It’s so stressful being a….4 year old?

I had a completely different entry planned for today, and then I came home and picked up the New York Times Magazine (we get the paper delivered on the weekends, so the magazine, normally part of the Sunday edition, comes on Saturday).   The cover story was about female tennis players, but in the list of other articles contained in this issue was a headline that demanded immediate attention:  “Is Your Preschooler Depressed? “  Excuse me?   I read it twice to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.  Nope.  It did in fact say ‘is your preschooler depressed’.   So I turned to the article and began to read, and before I go any further, I want to make something clear.  I am not going to argue that it is impossible for depression to manifest in the very young.  My question is going to be, what triggers it?
Well, the fact that they’ve actually named it “Preschool Depression”, and not “Toddler Depression” seems to me to be waving a big red flag.   The 4 year old who is the main character in this piece is described as ‘always wanting to please’ in his pre-school and at home.  The article says, “If he dawdled or didn’t listen (his father) had only to count to five before (the boy) hastened to tie his shoes or put the toys away.”    Deep breaths.  In, out.   I hate the whole ‘counting to 3’, or in this case 5, type of discipline.  What are you, training a monkey?
(Sorry, I’ll try to behave till we get through this).   Then the articles says that in his pre-school, he “…didn’t have a lot of fun…..His mother recalls constant refrains of , ‘nothing is fun; I’m bored’.”    Wait, it gets better – or worse.  I have to quote the entire next paragraph for the full effect:
“Over time, especially in comparison with (the boy’s) even-keeled younger sister, it became apparent that guilt and worry infused his thoughts.  ‘We had to be really careful when we told him he’d done something wrong, because he internalized it quickly,’ his father says.  He was also easily frustrated.  He wouldn’t dare count aloud until he had perfected getting to 10.  Puzzles drove him nuts.  After toying with a new set of Legos, he told his father, ‘I can’t do Legos.’  He then roundly declared, ‘I will never do them.  I am not a Legos person.  You should take them away.’”
This is just a sample. .  Why do I get the feeling that I would be depressed too if I lived in that house?   Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the parents are well intentioned  (and we know what the road to hell is paved with), but here’s what I get between the lines.   The parents praise obedience and a child who follows all orders without question.  What happens if the boy doesn’t do what he’s told by the count of 5?  Surely at some point, in the beginning, that happened.   Why was he reluctant to count out loud until he could do it perfectly?  Was somebody always jumping on the mistake and correcting him – making him feel badly?    Is his reluctance with Legos a result of feeling the things he’s built or made weren’t good enough.  Or maybe he just doesn’t like the stupid Legos!  So what?   The parents kept running him all over to “child-friendly” places, according to the article, and he just wasn’t interested.
Maybe, just maybe, there is too much pressure put on this kid to perform.  He isn’t happy enough at school, he isnt’ even-keeled like his sister, he doesn’t want to do Legos or puzzles…. and because kids are extremely perceptive, he’s worked out that this makes everyone upset.  With him.  Because he’s different.   And so he’s depressed.   As I continued reading, I became convinced that this was the main cause.  Then I read that both his parents hold ‘advanced degrees’ and were ‘invested in being good parents’.  Uh oh.  I feel a parenting course coming on.  Yes, for the first three years of their child’s life, they participated in a Parent’s as Teachers Course…..   And the mother admits that she was probably too critical of her son.  My guess?  She was trying to ‘teach’ him all the time, instead of just letting him be and develop on his own.   For some kids, this would roll right off.  But not for all.
How much damage are we going to do to kids in the name of ‘early education’?   He’s FOUR years old, and already seeing a psychiatrist because his crazy parents are grilling him on counting to ten?   We’re putting kids in school so young, and putting pressure on them to perform accordingly.   PRESCHOOL is the operative word here.  Take away the school.  Let the kid be four and go play in some dirt.  If he asks for help with something, give it.  Otherwise leave him the f*&* alone!    While the experts debate about whether or not to give toddlers anti-depressants and how best to identify and combat ‘Preschool Depression’ , no one is discussing the real root of the problem.
We were recently interviewed by a local news reporter regarding unschooling, and she asked me, “but what if your kids said they want to go to school?”   The implication of course is that I would keep them out by force, and be a bad parent for it.  (Just for the record, when the reporter asked that question, Maya rolled her eyes and made a face of distaste.  She might have even snorted, but won’t own up to it.)   No one ever asks parents of schooled children, “but what if your kids said they DON’T want to go to school?”    Forcing kids into school rooms at younger and younger ages, and quizzing them at home to make sure they are ahead of the curve is seen as normal.   No one blinks anymore when they are told their kid has ADHD.  Is Preschool Depression also going to become the norm?
My advice would be:  take the boy out of preschool.  Tell him he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do.  STOP counting to 5 every time he’s moving too slowly for your convenience.  Praise him for his imperfect drawings and his 2 that really looks like a 7.   Stop telling him that no,  8, not 9, comes after 7 and to try it again.  Stop teaching all the time.   Let him be a little kid, and I have a feeling the depressive episodes will disappear all on their own.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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