Do We Expect Too Much From Our Kindergartners? I Think We Do

by Laura Anders Lee
Originally Published: 
A child in an orange shirt and brown shorts climbing and playing on a tree
Laura Anders Lee

As you can tell from the adorable and hilarious photos of 100-year-old-looking kids on Facebook, we are 100 days into kindergarten. First grade seems right around the corner, and boy, am I feeling the pressure.

My son, Anders, attends a Montessori school but goes to speech and occupational therapy for three sessions a week at the public K–8 school. The occupational therapist, who’s supposed to be helping him improve his mechanical skills (like the proper way to hold a pencil), shamed me this week by saying he should be writing sentences by now. “What has he been doing at that other school?” She was clearly exasperated.

“What has he been doing at that other school?” She was clearly exasperated.

My girlfriend, whose son is in kindergarten at public school, got a note home last week from the teacher saying, “He doesn’t know any sight words.” (Oh, I have a sight word for her all right!) I had never even heard of a sight word until a month ago.

Memorizing a bunch of words increases test scores, of course. What happened to phonics and sounding words out? I read an article recently about Finland having the best school system, and they don’t start reading and writing until age 7. Instead, they focus on play, lots of outdoor time, and practical life skills. Getting boys to sit down to read and write for hours is completely against their nature.

I admit I was a perfect student, the teacher’s dream from kindergarten through college. Then my brother came along two years later to prove he was the complete opposite. His third-grade teacher made him sit next to her, in a seat of shame, all year long. Today, he has two master’s degrees to my none and makes a lot more money.

When Anders still couldn’t walk at 15 months, my husband reassured me with the obvious fact that he wasn’t going to kindergarten scooting around on his bottom. I know Anders is not going into middle school illiterate. He’s going to read. He’s going to be successful. He’s just going to do it in his own time.

But here in America, moms stand around the playground spouting off their child’s IQ score and reading level like they have something to prove. Just why are we competing? We should be encouraging one another and calling out the strengths of our friends’ children, to let them know they’re doing a great job.

I actually did have Anders’s IQ tested because I was hoping for some answers to other challenges he’s faced. The night before the test, I lay in bed fantasizing that his IQ was 160. My inner defensive mama bear cried out, “That will show everybody! He’s just a genius. Take that all you dumb daycares that kicked him out!”

His IQ score was inconclusive. He refused to participate in several of the sections, and at one point, he ran out of the room crying as if he were fleeing a torture chamber. He loved the puzzles and math, but then on the vocabulary, he played coy. “Anders, what does the word ‘obey’ mean?” Anders with a big shit-eating grin answered, “I have never heard that word before in my entire life.”

Speaking of obeying, we just hired a behavioral coach a few days a week at school. I resisted doing it for so long, but it’s been wonderful for him to have an in-classroom advocate helping him focus and correcting his missteps. His “shadow” never punishes him. She simply takes away his reward and then gives him the opportunity to earn it back by correcting his behavior. He has responded so well to it. I have been using negative reinforcement all along, and it’s been, well, negative for us all.

Instead of talking about what level everybody’s on or revealing test scores for a child’s capacity to learn, let’s talk about what they’re actually learning. Yes, my 6 1/2-year-old is illiterate. His speech isn’t that great either. He still has trouble controlling his emotions. But he’s learning so much about the world. He’s getting the big picture.

Laura Anders Lee

Anders can’t spell or write “Venezuela,” but he can tell you all about it.

Laura Anders Lee

This shy, sometimes socially awkward introvert got on stage today and sang two songs in Spanish in front of a crowd!

Anders can master climbing a tree. He’s completely absorbed in math, science, and engineering, proving he is completely different from me. But lately what I’m most proud of is that he’s learning how to be kind and empathetic, and how to get along better with others, no matter what they look like or where they’re from. And that’s worth bragging about.

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