My Decade at Preschool

An Arlington mom reflects on the most important lessons she learned when her kids were small.


The author with her kids, Alistair, Charlotte and Duncan. Photo by Erick Gibson.

Sixteen years ago, an elderly lady shuffled up to me in the Safeway on Harrison Street as I pushed my infant son down the aisle. She softly smiled at him and quipped, “The days are long, but the years are short.”

That baby is now a junior in high school and her remark has echoed in my ears ever since—mostly on the bad days.

Today, I have one child each in elementary, middle and high school, and a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the woman’s words. The toddler and preschool days did drag endlessly. But at the same time they were fleeting.

If you’re a parent who is currently in the throes of that life stage, consider a little advice from a veteran who spent 10 straight years in the hallways of five local preschools. You might say I got a master’s degree in the fine art of preschool. Here is my abridged dissertation, based on the thesis that we parents are the ones who really have a lot to learn.

1.    Taking turns is not just for kids. You don’t always have to bring the cookies, chaperone the field trip, or volunteer to be the Room Mom. If you wait, others will sign up. Pace yourself.

2.    It’s more important to be on time than to be perfect. Resist the urge to comb out the rat’s nest in your child’s hair or find the matching sock if it means you’ll be even a few minutes late. My kids wish I’d learned this one sooner.

3.    Good questions beget good answers. Learn how to ask open-ended questions (as opposed to those with yes or no answers) about school. Instead of “Did you have a nice day?,” try “Tell me something you liked about today. Tell me about circle time. What’s something you did today that you’re proud of?” Even more important, listen well to the answers.

4.    Model how to make friends. The adults you share a teacher with are your hall-mates for the school year. Treat them like co-workers, think of them as allies and put some effort into knowing them. In the process, you’ll show your child how to befriend someone.

5.    Ask for help. Don’t be proud. Most preschool schedules give parents small windows to accomplish lengthy to-do lists. So if you need a hand—say, a ride home for your child, or a playdate after school that makes a haircut or doctor’s appointment possible—ask a fellow parent. What makes your day better makes you a better parent. Plus, everyone likes to feel needed, so ask.

6.    The magic word is not please. It’s thank-you. Teach your children to say thank-you to their teacher at the end of each day. Please is about getting. Thank-you is about giving.

7.    Look in the mirror. Does your preschooler lack confidence? Remember that your kids are watching and learning from you. Where do you feel inadequate? What lies do you tell yourself? I know I had my favorites. Wow, these other moms have it all together. She goes to work. She obviously just ran 5 miles and it’s not even 9 a.m. I’ll bet her kitchen counters are clean. She plans dinner in advance and shops with coupons. Think of self-esteem as something tangible. If you don’t have it, you can’t give it to your kids.

8.    Have your child’s back. If your child kicks or bites a classmate, do not become so embarrassed that you cease to be his biggest advocate in the moment. Don’t let the shame you feel cloud your loyalties. Your child will make mistakes. Help him address the wrong behavior and apologize. Later, in private, try to find out what he was feeling when he lashed out and respond with compassion.

9.    Speak up. If a problem with a classmate or teacher arises, be direct and honest with the teacher or the other parent. Focus on your child’s experience without casting blame. Teach your child to speak up for herself by using “I feel, I want” language, such as “I feel sad when you make mean faces at me. I want you to stop making mean faces.”   

10.    Do your thing. Don’t worry about others judging how your child is dressed or what’s in his lunch box, be it a pack of Oreos or a bento box filled with kale chips. This falls into the “what others think of me” category, and your child will only live as free of pleasing others as you do.

11.    Imperfect is okay. Better to involve your child in the creation of a birthday treat or special snack and have it look weird than to have a picture-perfect cupcake that she was excluded from helping to make. (Alternatively, buying cupcakes is brilliant if it relieves the pressure to do something homemade. And picking them up at the closest grocery store is fine; you don’t need to make a special trip to Georgetown Cupcake.)

12.    Be present. It’s easy to become so distracted trying to record a Halloween parade or recital on video that you miss the sweetness of the moment. Naked eyes capture more. Put the viewfinder down and really take in what you are seeing and hearing. It’s okay if you have less footage for their rehearsal dinner, I promise.

13.    Don’t wish the time away. Take it from me and the older moms I represent: The school years ahead will whip by like a freight train. So be quick to laugh, skip and waste time with your kids. The laundry can wait. The emails can go unanswered. Look for the gift that each preschool day brings—a glitter-glue masterpiece, a smile from your daughter at pickup or a pebble found in the pocket of your son’s mini-sized jeans. Remember the wisdom of the magic word (see No. 6) and be grateful for this awful, wonderful, exhaustingly special season of parenthood.

Chris MacBride lives with her husband and three children on Parkhurst Park in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood. Her writing has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Washington Home and Design and The Washington Post. Her children attended Madison Center Preschool Co-op, Saint Agnes Pre-K, Westover Baptist Preschool, Trinity Presbyterian Preschool and the Falls Church Day School. They now attend Rivendell School and Gonzaga College High School.

Categories: Parents & Kids
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