share option (we tried three that did not work out for one reason or another - people backing out, etc.), I instead opted not to return to work. A few months later we did get into one center at a church that we were fairly pleased with at the time, though looking back now, I did have would rate them about a six out of ten. (And when you are talking about childcare, I think a higher score than that would be preferable.)

Fast forward to Portland where I started all over on the childcare search. Out of desperation to find somewhere, I took an opening with a national center chain. Suffice it to say that I knew the first day I dropped him off when his teacher barely acknowledged his presence (at age 13 months) that I had made a mistake. I felt sick to my stomach every time I left him there and certainly did not feel comfortable going to work. So I spent another frantic one to 1.5 months trying to find every other option I could. Any center that was highly rated had a wait list, and I also ran into the issue of very few options that were really doable for us in terms of commute, proximity to our house, etc. FINALLY, after a call to a state-run hotline (thanks to a recommendation on this site!), I found a couple of state-certified in-home providers within a doable driving distance from our house. One of them worked out and finally we have a situation we love and are at total peace. I thank my lucky stars every day for our current provider because it was such a long road to get to her. She only takes up to three years old, so I'm already dreading the next step.

This is all a very long way to saying that this process made me a strong believer that there is a child care crisis going on in this country. It just doesn't seem right that it was that hard. And I can only imagine having financial issues on top of that. I'm not sure what to do about it or why it's like this, but I'd love to know how we can change it.

Gosh, it makes me so sad to hear about a 13 month old being dropped off everyday at a place where he is barely acknowleged and a mom having to leave knowing it's not right. It seems like more and more families are realizing that it's ok to be struggling financially, to downsize your ideals about what you need to have- if it means you can be with your kids everyday while they are young.

childcare for a single mom w/ low income is a challenge i find. i have been extremely lucky and love my daycare provider. she's a sahm, and it's a challenge to balance paying her enough to stay at home and affording her. off hours is another story entirely.

Many mothers (parents) do not have the option of staying home, so it's not always a matter of downsizing your life.

I moved to Portland as a single mama with a 6 year old and childcare was extremely difficult to find. At $11/hr I was considered over income for any state subsidy or sliding scale. There have been substantial cuts since then. I often had to leave a school-age child is places that made me less than comfortable. If I'd had a 0-3 year old, I might've taken up bank robbery.

I can't imagine it with a baby. I was a single mama in SF when mine was little, but if you were intrepid and crafty there were some resources out there. There were some amazing subsidized centers and agency subsidized in-home providers. There were some hiccups around supporting extended BFing but for the most part it was great. I was so incredibly lucky.

I sat on the advisory cmte for a group that was originally put together to increase quality, affordable childcare. As the organization grew it morphed more into an organization that advocates for in-home child care providers rather than parents. So as child care providers became more skilled and professional, their prices went up and they were less likely to accept subsidized children. The state subsidizes at way below market rate and the bureaucracy to get paid after care has been provided is horrific. So the providers have to often choose between caring for their own families (by raising rates, charging deposits) and caring for low-income children.

So it is gratifying to know that some "have" moms are thinking about the "have nots". It is a cultural shift, because it is so diffcult to see outside our own experience sometimes. I sometimes forget how hard it is, and I went to through some of it.

I have so much to say on both topics! Tracy's question really hit home to me, as some of you know I chose to take Everett back out of preschool about four months after starting him off with a bang. I always thought preschool at age three would be perfect for me -- I've worked from home since Everett was about two, and his little brother was born several months later.

But once we started preschool, it quickly became obvious that Everett wasn't thriving. He has always been the sort of child who challenged authority, and I think that having to bend to the will of another person was too much, too soon, even if it was just circle time and washing hands before lunch. I took him out, never to return, and though the following year was hard for me, he seems to be doing amazingly well now. He's very social and has plenty of opportunities to interact with other kids; very structured classes, like ballet with the OBT (which he was very eager to take) and less structured ones like summer soccer have given him the chance to follow instructions. He finally is morphing into a kid who's ready for kindergarten -- preschool wasn't the thing to get him there. He'll go to full-day kindergarten in the fall, and now he spends his mornings practicing his coloring and his letters. It's on his own terms, though, and that's totally the right thing for Everett.

I too felt pressure to get Everett in a good preschool, at the earliest possible age, but once I started resisting the pressure, I found the best thing for my child. His little brother is different, and I'll likely have him in preschool as soon as he's old enough (but it will be the cheapest, not the best ;).

There was an interesting study I read a few years ago that compared lower income children to higher income children, and reviewed their success in grade school. It turned out that, while the lower-income children who'd had preschool had better results in math and reading than their peers who hadn't been in preschool, the higher income children showed NO benefit and, in fact, had more frequent social problems if they'd had preschool. That really spoke to me -- I think Everett gets all the preparation for school he needs from me & his dad reading to him, answering his questions about how the world works and providing him with the educational help on an as-requested basis. My completely unproven theory is that many children aren't ready to follow societal rules yet (sit in a circle! quiet indoors!) when they're only three or four, and forcing them to do so before they're ready has cascading effects later in life.

If my kids hate school before they're even five, I've failed them. Why go through the pain if you don't have to?

... and on the other topic. My sister isn't even a single mom, but she's the primary breadwinner right now for her family, pregnant with her first child (her husband has two older children, one of whom lives with them). she works for a private school and makes a private school paycheck -- in other words, not even enough to pay the mortgage and the rest of the bills. If they want to eat? Her husband has to bring home ALL of the bacon (he's in school now and gets loans to keep them afloat).

her benefits are laughable, and paid maternity leave? hahaha. when she asked if there was any way the school might change its current policy (you can use your sick days, and that's it sweetie) to provide paid maternity leave, the principal said, "I'll understand if you want to leave after you have the baby." I wouldn't have known what to say, especially with my jaw hitting the floor.

Her stepson gets free tuition at the school, so it makes sense to her to keep the job. but she'll be going back with zero resources and wanting to have quality childcare. Another laughing matter. there's just nothing out there.

we're outrageously lucky -- we have another sister who's currently being paid nothing and treated like, well, nothing, to watch other people's children in an after-school program here in Portland. we've been discussing having said little sister watch all of our babies and perhaps one more -- you can bet I'll be subsidizing the situation for the most part given the fact that I'm the only one making enough to do so.

but the saddest part was when my-sister-the-teacher realized that the cheap cost for halftime care -- what she could probably get away with, given her husband could provide some care while he wasn't in class -- was $400 a month. she almost cried. $400 a month would be nearly a third of her take-home pay, and though she might be eligible for some state assistance, it wouldn't pay more than $200 or so a month. the quality of THAT care, well, I just can't imagine it. it would probably be in a worse situation than the one a friend visited in a nearby neighborhood, an in-home day care. in one room, an infant sat, strapped in her car seat and watching TV; the other infant drooled sleepily in his car seat next to her. and this was during a scheduled visit.

child care options need to be better, paid family leave needs to be better. and I can't write any more about it because I'm getting so angry!

The responses here have been interesting. I would really like to hear from still more single moms themselves on this topic... Where ya' at??

I appreciate reading these thoughtful comments. I have to admit, though, my blood is boiling reading about babies strapped into carseats watching television. Baby Clockwork Orange, anyone?? Why are babies and their developing brains treated so shabbily in our society? And, on another note, why are mamas feeling pressured to send their 3 year olds to institutionalized care or preschool? Some children might thrive; others will definitely not thrive. We have to take the time to know our children and do what we need to so that they will thrive. We, their parents, are their advocates. And if you DO choose to send your child to preschool, make sure it is play-based, with no worksheets. You would be surprised at what passes for "preschool" today. (Worksheets?!?!) I have worked with thousands of kids over the past 10 years, and I can spot the ones with school burnout.

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