Kindergarten Angst

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 7, 2007; 6:27 PM

My oldest son, Cole, will begin kindergarten in a few weeks and he's not a happy camper. Neither am I, but for a different reason. A sweet, thoughtful four-year-old (he'll turn five a few days after school starts), Cole is nervous about making new friends, fitting in and getting the hang of reading and simple math. I, on the other hand, see the first day of kindergarten as the starting line to a grueling marathon I've affectionately labeled, "Getting Your Kid into Yale: It's Never Too Soon to Start Obsessing"

Before you reach for the Crazy Mom stamp, understand that I already have one inked and ready. I know it's insanity to hop on the tired, crowded bandwagon occupied by parents who start worrying about college before their kid can master not pooping in their pants. It makes me cringe to contemplate whether I've become one of them. Especially since my mother never concerned herself with such nonsense, and she managed to see to it that I graduated from Tufts University, a respected liberal arts college in Medford, Mass.

A single working mom, my mother is as tough-minded and pragmatic as they come. I imagine she let herself get a little teary-eyed and nostalgic on my first day of kindergarten. But if I confessed to worrying about where Cole will enroll in college in 13 years, she'd likely tell me to find something real to worry about, like child molesters, school bus accidents, head lice or E.coli outbreaks in the cafeteria. She might even suggest that I leave my daydreams of Princeton to the rich white people who actually have shot at sending their kids there.

I'm not rich or white, but I'm still sweating my children's eventual merge into higher education. Should a cool mom care about such things, considering how we're still at the start line and the kids aren't even out of the blocks? Logic tells me that Cole will sail through his private Montessori kindergarten year just fine. But my lizard brain is strongly encouraging me to freak, because you know, things are different now than 20 or 30 years ago. A kid who started kindergarten in 1975 (that'd be me) could matriculate to first grade without having learned phonics or to stand up to the class bully (also me).

Now it seems that a quality education and diploma from a good, academically rigorous university is a must for our children. This year's kindergarten class will come of age in the year 2020 when you'll likely need a Ph.D. just to work in the meat department at Safeway.

Underneath the panic, I realize that an Ivy League education won't move my child to the front of the guaranteed-for-success line. What really matters is whether my husband and I will have what it takes to steer our kids, both African-American boys, through elementary, middle and high school with their sense of dignity, curiosity and lust for knowledge intact.

No one in our family will die if we never get to wear a UC-Berkley t-shirt or attend a Notre Dame/USC football game. But I'd feel pretty lousy if my grown children were still living in my basement, cooking up batches of crystal meth because I couldn't muster up enough passion to help them realize their potential.

Not surprisingly, there are lots of parents who start worrying about their kids' future before the tots know how to color within the lines, says Alexandra Robbins, author of the best-selling book, "The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids." Robbins says it's not uncommon to hear of parents who start "calling to get on waiting lists at private pre-schools right after conception. There's a pervasive myth in our society that people who go to certain tiers of college will have more success in life.

"There are 2,500 four year colleges and universities in the United States and most of them have caught up to, and many of them have surpassed, the Ivy League schools in terms of quality of education," Robbins adds. "The name of the school doesn't indicate success. It's up to the parents to encourage kids to do things that make them happy, and success will come."

In other words: work on trusting your instinct enough to create a loving environment where your kindergartener can cultivate an appreciation for learning for its own sake. So much of parenting involves having faith that your best intentions -- and good planning and follow-through -- will make things right in the end. I'll try to get a grip. After all, I've only got a couple more years until my toddler heads to kindergarten.


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