Q: Our daughter will be 5 in mid-September and is very excited about kindergarten. We were also quite excited about it until we went to a parents' orientation at our elementary school. Now we are concerned to let her begin.
The kindergarten teacher set a very discouraging tone about "young" 5-year-olds starting kindergarten. Up until the orientation, we thought that our daughter would do fine: She has a friendly personality, she is happy and she is interested in many things. Moreover, she has no problems separating from Mom, can listen to a number of stories intently, is not distracted while working on a project and has pretty good pencil control.
Although she has not attended preschool, she has taken a variety of classes (art, swimming, etc.) and likes to be with other children, though she strives to be the best and has a bit of trouble if she doesn't reach her goal. Most people meeting her think she is friendly and outgoing.
We let it be known at the meeting that we were somewhat distressed about what to do. Their answer was: "You know her best." Yes, we do, but are the odds really that much against her succeeding simply because she will be one of the youngest children in the class?
What is your opinion about going versus waiting? Is it as dangerous as the schoolteacher asserted? We are confused and concerned and clearly don't want to make a serious mistake, either way, at the start.
A: The experts have put the rest of us into an ALARM mode. If they aren't making us think that every child is about to be kidnapped or abused and that domestic violence is a new way of life, they've got us thinking that the possibility of a slight setback -- like going to school a little early -- is as dangerous as running in the street.
It's not. If by chance a child is too young for school, it's not the end of the world. Children are extremely resilient, both physically and psychologically. It's too bad the teacher didn't mention that, too.
Many teachers and doctors don't realize how seriously parents listen to their opinions, weigh every nuance -- and find a few that aren't even there. There is only one thing the teacher said that really matters: You know your child best.
For the rest, she was giving you and all new parents the latest and generally correct thinking on early education -- a child may be too young for kindergarten. This is because of her behavior, however, not her age or her intellectual ability.
Some children are ready for school sooner than others, not necessarily because they're smarter, but because they are more mature, socially and neurologically. The development of girls usually runs about six months ahead of boys until about the fourth grade, when the boys catch up.
The teacher's warning also may reflect a growing trend: More and more parents are putting their children in nursery school and day care earlier than ever but delaying first grade until their children are 7, as if this would make them smarter. This is particularly true in big-city private schools.
Generalities and trends are indiscriminate, however. Parents should look at their children as individuals, rather than follow the fads automatically.
Your own child seems quite ready for kindergarten this year. According to your appraisal, she is an interested, interesting, independent person who competes against herself, rather than others; who gets along well with her classmates; and who has good control of her hands, good concentration and a good attitude toward learning.
There isn't much more she needs, except perhaps endurance, so she can keep up with her classmates and last through the half-day program five days a week.
She should, however, have a nurturing teacher who doesn't think children should read before kindergarten (and won't try to teach them) and who appreciates and encourages the qualities they need to do well in school.
The children who do best in kindergarten have a love of language, because they've grown up with storybooks and give-and-take conversations. This enrichment helps children use words appropriately, share ideas with others and be good listeners -- all important skills at school.
They are patient enough to work -- and play -- at the same activity for about 10 minutes; have fingers that are nimble enough to tear paper, if not cut it; can pound with some precision; use markers freely and build rather skillfully with blocks, so they can refine their control and print with more ease next year.
Above all, the children think well of themselves and others; respect the property of the classroom because they know it's their property too; get along with other children, and are excited about going to school.
Continue to encourage this excitement -- and ease any anxieties -- by reading When You Go to Kindergarten by James Howe (Knopf; $5.95) to your little girl.
And when school starts, ease your own anxieties by taking a good look at the many sizes and shapes and colors and abilities in her class.
It's a mixed bouquet that blooms in any garden of children. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.