Tommy Heads to Preschool–And Why That May Not Be a Good Thing!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Why Dropping Sunday School Could Save the Soul of Your Church
The Danger of Raising Soft-Minded Men
The Myth of the War on Christmas?
If Grace is Amazing...Why Do Christians Often Make it So Condemning?
About Tim Wright

I've been a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America since 1984, currently serving as the founding pastor of Community of Grace in Peoria, AZ. My wife, Jan and I, were married in 1979. We raised two kids and currently have 3 grandkids. I love to ride my bike, travel, read British Mysteries, and Disneyland. I have written 6 books, including my newest--Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys From Church. My website:

  • Parableman

    I was reading before I went to kindergarten. It’s just simply not true that a boy can’t read at kindergarten age. And kids in pre-school aren’t exactly sitting still and reading the whole time they’re there. They’re doing age-appropriate activities with some education. The education is things like recognizing letters and numbers. It’s not hard for a four-year-old to do that. Most kids with older siblings pick that up without going. And any boy with older brothers with autism, as my three-year-old does, is especially helped by the social interaction with other boys his age who behave in socially-appropriate ways, so he doesn’t have to learn all his social kid-stuff from his big sisters. It may well be that certain pre-school environments are unhelpful for certain boys because of certain factors about both those schools and the family or boy in question, but one-size fits-all recommendations like this are simply unwise.

    • RevTim

      Thanks for your great comments. You are the exception to the rule! For the majority…and all the research backs this up…for the majority of boys trying to force them to read too early more often than not has a negative impact on their reading skills later in life. A boy’s brain…generally speaking…is not wired for reading at pre-school age. My point is not that boys can’t read at that age…but that most aren’t wired to. So why force them to do something that their brains aren’t wired for? In places like Finland, with high success rates in their education, they don’t start boys in school until 6 or 7 and in a matter of months they catch up with the girls in reading because their brains are wired for it. For too long we have tried to create educational systems that work best for a girl brain or the exception to the rule boy brain. Let boys play. Let them socialize. Sure, teach them letter recognition. But trying to create an academic environment in pre-school and expecting boys to read in Kindergarten has been counter productive. The reading skills of the average 17 year old boy have declined over the last 20 years. I would argue that the one size fits all is not my issue. It’s the driving force of most pre-schools and kindergartens and it’s failing our boys.

      • PolemicCapital

        Interesting article. I would however like to challenge you on one or two points…
        If boys’ brains are not as well wired for reading as they are with girls (I believe a fair characterization of what you assert), why doesn’t that mean that boys should get extra help to get up to speed?
        Also, can you point to the study or data source regarding your example of Finnish boys and the success of delayed reading programs?

        • RevTim

          There are several excellent books on this topic including Why Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire and The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre. I highly recommend them as they present data and stories from several countries and how they are dealing with the challenges boys face in our modern schools.

    • koomo

      Like you, I read before kindergarten. My now four year old was able to read a children’s book aloud just after turning three. However, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to sit still. We are leaning towards having him go through kindergarten twice rather than risk an outcome expressed by this author and like the cases mentioned in Dr Leonard Sax’ book.

      Regardless of our decision, I think the most important factor in determining what’s best for a child (some very bright girls can sometimes start slowly as well, although their compensating behavior is often different from boys’) is making sure that the school doesn’t expect its students to sit still and behave as if they were all the best-behaved little girls on earth. Teaching from the front of a class in front of a captive audience is the easiest path for any teacher to take, unfortunately.

      Good luck with your little ones!

      • RevTim

        Great insights! The sit still and listen model is particularly tough on boys and gets increasingly tough as they get older and testosterone surges increase.

  • Mary Kelso

    I have three sons, two of them were early readers. My middle son though, is the “Tommy” of your post. He could care less about sitting down and listening to someone teach when there are Legos to build with and puzzles to put together. He isn’t super active, but his mind did not adjust to reading until this year in 2nd grade at 8 years old. Before that, I’d never seen him pick up a book voluntarily. He’s smart as a whip, just doesn’t care for the stillness and focus it requires. He did not go to pre-school, neither did my youngest, and as a mom I am grateful for each year I had them home with me. I was under no rush to send them off early. My theory is: “I won’t get that year back.” Boys are amazingly fun!

    • RevTim

      Thanks for reading the post. And thanks for adding your personal experience. Good on ya for allowing your boys to be boys.

  • Amaryllis

    I’m not at all convinced that there’s as much of a “hardwired” difference between “boy brains” and “girl brains” as you seem to think. (Have you read Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine? A very interesting look at the studies behind some of those claims.)

    But either way, I don’t think the main problem is that early schooling is unsuitable for all boys, and less of a problem for all girls. I think that too much early emphasis on the “sit still and listen” model is bad for all small children, regardless of gender. It’s just that girls are socialized from an early age to put up with it better. (Consider the recent flap about McDonald’s Spiderman toys: boys get model cars and action figures and pretend web-spinners, girls get headbands and combs and lockets with Spidy’s picture on them, and a notebook for writing in. Which sex is likely to be more active in its play with those kinds of toys? And those toys weren’t designed and marketed by the four-year-olds they’re meant for. They’re the creation of adults with ideas about what boys and girls are like.)

    But I digress again. The problem is that most preschools and kindergartens have gone with the early-academics model, to the detriment of many children of both sexes. And the problem is just as bad in the elementary and middle schools, which all seem to be cutting physical education and eliminating recess in order to spend more time on rote drills in reading and math, in preparation for all the endless standardized testing that’s been imposed on them. That’s an educational model that’s bad for both boys and girls.

    • RevTim

      Amaryllis, your insights on the sit and listen model and the cutting of recess/movement are spot on. Yes, they have a negative impact on both boys and girls but because of the way a boy’s brain is wired and because his primary hormone is testosterone–an action hormone (and a girl’s is oxytocin, a bonding chemical) boys have a much harder time of it. If you’re interested in this topic I recommend you take a look at The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian; Why Boys Fail by Richard Whitmire; and the Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre. Whether you agree with brain science theory or not, there is no doubt that boys have fallen severely behind girls in virtually every area of school from pre-school through doctoral programs. Something is not working for our boys. Thanks for the comments.

      • Amaryllis

        Thanks for the response.

        How about, I’ll read your recommendations if you’ll read mine, and then we’ll talk?

        I doubt we’d convince each other, though. I just don’t see that brain science theory is anywhere near being able to distinguish differences in behavior caused by differences in neurology or hormones as opposed to differences in socialization and in experiences. And it may never be– brains are plastic, they change with experience, and people aren’t robots.

        It’s true that there’s an achievement gap between boys and girls, especially in the lower grades. and that this is something that ought to be looked at. I’m just not sure that it’s best addressed by assuming that there’s a simple binary divide between “all (or most) boys” and “all (or most) girls,” or by assuming that their differences are more important than their similarities.

        Do boys do less well in school than girls because they’re “hard-wired” to be “squirmier”? Or because the culture tells them that “boys” are active and athletic but that “students” are passive and sedentary, and the boys have a hard time managing the contradiction? Or because boys don’t value academic achievement as much as athletic achievement? Or because success in school is seen as “girly” and many boys don’t want to be seen to care too much about it? Or because boys don’t see the relationship of good grades to a good future as readily as girls do? If not, why not? (Or, particularly in the upper levels, because grades do in fact matter less for men? Study after study has confirmed that there’s still a bias toward men in acceptances for post-doctoral fellowships and grants, and entry-level professional positions– but I grant you that the five-year-old boy having a hard time in kindergarten is unlikely to be thinking about that!)

        TL;DR: I guess I just think that so much emphasis on “wiring” and on “boy brains” is a distraction from looking at all the other things going in a boy’s life, or a girl’s for that matter, and unlikely to be very helpful in improving much of anything.

        Resuming lurking now.

        • RevTim

          Perhaps we can agree on this. Back in the 1960′s girls were way behind boys in every level of education. In the 1960′s and 1970′s the country, backed by $100 million from the government, fought to get our girls caught up. In the early 1980′s they did catch up. And now have passed boys from pre-school through college through post-college. Something happened. And it’s not good for our boys (for example, 70% of all D’s and F’s are given to boys–why is that? What changed?). (By the way, although I haven’t read the particular book you recommended, I am always reading differing points of view. Keeps me on my toes and brings more balance, I hope, to my musings.)