Q: How important is a structured preschool? My 3-year-old daughter is in a day care/Montessori school program, and she is thriving. Her vocabulary and ability to make cognitive connections (such as "wind caused the branches to fall down") are really impressive. The only area she's "lacking" in is group situations and instructions. I have her in ballet, and she's the one off in the corner dancing by herself. I don't mind it, and I'm not intervening, but I've heard from family members that she's not ready for kindergarten (2021) until she can stand in line and follow basic instructions. They are pushing me to get her into a better program, but I love the provider she is with right now and feel as if it is the right choice for my family. Am I setting her behind if I don't do a proper preschool? (Cost would be about $26,000 per year.) I don't care about the cost if it is at the expense of my daughter's development.

A: How important is a structured preschool? The quick answer is not very important.

Before I go down the “what preschoolers actually need in school” path, let’s address the elephant in the room: your well-meaning family members. Despite the fact that your daughter is happy and thriving, despite the fact that you can afford your current program, and despite the fact that you know your daughter best, you are choosing to listen to family members who, I assume, don’t live with her day-to-day or pay your expenses. If I am right, then you need to figure out why you believe the other program is better, and why you choose to ignore your gut and child’s needs.

Can family members have insights? Absolutely. Do they want the best for us? Mostly. But you have to remember this: In the absence of keeping an open mind, family members will return to certain opinions and beliefs because that is all they know. For whatever reason, teaching children to be obedient and stand still is your family’s holy grail of preschool, and that is not what your child wants or needs right now.

You have to trust that you know what is best for your child. This doesn’t mean we don’t listen to others, it doesn’t mean we are the expert of every topic related to parenting, and it doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes and learn from them. Trusting yourself means you feel that you understand your child and her unique needs. It also means you will change something when the time comes to change it. The director of your current Montessori leaves and the school goes to pot? You choose something else. Your child outgrows the curriculum or expresses boredom and begins to misbehave? You move her. Your child loves the school and the teachers, and it feels like a second home and family? You stay.

Thank your family members for their concern; let them know you will definitely work on getting your daughter to stand in line and obey, and then drop it. You only have to say once what you intend to do. If they don’t respect your kind response, be more direct until they do.

In terms of what a 3-year-old needs out of school and life, I highly recommend picking up Deborah MacNamara’s “Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One).”

MacNamara highlights the essential needs for a preschooler: rest, both physical and emotional, play (which is how young children learn), and tears (which is how they adapt to what doesn’t work for them). When you understand this paradigm more deeply, you begin to see why your daughter is thriving.

Your daughter’s school is fostering critical thinking through play and experimentation, as well as lifting the expectation that a child sit or stand for long periods of time. Do we expect your child to eventually patiently stand in a line? Sure, but that takes time and incremental steps.

Right now, it doesn’t make developmental sense to browbeat a 3-year-old into standing in line — her desire to explore is the greater need, so that is what you foster. Does this mean you allow her to run amok in a store? On a plane? In a parking lot? No, you hold her hand, make her stay put and let her cry. That’s the repetition from the parent to encourage the eventual patience that will manifest in the coming years. But school? No. Your daughter’s job is to play and rest.

As for “dancing in a corner by herself,” your daughter may not play with others until she’s 4 or older, and this is completely typical. Many children stand back and watch others, and they learn a great deal from that. Age 3 is when children have mostly one perspective: their own. There is no reason to worry about your daughter, nor is there any reason to force her to play with others. If anything, it will only backfire and make her needy and anxious. To understand more about children and play, check out ­EncouragePlay.com and look at the Social Stages of Play page.

Now, go find your parenting backbone, and enjoy your child’s growth and happiness. You’ve got this. Good luck.

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