Excerpted from my book, Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from Church.
When Tommy turns two, his parents, like many parents, begin thinking about preschool. Preschool is a fairly new phenomenon in our country. In the 1960s, about five hundred thousand kids attended preschool. (When I was a kid, the girl next door, about my age, had to go to nursery school. We all wondered what was wrong with her!) Today, preschool has become almost mandatory for preparing kids for elementary school. Over five million children are now enrolled in preschool—in part because of dual-income families; in part because of the belief that US students are falling behind the world educationally; and in large part because parents want to give their children every advantage possible to succeed in school and in life. To do this, we believe we need to get our kids started early. Years ago, preschool served primarily as a vehicle for kids to play and interact with other children. Today, it is seen as absolutely crucial for jump-starting a child’s education.
Tommy’s parents want him to succeed. Like many parents, they choose a highly structured, academically based preschool for their son. Their hope is that he will be reading by kindergarten. The reason: Kindergarten today looks much like first grade did back in 1978.
Tommy’s parents’ intentions are genuine and honorable. However, Tommy faces three major challenges with the type of preschool his parents chose for him:
- Tommy’s boy brain is not wired to read at that age. His brain is at least one year behind a girl’s brain. The push to get him to read early—when his brain isn’t ready for it—will set him up for frustration for the next several years. As his boy brain falls behind the reading expectations, he will learn at an early age that reading is not for him.
- Tommy’s boy body is not wired to sit still for hours on end. As we’ll see later, his body is filled with testosterone—an action hormone. His body needs to move! Highly structured, “sit, listen, and read” environments set him, his teachers, and his family up for disaster.
- Tommy’s boy brain isn’t developed enough to express feelings at that age. In this area, he also lags behind girls. He can’t articulate to his teacher why he’s angry or sad or happy or even that he understands something.
The result: Boys are expelled from preschool at five times the rate of girls. They are four times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder. And they are twice as likely to be held back.
By kindergarten, where children today are now expected to read, Tommy’s five-year-old brain is developmentally that of a three-and-a-half year-old girl’s brain. He’s not yet ready to read or write. And it won’t take him—or the others in his class—long to figure out who the dummies are: usually boys like Tommy. No wonder boys are 60 percent more likely to be held back in kindergarten than are girls.
Again, though well-intentioned, the lack of movement and the forced reading when his brain isn’t ready for it may actually impede Tommy’s school career from here on out.
Many Sunday school curriculums have bought into this emerging preschool model—one that favors the wiring of girls over boys. And many volunteers find themselves pulling out their hair each Sunday as they try to figure out how to keep the boys engaged and learning.