Sunday, June 12, 2005

Everyone agrees that children should receive the best education possible to prepare the next generation for life. There is less agreement, however, about the most effective way to provide that education and when to start the formal process. Across the United States, the compulsory age to begin school varies from 5 to 8.

Parents in states with a higher starting age have more flexibility in determining whether their children are truly ready for formal education. The Home School Legal Defense Association believes parents are in the best position to judge their children’s readiness. There has, however, been a push to lower the compulsory attendance age or mandate preschool. In 2002, a bill was defeated in the D.C. Council that would have made preschool mandatory for all children as young as 3 years old.

The theory advanced by mandatory-preschool advocates is that children need to be exposed to formal education early or they will fall behind and become societal burdens. Is this true? Does forcing 3-year-olds into formal education improve their educational attainment?

Contrary to what we hear when states push to get children in school earlier, research suggests that preschool children suffer from various aliments when they are exposed to early formal education. This is not the fault of teachers but the simple reality that preschoolers’ minds are not ready to master the skills they need for structured education. It’s just too soon.

For example, psychologist and professor of child development David Elkind discovered in his 2001 study “Much Too Early” that the capacity to manipulate symbols mentally is developed around age 5 or 6. This makes it possible for children to attain a level of achievement in math or reading, for instance, that is not possible for preschool children. Furthermore, a report by the Southwest Policy Institute says, “Contrary to common belief, early institutional schooling can harm children emotionally, intellectually and socially.”

Children are dependent on their parents for their care. If a child is deprived of the parental bond early in life, his or her natural development is disrupted.

It is impossible to predict the exact long-term outcomes of severing the bond between parent and child, but the experience of Czechoslovakia under Soviet oppression gives some insight.

Clinical psychologist David A. Scott reported in a talk called “Day Care and Democracy in Eastern Europe” that “[i]nstitutionalized children … suffered developmental retardation and deprivation. In comparison with children raised in families, the institutionalized children suffered heightened emotional disorders, fear, tension, behavioral disorders.”

Recent media reports stemming from a Yale University study have shown that preschoolers are being expelled from their school programs in ever-increasing numbers. In response, many commentators have used the Yale study as an excuse to ask for more money. However, could it be that many children are responding negatively because they are separated from their parents and not ready for this heightened social interaction?

In the drive to ensure that our children receive the best education, we are in danger of overinstitutionalizing them. A child will develop naturally if the parents give the child what he or she needs most in the formative years — plenty of love and attention. In this way, the brain can develop freely, and when the child is ready, he or she can begin formal schooling.

The best early-childhood education is in the home. Children’s educational, emotional and psychological needs can be provided by their parents in a safe home environment where the children can pursue their own interests without distractions. Then home education could become the natural outworking of the preschool years.

As the debate over mandatory preschool continues, it’s time to take a closer look at the dangers of preschool. Evidence shows that young children are better off at home. Spending vast sums of money to force children into preschool could harm large numbers of children who would carry the scars of their preschool experience into their later school years. This is not in the best interest of children.

Educating the next generation is crucial. We cannot afford to experiment with new systems, especially when the evidence shows that there are problems with the new methods. Additionally, all efforts should be made to try to make the current schools successful before bringing even younger children into the school environment. Supporting what we know works and allowing parents to freely choose is the wisest course of action for a child’s early education.

Michael Smith is the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association. He may be contacted at 540/338-5600, or send e-mail to

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