By this time next week, I will have attended not one, but two preschool graduations this year.
Up until about six weeks ago "preschool" and "graduation" were not commonly -- if ever! -- linked in my vocabulary. And prior to having children up until about a year ago, I would have scoffed at the notion -- and lumped it in with "social promotion" and a cultural obsession with praising the mediocre.
Now I have a graduating preschooler under my roof.
Now, I get it.
To be clear, I don't "get" the pint-sized caps, gowns and tassels. As much as retailers would like to convince me, I don't believe preschool graduation is on par with college graduation.
But. I do believe it is a milestone in my daughter's young life. Maybe we need more milestone-marking. We Tweet and Facebook about every little thing in our lives, what about the big things in theirs? When we post about them, that doesn't do anything to acknowledge the event to them (assuming they are still social networking in real life, and not this online version we all love so much).
All that said, I do agree with author & lecturer Alfie Kohn when he says too much praise can be counter productive in growing happy, healthy children. For this reason, I try to match my enthusiasm to Nia's own pride in her accomplishments.
Case in point: Yesterday I saw her go further on the monkey bars than ever before. This has been a goal of hers for many months now, something I know she's worked hard at. When she dropped to the ground, I expected her to look at Joe and me with a big grin. Instead, she just ran over to another set of bars and did something else. She never mentioned her accomplishment, so neither did we. Had we focused on it and praised her, we might have embarrassed her, or diminished the accomplishment. Or -- worse yet -- made her think we were pretty simple ourselves for thinking something every kid should be able to do was amazing. (Maybe she's been doing this for awhile and we hadn't noticed?!)
But graduating was different. She was proud to participate in a "moving-on-to-Kindergarten" ceremony, to be part of a graduating group, but also recognized individually in a public way.
Some have criticized this graduation practice as being wholly unnecessary since the child didn't achieve anything extraordinary -- saying there was nothing earned, no adversity overcome.
And before having children, I might have agreed.
But watching Nia graduate -- and the build up of the days before, I realized something. Graduation ceremonies are as much about saying, "Yes! You did it!" as they are a gentle way of saying, "Your time here is complete. Whether you are scared or excited, it is time to move on." It is a time for saying good-bye to friends and teachers and the comforts of the familiar. Kindergarten is the Big Leagues. All preschoolers know that. (No less scary than the idea of leaping into the workforce for a college graduate -- and maybe even a bit more thrilling & terrifying.)
Kindergarten means a new physical building, often on the campus of a larger elementary school, a new teacher, new friends (and potential foes), new routines and challenges. It signals the true beginning of a school career.
Preschool has been the gentle introduction to the child's independent life outside of the family. This is no small thing. "She's different there... She acts differently than she does with me at home." I remember the first time I thought that, and the first parent-teacher conference where that point was made even more clear. Besides a few solo playdates, my child is rarely away from the watchful eye of a relative. With preschool, suddenly she was on her own (so to speak) for 25 hours a week, to practice what had been modeled for her, and to learn from her mistakes. You better believe those first few weeks were hard for everyone!
In preschool, for the first time children have the opportunity to forge friendships due to interest, not just circumstance ("our moms are friends"), and to learn from adults who are not their parents -- to learn to love and respect an adult who is neither family, nor a family friend. And also to trust that when we tell them their school is a safe place, that it is.
All of this is scary in the beginning.
When my child passed through the rainbow tunnel and received her congratulations card & necklace from her teacher, and then stood looking proudly at the audience while her teacher said, "I want to thank Nia for all her loving kindness" -- that signaled the end of something.
Your time here is done, little one. It's time to write a new chapter: a Kindergarten chapter.
And that deserves to be recognized.
Midtown Montessori, Class of 2013