It was past 10 on a Sunday night and my 4-year old couldn’t sleep. He sat up in bed, whispering, “One plus one is two … two plus two is four … one plus two is three.”
My son had never shown any symptoms of anxiety. Happiness radiates from him. And he’s outgoing to the point of hilarity: He once walked up to a hotel bar and asked if they could give him some milk.
Because he’s an only child, his father and I decided to enroll him in preschool so he could play with other children. We opted for the VPK program at his public school, purportedly one of the state’s best K-8 centers.
But now, half the year in, we were faced with a child so anxious that he couldn’t sleep.
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“We have testing Monday and Tuesday,” he told me when I asked why he was counting. “And math is hard.”
My heart broke. Neither my husband nor I, both in our 40s, ever went to preschool. I don’t think I even knew what a “test” or “math” was when I was his age.
I had wished to expand his little world. And now I held a little boy who couldn’t fall asleep with worry.
I assured him that this was a silly test meant to measure the teacher’s skill not his own. That Mom and Dad didn’t care at all about this test and neither should he. But he kept insisting that the test was very important and he had to do well. When he begged me to keep him from school, I asked him what he was worried about. What was the worst that could happen if he didn’t do well?
He gave me his sweet child’s answer: “Mrs. ___ won’t give me a gold star.”
I finally got him to sleep by singing lullabies. But I was angry and shaken. The survey we were asked to fill out at the beginning of the year should have been a warning.
It asked us what educational goals we had for our son. I filled out the form, answering: “None.” I wrote something to the effect of: “We want him to learn to play, be respectful and get along with others.”
At the next meeting with the teacher, she said that in 30 years of teaching no parent had ever filled out the form that way.
Why not? Have we become so ambitious as parents that we are willing to rob our children of their playful innocence in exchange from some huckster’s promised academic “benefit” down the road?
Does anyone really believe that a child’s future hinges on his ability to master simple math by the age of 5?
I am a writer. My husband has a doctorate degree. We are a family that values learning and education.
But we also value play. At this age, in fact, play is learning. Dozens of recent studies back up that assertion. And yet, somehow, our public schools have not caught up to the latest research.
Instead, they are turning what should be the joyful childhood years into miniature versions of the competitive, soulless slog too many of us have accepted as the wages of adulthood.
That Sunday night, I sang softly to my son, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.
And I lay with him a long while after he’d gone to sleep thinking, what purpose is served in this hard world by interrupting the merry reverie of small children?
Ana Menendez is the author of four books of fiction, including ‘In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd.’ She lives in Miami.