by Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi

Our 3-year-old son is brilliant. I mean, we think he is. He has known his ABCs for a very long time, and he has corrected my grammar at least once. He can also explain how a pump panel works and the distinction between an engine and a ladder truck. Of course, most parents say that about their kids -- and after all, I'm a teacher and dad's a firefighter.

I've been with him non-stop for more than three years, and I'm not concerned about my kid reading or putting out a spot fire. I am concerned he won't learn how to play properly, be interested in volunteering or like picking up after himself. I am not so good at these things, you see. I also need a little time to myself if I have any hope of continuing to stay at home with him. In short, I am looking for the right preschool.

I began the inquiry this winter, observing two Montessori preschools. I like the child-centered nature of this approach to education, and let's face it: The kids learn to do their own dishes. I was intrigued by the way my son responded to the learning materials, and the teacher was witty, so I kissed 75 bucks goodbye and registered him for next fall. I did so quickly, of course, to avoid being put on a dreaded waiting list. (Note: In the culture of private preschools, all good schools have waiting lists. If you can actually get your child in, the school is likely haunted or something.) Since I made this choice, you might think my search would be over.

Then I began to hear that Montessori was too structured and not creative enough, and that the methods of Regglio Emilia and Waldorf might be a better fit for my son. My husband observed a fancy, expensive preschool that combines Emilia and Montessori and voted for that one, but I didn't like that they had computer games and fire helmets, and not as much emphasis on dish-washing. (I was really excited about that one.)

Our fine son can barely go to the bathroom by himself, and we're considering paying what we paid for college tuition to make sure he finds his early childhood muse.

After months of opinion-gathering from other well-meaning parents -- who, of course, are too absorbed with their own children to fully grasp the brilliant uniqueness of my own offspring -- I naively attempted to clarify my decision by researching preschools on the Internet.

Enter " choosing a preschool" on a search engine, and it doesn't take long to become overwhelmed. The three-page checklist provided by, for example, reads like an application to a doctorial program. I felt like Homer Simpson after every few phrases explaining vital criteria such as NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), accreditation (blah) with the correct child to certified-teacher ratio (blah, blah, blah):

Is there a variety of sensory materials such as sand and water, dress-up and imaginative play props, books, music, plants and animals or fish? Are the toys, equipment and classroom cleaned regularly with non-toxic cleaners? Are they in good repair? Is the outdoor play area safe? Note the play surface and climbing structures, and the proximity and access to traffic. Are pesticides used? Is there proper ventilation?

So if we get rid of one of our cars to cover the tuition for a nationally accredited preschool because it is Montessori or that guy with the salad named after him, I STILL have to worry about playground injury, hit-and-run accidents and asphyxiation? What if the certified, accredited teachers mistakenly think my child is tactile when he's really kinesthetic? And what in God's name happens if there are no sand tables?

And those aren't even the biggest hang-ups. Yes, I want time to myself, and my little boy needs more social interaction (and to learn to do dishes). But what would I do with myself for four hours a day without him? I've gotten used to "staying at home" with my son. If I'm at home and he's gone, then I'm just unemployed. How can an unemployed person justify paying for a private preschool?

Also, I would miss him. We have been going a few times a week to a cooperative preschool (where parents and kids "go to school" together) since he was 10 months old, and I know he's not challenged anymore -- he's the oldest kid, and it lacks structure and national accreditation. But we both have friends there, and I am getting a new dishwasher.

We've almost officially delayed the search for the perfect nationally accredited preschool and chosen to muddle through this child-rearing and educating thing ourselves for another year. However, I haven't called the Montessori school yet to cancel his registration. Won't the parents on the waiting list be thrilled if I do?

Publication date: 5/27/04

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About The Author

Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi

A former TV news producer and teacher, Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi has been a freelance writer for The Inlander since 1994.