8 ways to gracefully opt out of the academic arms race

The nuclear arms race of academics and extracurriculars is not imaginary.

At least in our neck of the woods (the suburbs of New York City), kindergarteners are now expected to understand what was once first grade material. In turn, that has ratcheted up the pressure on preschools to prepare them properly.

I have listened with clenched jaw to many good friends as they rant about the staff of various preschools (all fabulous) for failing to adequately prepare their kids for kindergarten. I have watched with a knot in my stomach as my sons’ friends get scheduled within an inch of their lives at age 4 and 5. Topping the list these days are: competitive sports programs, arts programs, and yes, even academic tutoring programs.

I mention my clenched jaw because it takes an enormous amount of effort to refrain from joining this rat race. It is hard not to worry that I am somehow cheating my children by “opting out” on their behalf. At least right now.

The desire that drives parents to push their young, young children academically and otherwise is primal. We all want our kids to thrive. And so we invest in the activities and tutoring programs that appear on the surface to help give them a leg up academically and socially.

Unfortunately the research shows the academic push-down and chronic over-scheduling is counterproductive.

First of all, from an academic standpoint, the brains of small children are not necessarily ready to grasp more abstract academic concepts. While they may be able to “perform,” their brains are not necessarily comprehending or learning. Is that what we really want? Consider this:

“A crucial shift in children’s cognitive skills occurs at around age six. Although the cognitive changes that occur during infancy and the preschool years are dramatic (as children learn their native language, for instance), almost all theories of development point to age six as the time when children begin to actually “reason” in the commonsense meaning of the word.” — Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Ph.D., via http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/09_02_02.pdf

Additional research shows that children’s developmental schedule hasn’t changed in the past 70 years. So we can push academics down all we want, but that doesn’t mean our kids are ever going to be ready for it.

And because they aren’t developmentally ready for it, it’s hurting them. Experts have noted a jump in negative attitudes about school and a dramatic increase in feelings of failure among preschool aged children, which makes me want to weep.

I saw this in my own son when he was labeled “slow” at the start of kindergarten because he was not developmentally ready to read. He got his sea legs by the middle of the year and has gone on to thrive. But I had to work hard to protect him from the judgement and fear that was rampant in the school system – and the push to invest in a tutor. (It also gave me a new appreciation for why parents choose to red-shirt their kids. I absolutely would have done the same had I known then what I know now.)

In addition to the push-down, all of the relentless scheduling robs our kids of the most essential building block to learning: play.

The director of our boys’ preschool says it well, “Kids need time to play – without rules or structure or supervision. Play IS their work. Through play, they learn how to communicate, problem solve, count, share, and generally make sense of the world around them.”

Ironically, if the arms race is in full-swing in your town, taking your foot off the gas will require proactive organization on your part. If you don’t have alternative plans in place, it is far, far too easy to get swept up in the mania.

Here are 8 ways to opt out of the arms race gracefully

1. Read up on the topic.
There are many great academic studies about children’s need for unstructured play. The more you dig in to the topic, the easier it will be down the line to resist the urge to over schedule and academically groom your young child.

2. Talk it over with your spouse.
Both parents do need to be on the same page where this is concerned and speak with one voice, to schools & teachers, to friends & family, and to your children.

3. Set a household policy.
Limit your preschool- 3rd grade child to one or two structured activities beyond school per season (that translates to 1 or 2 per week). Instituting rules or guidelines can make it a lot easier to say no.

4. If asked about signing your child up for something, beg for time.
Swap your “yes, that sounds great” for “that sounds really interesting; let me think about [child’s schedule] and get back to you with an answer.” Then use the time to determine whether or not it really is in the best interest of your child to sign them up.

5. Script Some “No” Responses
Sometimes it’s easier to have a canned response to friendly peer pressure to join x,y,z activity than to figure out how to respond appropriately in the moment.

6. Communicate your point of view with your child’s teachers.
Use the first parent-teacher conference of the year to discuss your expectations with the teachers. Let them know your primary goal. For example, we always emphasize our desire for our preschooler is to teach them to love learning, discovering, exploring and relating to others. ABC’s are nice, but not necessary.

7. Make your house a go-to play zone.
Once you know your child’s schedule, send an email out to all of your friends letting them know your house is always open for play dates on XYZ days/times. We’ve found that make it much more likely your child will have plenty of playmates if you live in an area where kids cannot just “go out and play.”

8. Hit the playground often.
It offers the benefits of “go out and play” in a world where just going out to play isn’t supported.

Do you fear the academic arms race? Do you see it in your preschool or early grammar schools? What do you do, if anything, to “opt-out”?