The Truth Hurts

I used to laugh at those parents who took the whole preschool admissions rigmarole so seriously. Until I discovered early education mattered more than I knew—and for reasons I never expected.

When my husband accepted a job earlier this year that required us to pack up our 16-month-old daughter and relocate from New York City to Boston, I was surprised by my reaction. In public, I was a puddle of self-pity and despair, dreading the impending hassle of shuffling to a new state with a not-yet-two-year-old in tow and bereft over having to leave my network of friends and professional contacts, not to mention my dream apartment a few blocks from both Central Park and Lincoln Center. (True, I hadn’t seen a performance at the latter since my daughter was born, but one never knows when the urge to catch a matinee of Das Rheingold will strike.) Privately, however, I was relieved: The move meant my family would escape New York’s nursery school admissions melee, a competition so notoriously fierce, it makes dog fighting seem dignified.

While unquestionably fueled by status anxiety, the gladiatorial combat that parents are willing to engage in to get their child into a private preschool in Manhattan stems from a real problem: There are more children on the island than there are school slots. (The public schools are largely irrelevant because a) they don’t guarantee every child a spot, and b) they’re terrible.) And so, some of the most highly developed competitive skills in the nation are put to use in a battle that has as its prize the right to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send kids to school for three hours a day.

Differences in schools’ curricula and educational philosophies are beside the point—most parents are so relieved to get their toddler enrolled anywhere, they don’t care if the kid is learning witchcraft. I certainly fell into that category, having more or less convinced myself that as long as the teachers were sober and the cleaning products safely stowed, it didn’t matter where kids went; besides, the only “learning” taking place, I imagined, was figuring out how to make refrigerator-worthy art from construction paper, dry macaroni, and a glue stick. Our plan was apply to a range of places, then cross our fingers that we wouldn’t end up having to home-school.

In Boston, I reasoned, I could do it the old-fashioned way: Find a preschool close to our home, and leave it at that. When I arrived here, though, it became clear that my daughter’s preschool experience was not something I could pass off so blithely. I realized I was now in a position to choose a school, rather than have one choose me—which meant I’d have to engage in a little homework. As I researched the various educational philosophies and spoke to experts, I gained a fresh appreciation for the critical importance of the preschool years.

And that’s when a whole new level of stress entered my life. Suddenly, I became convinced that unless I installed her in the perfect institution of learning by age three, my daughter would be consigned to a life of academic failure and an inexorable drift toward petty thievery to support her addictions to crystal meth and the Home Shopping Network.

Unfortunately, Boston does not offer universal preschool, but there is no shortage of private options across a range of prices. These include glorified daycare, for which one merely has to sign up, as well as first-come, first-serve co-ops. From Beacon Hill to Jamaica Plain to Cambridge, there are structured Montessorians and free-form Waldorfians. This relatively benevolent landscape seems due to the fact that Boston is more spread out than Manhattan, making it easier to find space to house a school. Also, families here tend to move to the suburbs sooner after having kids, further easing the urban crunch. And finally, there is the congenital reluctance on the part of New Englanders to appear too competitive or aspirational.

I soon discovered, however, that this is no early-education Eden. If one wants to pursue the Manhattan experience (and steep tuitions), ample opportunity exists. Many of the most prestigious private schools—places like Shady Hill, the Park School, and John Winthrop—require myriad combinations of parent and child interviews, school tours, letters of recommendation from friends, and essays by parents probing their child’s personality and interests. Grasping for an edge, some parents have been known to line up at 7:30 a.m. the first day applications are accepted to get theirs in before everyone else. And heaven help you if you haven’t had the foresight to give Timmy an older brother. Because preferential consideration is granted to siblings, some years there are practically no spaces for new families.

Now, most parents recognize the absurdity of detailing the hobbies of a two-and-a-half-year-old. In all likelihood, today’s enthusiasm for Elmo or penguins will be transferred to one for ceiling fans or spatulas tomorrow. But these moms and dads play along, convinced a hypercompetitive preschool will make their kids shoo-ins for elite elementary and high schools. It used to be that this “feeder school” model commenced in seventh grade, when kids were sent to prep or boarding schools and then funneled to top-tier colleges. Today, though, as the battle to get into the best universities has grown more heated, the feeding starts early. Having been through a crash course on the jostling these schools provoke, I can say that Boston parents are every bit as single-minded as those in New York—maybe even more so, since Boston actually has enough worthy options to go around.

And to be fair, that makes them not so different from well-off moms and dads around the country (and this concern really is a luxury of the well-off) who seem intent on getting their child out of the educational starting gate with as much of a jump as possible in the race for the Ivy League, because nothing confirms noble parental sacrifice, not to mention the unimpeachable quality of your genes, more than having your child claim a diploma from Harvard or Yale. Then, too, there’s the allure of thinking you could complete your most determinative parental task before your child is out of diapers, at which point you could kick back and relax.

Of course, all this assumes that the feeder-feeder model delivers as promised, that a clear line can be drawn between going to the right preschool and getting that fat envelope from the right college. But is that how it really works? According to David Fernie, a professor of early-childhood education at Wheelock College, the answer is definitely no. “The so-called ‘right’ preschool is no guarantee of anything later on,” he told me. I liked this answer—it confirmed my belief that the only developmental value of nursery school was getting my daughter comfortable being away from home in preparation for kindergarten. But then Fernie finished his thought. “You want a high-quality preschool for its own sake, not for what access it will give later on, or what it says about you as a parent.”

And this, I was not happy to hear. Fernie was suggesting it was possible to mess up my daughter this early in her life. “It’s the first place they go that they’ll call school, the first place they’ll encounter adults they’ll call teachers, and the first place they’ll start to realize how they fit into a group,” Fernie continued. He explained how a well-designed program sets patterns of observation and attention span, and helps kids figure out how to both get along with others and function independently. In other words, it establishes the circuitry that will help children operate productively as they move through their academic life. There’s a lot of u
p-to-date research that shows when they get to kindergarten, kids who attended a good preschool are leaps and bounds ahead of those who didn’t.

As my anxiety ratcheted up, Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard, tried to talk me down. She assured me that all I needed to do was get my daughter into a “quality” program, and reminded me that in Boston, a vast number of these existed. Again, not helpful. Who was I to assess quality?

When I asked for tips, Fernie and McCartney agreed on this much: It’s important not to base your choices solely on expectations you’d have for higher grade levels. Understandably, if you’re about to hock the good china to pay for it, you might want some proof that your little one will come home able to recite the alphabet forward and backward by the second week. But such benchmarks are not applicable to preschool. For one thing, preschoolers pick things up at their own pace. “Forcing children to reach the same level of competence at the same time,” said Fernie, “is the quickest way to teach them that school isn’t a place where they can be comfortable.”

A far more pertinent thing to keep in mind is the way kids this age learn. “For young children, the vehicle to development is play,” said McCartney. Teaching children about letters and numbers is a fine goal, added Fernie, but he warned that “an overemphasis on what we might think of as academic misses the broader abilities that kids are developing.” (Just to be clear, I am in no way suggesting that fine, fine schools like Shady Hill and Cambridge-Ellis are providing anything other than developmentally appropriate curricula for their students. Really, Most Distinguished Members of the Admission Board, I’m not.)

Still, in addition to being nurturing and loving, school directors and teachers should be able to articulate some kind of educational philosophy. Preschools needn’t hew to a particular instructional method, like Montessori or Waldorf, but their staffs should have an idea of what they are trying to accomplish—and to decide among them, so should you.

Helpful as that is, my query remained: Is there anything the elite schools can offer that others don’t? The answer is yes, and no. A school like Beacon Hill Nursery School or Cambridge Friends may be able to provide larger, more up-to-date facilities; have a better student-teacher ratio; and get your child noticed by a nationally recognized prep school, as well as do wonders for her Rolodex. If you have the money and the will to endure the application process, by all means, go for it. But will any of that stuff necessarily contribute to her overall success and health? No, and it certainly won’t guarantee that in 15 years she’ll get a full scholarship to MIT, either. As long as you choose carefully, you can make sure your child gets everything he or she needs, be it in a classroom that costs a bundle, or nothing at all. I haven’t yet figured out exactly what that is for my daughter—but I’m happy to be doing the searching in Boston, where, daunting or not, at least I can make my pick for the right reasons.