09/06/2012 11:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic

I sent Little Dude off to preschool two years ago when he was 2 ½. The first day, my husband and I walked him to his classroom, introduced him to his teachers and made the quick and efficient exit the school asked of us. He was very small and very brave. I was not. I made it to the hallway before I started crying. The co-director half-jokingly offered me a scotch. That was a sign that we had picked the right school.

Dry-Eyed Husband, who can handle life changes without dissolving in tears, took me out to breakfast and offered me a mimosa because he knew I did not need a shoulder to cry on, what I needed was a glass of liquid courage. That was a sign that I had picked the right husband.

We talked about all the things we wanted our son to learn - numbers and letters and shapes, of course -- but also how to share, think independently, be a good friend and get along well with others. You think about these things when you send your kid off into the world armed only with a car backpack and a new pair of sneakers. Little Dude's school is an "Academy," which I secretly hope means he'll leave there a genius. We didn't pick it for that reason -- we chose it because it had the extended hours we needed, was close to our house and we loved the teachers. His school makes no claims to be a genius factory and the teachers are probably horrified that I'm writing this. They are all about sidewalk chalk and homemade mother's day cards and dance parties before nap. However, if it turns out they can mold him into a prodigy, I won't complain.

There are few signs of him becoming the next Einstein so far. Little Dude is happy, curious and funny. He knows all his letters, can reliably count to 30 (after a lengthy period during which he insisted on skipping the number 14), and likes to write "Fresh Tomatoes." I don't know why he wants to write "Fresh Tomatoes," but so long as he continues to show signs of literacy, I'll provide paper and crayons so he can design farm stand signs. Maybe he's planning a career in advertising?

But, the thing I like most about preschool is that I'm happy when Little Dude comes home with glitter in his hair, sweaty from the playground and brandishing his latest scribbles.

I might not be taking academics seriously enough. At lunch a few weeks ago, my friend bragged that his kids were doing quadratic equations in kindergarten because he taught them higher math skills on the back of restaurant placemats when they were small. This story came on the heels of my description of Little Dude's recent confusion between the words "allergy" and "algae." Our children's differences are clear. So are our parenting styles. Not only can my friend do math, he actually took preschoolers out to eat. Want to take bets on whose kid will end up at NASA?

Me? I'm still worried about the non-academic things my kid is picking up at school -- but the biggest concern is one I didn't expect. I thought trend-setting, group-think, follow-the-crowd stuff didn't start until late elementary school or even junior high. I was aware of the high school pressures to conform -- from clothing to college tutors, teenagers are unwavering in their desire to fit in and painfully aware of every deviation from what they think is the norm. I just didn't realize that even 4-year-olds want to be just like everyone else. Little Dude has, at various times, taken up thumb-sucking, spinning in circles, calling people stupid, wearing mismatched socks, playing superheroes, obsessing over a particular lunchbox, drinking chocolate milk, hiding from me at pick-up time, eating apples with the skin, eating apples without the skin, eating apples sliced, eating apples whole, refusing to eat apples and wanting to dress only in button-down shirts. Why? Because his friends do.

Little Dude is a lemming.

A month or so ago he started wearing his underwear backwards. I thought he was confused -- so I showed him how to put them on the right way. This was not entirely an aesthetic issue -- the kid was giving himself some nasty wedgies. I reminded him that the hole in the front was for him to pee through and if he put his underwear on backwards he couldn't do that.

"Mommy," he said, "I pull my pants down to pee. I don't need the hole. Besides, I like them on backwards."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they don't have designs on the front and I like to look at the designs."

Want to guess where he picked up his new fashion sense? Turns out there is a group of backwards underpants wearing boys at Little Dude's school. I can honestly say this caught me by surprise. My new criteria for underwear purchases? Designs on both the front and back.

At the end of the day, I don't have a problem with what Little Dude wears or how he likes to eat his fruit. If he occasionally looks like a street urchin or gets a stomachache from eating too many apples because he wants to follow the crowd, so be it. The recent underwear experiment, however, makes me wonder if the very place where Little Dude is supposed to be learning to think independently will be the place that exposes him to the toughest challenges to do just that.

Is school a crucible in which we learn to compare ourselves to other people? In addition to reading and math, are we giving kids lessons in conformity? If so, instead of focusing on whether Little Dude will learn to count by tens and to leave enough room on his paper to write his name on a single line, I might need to start preparing him to care less about what other kids are doing, and more about what he enjoys, what he likes and what he wants to do. That's a lesson even a 4-year old should learn. Then again, as long as he starts wearing his underwear the right way before he goes to college, I'll count myself lucky.

fresh tomatoes