Kindergarten Looms for a 5-Year-Old and His Mom

A five year old boy lines up against a wall to be measured. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Peter at 5. Will he measure up? Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, February 16, 1986

I slipped a sheet of paper across the breakfast table toward Peter, then rolled a couple of marking pens his way.

“Hey, Peter,” I said, trying to be nonchalant. “Want to draw a picture of He-Man?”

Peter smelled a rat. He is barely 5 years old, but he can smell a rat.

“You do it,” he said.”

“I’ll tell you what. I’ll draw his head and you can draw his eyes and nose.”

I drew a large circle on the paper, using my left hand so that the lines would be nice and wobbly and not too intimidating.

“Now it’s your turn,” I said, keeping calm.

Peter obliged by drawing a fierce blue line from one side of He-Man’s face to the other, followed by, not two, but eight dots for the eyes.

I kept a straight face.

Peter carefully drew one nostril, then, not so carefully, the other. I sensed victory.

But suddenly wild scribbles covered the page and Peter was walking across the room to look at an album of his baby pictures.

Now, I had done it: Once again, Peter had refused to show any enthusiasm for drawing. What’s worse, he felt so bad about not pleasing me that he was over there on the other side of the room regressing to his baby days.

The how-to-raise-a-brighter-child experts and the gourmet baby moms who start their little ones on flashcards as soon as they can sit up would say I had just bumbled the job of maximizing my child’s potential.

The laissez-faire developmentalists would say even worse, that I had just demolished my child’s self esteem by asking him to do something he wasn’t ready to do.

I joined Peter over by the photo albums. We squashed ourselves into an easy chair and thumbed through the albums, regressing happily together.

But the question remained. What, oh, what is to become of a 5-year-old who won’t draw?

This is not a frivolous question. If you don’t have the small motor control and hand-eye coordination to draw, the early childhood experts insist, you don’t have what it takes to write.

Seven months from now, Peter will be starting kindergarten. My husband and I don’t know yet whether we prefer the public school down the street, or the more careful, nurturing atmosphere of a private school with its smaller class size.

Either way, Peter will not enjoy kindergarten as his parents knew it. California kindergartens — public and private — are not the cut-and-paste, sing-and-dance idylls of earlier decades.

Many California schools are trying to teach kindergarteners to read and write — and that includes the public school down the street.

Most of the children in our neighborhood go to nursery school, the principal explained to us last fall. By the time they reach kindergarten they are ready for an academic program.

I wonder. So do the developmentalists. Many very bright children are not ready to read until they are 6 or 6 1/2, they argue. And if you keep asking a child to do something that is over his head, he will begin to think of himself as a failure.

I looked down at Peter curled up next to me in the easy chair, the flashing brown eyes, the warm, confident smile that draws children and adults to him wherever  he goes, the stubby fingers, so adept at assembling intricate space ships out of tiny blocks.

Peter, ready for his first day of kindergarten at Bentley School, September, 1986. Photo c 1986 B.F. Newhall

Peter, not quite ready for his first day of kindergarten. Photo by Barbara Newhall

This is a smart kid, I told myself. Last month he sat still for 22 chapters of “Charlotte’s Web.” He is not going to be the class failure. And, no, he will not be throwing paper wads across the room while the other children make neat entries in their workbooks.

Still, I mused, if he would just draw me a nice picture of a dinosaur or a spaceman, I would be reassured. Then I wouldn’t have to worry about The Test.

The Test is something we learned about when we began applying to private schools.. Peter is scheduled for three of them.

For 40 minutes to an hour, they will take our little son away and ask him to do things like match pictures, name the beginning letters of words, add two plus one, answer questions about stories — and draw.

Some schools insist that it is not really a test. It is just an evaluation. All they want to know is whether the child is ready for kindergarten.

I don’t care by what euphemism the whole business is known, those three schools will be testing Peter, scrutinizing him, measuring him. Finding out how he stacks up against the competition.

Competition? At age 5?

You had better believe it.

At schools located in urban parts of the Eastbay, where parental dissatisfaction with public schools is high, the competition is fierce . . .

Some private elementary schools accept a few children in higher grades, but in most cases, if you don’t get into kindgarten, you don’t get in.

So here he is, barely 5 years old, and still seven months away from kindergarten, and already Peter is being asked to prove himself.

As Peter would say, my stomach hurts.

© 1986 The Oakland Tribune. Used by permission.

More about Peter at “Peter Has Appendicitis in Minnesota. How Do I Mother Him From California?”  Also, “Time to Crack Open That Hope Chest and Live a Little.”

Celebrate the one-year anniversary of my book, “Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith,” by ordering yourself a copy — or sending one on to a friend.


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