In Youngest Years, Diversity of Options is Key

I recently asked my parents why they had decided to enroll me in preschool.  My mom’s response was simple: “Because we could afford it.  Because you were an only child at the time and we wanted to ensure interaction with your peer group.  Because I stayed home with you all day, every day and it was nice to have a few hours, a few times a week to run errands alone.” 

My mom was and still is an educator, so I was surprised that her answer didn’t include anything about formal education, acquiring a specific set of knowledge about letters and numbers, or about placing the responsibility of my learning on the educational institution I was attending.  But then I reflected back to those hazy memories more than two decades ago.  I honestly don’t remember preschool besides what the crumpled photos in my memory book tell me.  But I do remember my mom reading to me, the same gold-spined story-book so many times that I briefly convinced my dad that I knew how to read at three years old because I had memorized every word.  I remember my dad taking me to the grocery store with him every Saturday, showing me the different kinds of vegetables, letting me count the change, teaching me to keep my balance on the Meijers penny-horse. My early education, though it included preschool, was firmly placed in the experiential learning world of my household.  My parents took responsibility for themselves as my first teachers.

In metro DC, where I currently live, I can count on one hand the number of families I know where a parent has the option of staying home with their children.  I recognize that in today’s financial and societal context, stay-at-home parenthood often comes at too high a price to make it feasible for most families.  But that doesn’t change the capacity of both parents and a diversity of educational, health, worship, and other institutions to take responsibility together for a young child’s formal and experiential learning.

Some families will choose to have a parent or trusted care-taker be their young child’s only formal education before kindergarten, some parents will decide to enroll their child on a part-time basis in a religious or secular preschool program, still other families will place their young children in a full-time daycare/preschool environment.  What is important to consider in this ever-changing landscape of early childhood is that not all families operate on an equal playing field.  Many parents struggle weekly to pay the high costs of daycare, while wishing they had the financial means to be their own child’s first teacher. 

Because families and their children have diverse needs, multiple institutions, including faith based organizations that put a special emphasis on the family unit, must be given the space and freedom to innovate diverse programs and services to help provide for young children and their families. Churches and para-church organizations are often the gathering grounds of communities and neighborhoods, providing a wide array of services that directly or indirectly support early childhood education. 

Consider the faith-based food pantry that ensures young children and their families have the nutritional fuel they need to engage with the world around them.  Or a young adults ministry that offers a free Friday night movie for young children, giving parents a time to reconnect with each other and the Lord.  Or a computer technology program offered at a church-based community center that gives parents an opportunity for professional development.  Consider a Titus 2 Mentoring Program offered by older women of many faith-based institutions, pouring into young wives and mothers so that they have the support and equipping to pour into their young children.

Faith-based organizations and the church play a unique, if of course imperfect, role in this constantly evolving context of educating young children.  Parents who choose to place their children in a faith-based preschool environment may wish to impart a bigger message to their children, beyond ABC’s and 123’s.  Or they may trust the safe, secure reputation that religious institutions still have in many places.  Or they may find that a faith-based program is better able to accommodate their financial situation.  The reasons a family turns to a faith-based preschool for a child are as diverse as the children themselves. 

Recently, early childhood education has received a lot of political and public attention from across a wide variety of disciplines, which is a positive thing.  For example, in June, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for pediatricians to encourage parents to read to their children at well-child visits, connecting the importance of childhood thriving and parental involvement in their child’s development. Likewise, funding for early childhood has taken center stage on a local, state and national level in the recent elections. 

However, the debate is often framed by the assumption that a formal education institution is the only and best educational option for young children.  Yet if it really is true that almost all of what I learned before kindergarten was in the home, then I would hope those early years would be filled which rich and diverse experiences, mixing home and church and school and community. Government policies should recognize childhood diversity and empower parents with the freedom to choose where the funding of their young child’s education should go, thereby giving parents the opportunity to take more ownership for their own roles in the shaping of their children’s hearts and minds. 

- Chelsea Langston is an attorney who works for a nonprofit association in Maryland. She is also a fellow with the Center for Public Justice.