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Friday, February 03, 2006


The freakonomics of preschool

Have you read Freakonomics? It's an interesting book and one which I highly recommend. It is written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt is an economist, a "much heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life." Dubner is a best selling author and journalist. The book takes a close look at the hidden side of life and attempts to explain seemingly random situations or to correct erroneously held public beliefs using analysis of available data. I am not an economist and my eyes tend to glaze over when sentences contain lots of numbers, so while I can't verify that the methods Levitt uses to analyze the data make any sense at all, I can say that Dubner is an excellent writer and explainer of technical jargon. Together, they make a good pair and the conclusions they come to in the book seem plausible to me.

In the chapter titled, "What Makes a Perfect Parent?" the authors explore the fearmongering that is rampant among so called parenting experts. They write, "Fear is in fact a major component of the act of parenting." I couldn't agree more; as a parent I'm scared out of my freaking mind on an almost daily basis. The authors explore various reasons why or why not a child does well in school using data from test scores and applying something they call regression analysis. Here's how they "overgeneralize" their findings:

Parents who are well educated, successful, and healthy tend to have children who test well in school; but it doesn't seem to much matter whether a child is trotted off to museums or spanked or sent to Head Start or frequently read to or plopped in front of the television."

In other words,

"It isn't so much a matter of what you do as a parent; it's who you are."

This is the kind of data that my husband likes to remind me of when I start going on and on about finding a preschool for Emily. And I know he's right, but I still get caught up in the frothy hype that tends to permeate most playdates, playground visits, and social occasions that bring me into contact with other moms. I wish I could believe that just because I'm well educated, successful, and healthy, I don't have to worry about preschool; but fear--along with guilt--very much play a major role in almost all parenting decisions I make.

I realize a couple of things:
1. Emily would do fine in Kindergarten (and beyond) if she never goes to preschool.
2. I want Emily to go to preschool because it will give me more me time.
3. Certain preschools carry more cachet among local moms who care about cachet.

The questions are:
1. Will Emily (and then Thomas) go to preschool?
2. How much more me time do I need? Two mornings a week more? Three mornings a week more? Five mornings a week more? Will all the me time in the world ever be enough?
3. Do I care about cachet?

At this point, the answers are:
1. Yes, Emily will go to preschool. I am looking at preschools now; she will start one of them in the fall when she's three.
2. I don't know how much more me time is enough. I am struggling to find a happy balance between a life with my children as a stay at home mom and a life with my children as a stay at home mom who also wants to be a writer. Is now the right time to put the kids into preschool so that I have more time to write? Or should I wait until next year?

Right now, I'm leaning towards a preschool that can take her on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 8:30 - 3:00. Since all of the full-time preschools have a naptime from 1 to 3, it seems ridiculous to pick her up at 12:30 when she's tired and needs sleep. (Lisa recently wrote about this, too.) But that means she'll be gone three days and the other two days the nanny will be here. That's assuming we keep the nanny, of course. But I like our nanny and I like getting two days all to myself. The alternative is putting Emily in preschool on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but then we'll be paying the nanny to watch only Thomas while Emily will be in school. That seems kind of ridiculous.

3. Tough question. Do I care about cachet? If so, how much? Historically, I haven't cared much about designer jeans or fancy cars; I don't need fancy label things to get my boat to float and I went to a state-run university. Mike thinks that any licensed preschool or day care center would be fine for Emily's preschool. And yet I feel compelled to go to Preschool Preview Night held by my local Mothers Club; I feel compelled to call up half a dozen schools and talk with them about their curriculum; I feel compelled to make sure Emily is wearing clean clothes before taking her to Open Houses and tours of preschools that seem appropriate. I may not care about cachet, but I want to retain my right to care. Make sense?

I feel that much of my decision angst is more closely tied with item #2 rather than items #1 or #3. What Happens When The Children Go To School is a big milestone in the life of a stay at home mom. Now what? Do I go back to work? Do I get serious about The Novel? It’s both an exciting and a scary time that all of a sudden is looming in the not so distant future. And like with most child-related milestones, I’m not sure whether I want to rejoice or cry.


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