When we lost power during the hurricane last week, one of the books I started thumbing through was on old copy of Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk that my mother had bequeathed to me. I’m already familiar with the concepts author David Elkind writes about, but began to feel somewhat uneasy as I read his words…

All across the country, educational programs intended for school-age children are being appropriated for the education of young children.  In some states educational administrators are advocating that children enter school at age four.  Many kindergarten programs have become full-day kindergartens, and nursery school programs have become pre-kindergartens.  Moreover, many of these kindergartens have introduced curricula, including work papers, once reserved for first-grade children. 

When we instruct children in academic subjects at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose.  There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm.

I understand there are those that don’t have much of a choice in the matter – families where both parents have to work in order to pay the bills, for instance – but it has often saddened me when parents put their children in daycare programs rather than keeping them at home – especially as early as the newborn stage.  I was fortunate that I was able to take Gwendolyn to my part-time job when she was a baby; despite the inconvenience factor, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

As Gwendolyn has gotten bigger, neared school-age, I have been re-examining my role as her mother and caregiver.  The idea of public education has always turned me off, for a number of reasons, and private school has its own issues (aside from being expensive).  I myself graduated from a Christian school; while it has its upsides, and one school can be vastly different from the next, I don’t know that I would choose that for my own children.  However, I was homeschooled for a few years before entering private school, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Having a background in homeschool, knowing people who homeschool their families, having a support network in place and feeling as strongly as I do that God entrusted His children to my care – not wanting to hand over a large part of their upbringing to someone else to raise and instill them with values – homeschooling my kiddos seems like the obvious choice.

As I have researched the vast array of homeschool teaching methods, the one that most appeals to me is unschooling.  The idea of cultivating a child’s natural love of learning, keeping it alive simply by pursuing your interests and learning through those pursuits, finding what works best for us “without depending on educational institutions, publishing companies, or experts to tell them what to do,” sounds inspirational and freeing.

Because each and every family is different, each and every method will be different, and you will find variations on a theme.  I didn’t worry too much about getting Gwendolyn ready for grade requirements, because we already engage in educational activities and pursuits all the time.  She loves books, we go to the library every week and come home with an armload – she’ll learn to read, no problem.  

I was constantly surprised when people would ask me if – at three years old – she was in school, or would soon be riding the bus to school.  They were often surprised that she was with me every day.  Gwen started showing an interest in the idea of school, of course riding a bus, and I told her Mommy wants to teach her at home.  Since she has enjoyed structured, classroom-type environments – like at Sunday School, one-morning-a-week Bible school, and VBS (vacation Bible school) in the Summer – I thought I’d do a little experiment and plan a preschool curriculum for her.

We’ve officially begun preschool (or what probably amounts to pre-pre-K), and have three weeks under our belts, but I’m constantly questioning myself.  Some days it feels so forced; I have to conjure up the excitement to try and get Gwen (and Josiah, depending on the activity – though he’s up for anything) to “do school.”  I wonder if I’m forcing something for which she isn’t developmentally able, if my good intentioned-efforts will amount to her being frustrated and losing her zest for natural learning.  I try to turn fun things into learning experiences, and vice versa, but sometimes it feels like I fail miserably.  

Parents oftentimes do things for their kids, thinking it’s in their best interest, when really it serves to make the parents feel better – things like buying toys in excess, putting them in lots of extra-curricular activities and not allowing for downtime.  I believe miseducation is one of these things.  How much is too much, and too soon?  As David Elkind says, “We miseducate young children when we assume that their learning abilities are comparable to those of older children and that they can be taught with materials and with the same instructional procedures appropriate to school-age children.” 

I would also take this a step further and say that, since each child is different, traditional schooling as a whole can provide miseducation for a child at any age.  It keeps kids in an aritificial environment (a room full of their peers), relies on specific teaching-learning styles, while discouraging and labeling those personalities that are seen as disruptive. 

Babies and kids are smart – but there are some things for which they truly aren’t ready, and no amount of toys and gadgets and flashcards and memorization will make them learn those things before they are ready.  But in a society where infant education is accepted and promoted, and children are being expected to learn skills at a younger age, how do you realistically adjust your expectations and make the right decision for your family?

Earlier this morning I was reading some of my blog subscriptions, and I was inspired by Passionate Homemaking‘s Early Learning Preschool post.  I liked the idea of their casual, playful-yet-conducive-to-learning Circle Time.  This afternoon, doing some educational things with Gwen I spread a blanket on the floor first, and it suddenly became more fun for her. 

I so desperately want to do the right thing for my kiddos; I know I’m not supposed to be perfect but I want to be the best mommy I can be and do right by them.  I want to keep their love of learning alive, not squelch it with drills and instructions and workbooks.

Early childhood is a very important period of life.  It is a period when children learn an enormous amount about the everyday world.  It is also the time during which young children acquire lifelong attitudes toward themselves, toward others, and toward learning.  But it is not the time for formal academic instruction.  To appreciate this truth, we need to see the early years for what they are and not through the lenses of social, political, and personal dynamics that provide a distorted image of early-childhood competence.