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Just imagine they’re all four years old.” Someone once told me to try that when I was nervous about speaking in front of a group. Maybe you’ve heard it too: Look out at the audience and imagine them all as… preschoolers. Clearly, whoever coined that little quip had not spent a lot of time around young children.

One of the reasons I am excited about Obama’s proposed preschool-for-all initiative is that it is going to be so educational for parents. Preschool is not just valuable for children’s development, it’s valuable for parents’ development. Think about it: is there any job for which we show up so utterly unprepared, uneducated and unqualified?

As a young mom, I naively assumed guidance would spring up along the way, like traffic lights and road signs do when you’re driving. But more often, early parenthood resembles the confusion that ensues at a major intersection when the power’s out. No one knows what to do until the traffic cops arrive in their orange vests and jump out into the chaos and start signaling. Good preschool teachers are like those gutsy traffic cops. New parents show up, tired and edgy from all the inching along they’ve done in the clueless dark, and suddenly there is someone on the road who can show them the way.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to and are able to afford good-quality preschool—your child’s teachers will be—unlike you—prepared by years of experience. They will have actual degrees in early childhood education. Whatever your worry might be about your preschooler—is this cold really strep throat? Do these backwards twos and Ns mean dyslexia?—chances are it is something the teachers have seen 200 times before. Which means they—unlike you—actually know what to do about it.

There’s a tone to the media coverage of Obama’s pre-school proposal that suggests it is something that will mainly benefit poor families. This is true, and important, in terms of basic access and affordability. But we have to be careful here. To suggest that parents who are educated and affluent are somehow inherently gifted with better parenting skills—and, therefore, their children are less in need of a good preschool—is misguided and arrogant. Education and income are no substitute for experience. And experience is what the teacher has. Not the new parent.

When I walked into my daughter’s classroom on her first day of preschool, her baby brother squirming in my arms, I remember feeling like I’d just waded into a knee-high, churning mountain stream of three-year-old energy. Then I looked up and saw Joni, her teacher, smiling at me, radiating calm, as she knelt to welcome Claire. The school’s motto was, quote, “Children thrive in a happy medium.” On that first day and every day, Joni embodied that notion. She had been teaching preschool for many years. Joni knew more about 3 and 4 year olds than I will ever know.

People talk about the “soft skills” you learn in preschool. But “soft” does not mean “unimportant.” In their central Seattle preschool, my kids learned to play, share and work stuff out with all kinds of other children. They thrived in a happy medium full of other kids.

Some people worry we’ll now start obsessively testing pre-schoolers. I hope not. I hope the “soft skills” maintain their high-priority spot on the preschool to-do list. Others worry the preschool programs Obama has cited as models can’t be scaled up to accommodate millions of children. And then there’s the issue of how to pay for it all.

The price will be higher if we don’t. The research is in and it’s firm: every dollar spent on early childhood education saves dollars later in life. Children thrive in a happy medium. And so do their parents.


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