All I Really Needed to Know ABOUT Kindergarten

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(One Working Mom’s Perspective)

Yeah. This post pretty much makes me the anti-Robert Fulghum. But here goes.

A few weeks ago, some friends of mine, with their first kids starting Kindergarten this month, asked me and another “veteran” elementary school mom what they should expect from their little ones’ first foray into big kid school. The other mom and I just laughed. Then we both took a suspiciously long gulp of beer, and gave each other that look. You know the one. The “you can’t know until you know,” look.

(By the way, this is the same look women exchange when men start talking about their “birthing experience.” Okay, buddy. Sure.)

Now that my littlest, Fozzie, is joining his big brother at our community elementary school [Single drop-off point in the morning! Insert the working mom happy dance!] I’ve been giving the Kindergarten question some thought. My own halcyon memories of Kindergarten — which it has to be said, took place at a Montessori School, not public school — are all of digging in the mud and eating flies on a log and insisting on wearing my ballet shoes to class. Because they were awesome, that’s why.

Since my frog-catching, boy-chasing days, the myriad roles that our schools play in the lives of children and their families have grown exponentially; and the scope of what teachers are expected to accomplish with our kids from 7:30 to 2:00 every day is massive. To be clear, we love our school and teachers; our kids are happy and thriving and learning. So this isn’t complaining, per se. It’s just a new paradigm, and if you’re not ready, it can knock you on your PTAss.

So. Here are some things I wish I’d understood before the Big K:

  1. Kindergarten is your 5th year of college (or 9th). Surprise, Mom and Dad! You got through your own schooling at whatever level, earned your degrees and certificates, went out into the world and got a job and eventually made, adopted or purchased a baby. Now that baby is old enough to ride in a booster seat and walk through those big double doors with a backpack bigger than he is, carrying all your hopes and dreams and family pride and a superhero lunchbox. He’ll take it from here, right?
    WRONG. Starting the first week of Kindergarten and continuing thereafter at whatever pace is least convenient for you and your day job, you are going to be busting it to meet course requirements. I predict:

    • Somewhere around the intersection of the “Animal Alphabet” module and the “Color Me Green” module,  you will spend two hours and endure multiple tantrums in order to send in three household items that are (a) recyclable (b) brown and (c) start with the letter Q. You’ll send these in only to discover that the project was actually last week. You just got a zero in Kindergarten. Dude.
    • By the mercury light of the streetlamp, you will gather leaves from your yard and glue them to a paper turkey, trying to make it look just messy enough that someone will believe your kid did it. Meanwhile, he’s upstairs asleep because you took the family out for pizza after work (celebrating the fact that you were too exhausted to cook) and forgot to open his backpack to look at the “Turkey Camouflage” assignment until long after he was down for the count. Your neighbor across the street will confirm to her husband that you actually are insane. Sadly, this isn’t even close to your low point.
    • On some important business day, you will show up at your workplace with sight words on sticky notes stuck to your ass. Those words will be “in” and “more.” Sorry.
    • Later, you will pat yourself on the back for buying a bag of 100 buttons, pipe cleaners or colored beads for the 100th Day class project, a week ahead (your fatal mistake), only to have them disappear into your house’s ever-present black hole. On the crucial morning, therefore, you will find yourself counting stale goldfish crackers into a baggie with your MASSIVELY and LOUDLY disappointed child berating you the whole time (he is totally right, btw, you only have 87 goldfish). So you’ll have to choose between (a) missing your 9:00 work meeting to drop him off, run to the store and go back to the school with 100 marshmallows or paper clips, (b) teaching him the hard lesson that everyone makes mistakes sometimes and hoping for the least humiliating classroom experience possible or (c) convincing him that 100 coffee beans are a perfectly acceptable substitute and don’t “smell SO gus-gusting.” My money’s on (a) or (c).
  2. Kindergarten teachers run a tight ship. We’re talking “Von Trapp family before Maria” tight. With the whistle and everything. (Not that I blame them. Have you met our kids?) But if you are supposed to be the mystery reader or bring birthday cupcakes or similar at 12:45, that doesn’t mean the same thing as, say, a 9:00 meeting at work (i.e., by 9:02 you should be getting your coffee and seriously considering heading to Conference Room B). No. It means your allotted time slot in that classroom is 12:45 to 12:49. Don’t be showing up with that shit at 12:48 because their seven-minute recess period starts at 12:50, and the teacher will be forced to spend the single minute that remains explaining that we don’t call other people’s mommies mean names when they don’t deliver cupcakes on time.
  3. As a corollary to the above, Your kindergartener only respects his/her teacher’s authority. You are nothing, with your constant feeding and clothing and singing him to sleep. That crap has revealed you for the weakling you are, and you’ve lost his respect. You can have your cute little “House Rules” but those are nothing compared to “Class Rules.” You may be able to capitalize on this temporarily: to get him to do something around the house if you let him be “Line Leader” or “Napkin Helper.” Don’t get cocky, though. This only works a few times before he smells a rat, so use it wisely. Also: if you’re absolutely desperate, your Kindergartener may believe once that you will call his teacher if he doesn’t behave at home, and vice versa. This is the parent-teacher version of a nuclear peace.
  4. Kindergarten today is nothing like it was when we were little. It’s more like second grade in terms of behavior expectations and academic rigor. (They’re not allowed to use the word “ball” in my kid’s class. They have to say “sphere” because that’s what they’ll see on standardized tests in third grade.) Kids don’t get nearly enough free time to play and move and explore the way their bodies and brains are designed. Their day isn’t child directed or even teacher directed. It’s board of education and policy-maker directed, frustratingly and endlessly structured and assessed and crammed full of meaningless measurement activities by well-meaning people with PhDs and desk jobs — all of whom are pursuing a logical fallacy. It’s all based on the idea that success on tests predicts (rather than simply correlates to) success in college which predicts success in life; and that if 6th grade is good, 4th grade is better, and if we could just start prepping our six year olds to take the SATs now, we’ll beat China and Russia at whatever it is that makes countries “best.” This will make you angry and sad and confused when you notice it, and I wish I had a suggestion about making it better. Rest assured, your child’s teacher probably wishes that too. I couldn’t think of a funny ending to this point, so we’ll just move on.
  5. But some things never change. Like boredom and delight and friendships and feeling left out and circle time and those little cartons of milk in the cafeteria. The good news is, your kid probably doesn’t realize yet that he ought to be getting an additional hour of recess every day, or that when you were in Kindergarten, your main focus was on learning your colors and letters and how to not push others in the line for the swings. Wait, your school had swings? Slow down, Houdini.
  6. And like the one overachiever who ruins it for everyone else. No, I’m not talking about the smartest kid in the class (which is obviously your kid, duh). I’m talking about that one parent in the class who is always taking things to the next level and raising the bar for the rest of us. Store-bought birthday treats and those old school paper Valentines just aren’t enough for this mom (let’s be honest, it’s a mom – when dads have this kind of time on their hands, they take a nap like reasonable people). Her kid hands out little custom craft paper bags – decorated with thumbprint art and engraved gift labels in the shape of her child’s silhouette – with six dollars worth of disgustingly thoughtful goody bag crap in them, including the pencil bag her child hand-embroidered with your child’s name on her Little Miss Amazing sewing machine. It puts your tear-apart Ninja Turtle valentines — with the little frame part of the sticker halfway ripped off and a little bit of jelly where he was forcibly signing them at breakfast — to shame. You want to hate this mom, but she’s aggressively kind, volunteers in the classroom constantly and is always organizing the stuff your kid loves to do. Hating her just makes you even less awesome than you were before the 10 p.m. emergency valentine run to Target. But you still kind of hate her. No one said having young children made you a better person.
  7. And the one it’s okay to hate a little. The “my kid’s so awesome” parent. This one supersedes Kindergarten of course, but the first years of school are when this charmer is in his (or her – happy to say this delightful archetype is non gender-specific) most concentrated form. This is before the dirty looks from other parents, and inevitable imperfections of every child, have made him or her slightly more tolerable. You find this parent everywhere: on Facebook, at birthday parties and… monopolizing the teacher at PTA night with super relevant, non-braggy questions like, “Should I send in some flash cards in case Mackenzie finishes all her work early?” “How soon will the advanced children be separated from the rest of the class? Little Connor always acts out when he’s bored.” (Pssst. Little Connor isn’t bored. He’s an asshole.) And, “I know you said not to discuss individual situations, but hypothetically, what do we do if our child already knows ALL the sight words?”

I’ll tell you what you can do. Hang on, let me spell it out with the Animal Alphabet…

MJ Pullen

M.J. Pullen is an author and the mom of two boys in Roswell, Georgia, where she is absolutely late for something important right now. Find her Romantic Comedies, including THE MARRIAGE PACT trilogy, in bookstores everywhere; and the "Mom-Com" EVERY OTHER SATURDAY for digital readers.

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