About Me,  Family Life,  motherhood,  Parenting,  school

State of the preschool: an update on a family with commitment issues

My kids are hopefully young enough to not remember having attended 3 separate schools and one failed and decidedly halfhearted attempt at home education in the past 3 years. And for like, 3 month stints at a time. I was one part ashamed, one part defiant and one part sort of impressed by my own itchy trigger finger when I found myself telling my inlaws that yes, Joey had started school again and yes, it was at an entirely new place and oh, did I forget to mention that he dropped out last fall after Luke was born and we’ve just kind of been on a Netflix/library sabbatical since October?


I don’t know what to say except that when it comes to making schooling decisions, I never thought it would be such a … fluid process. But last night when Dave was graciously setting up some kind of online password for something on my behalf, he asked me to give an answer for a potential security question: what was the name of my elementary school? At that point I realized that although we’d only moved once during those years of my childhood, I’d attended 3. Or was it 4?

So maybe it’s a firstborn phenomenon of motherly not-having-your-s-together.

At any rate, having tried our own parish school and, finding it to be a less than ideal fit in terms of distance and class size and personality (but mostly distance – the driving was killing me because of the time of day and the school zones that separate us from the church campus), we then threw our hat into the public school ring for 5 whole weeks last fall. And it was mostly fine. Except that it was a little bit more expensive than private preschool (an irony which my tax dollars are still seething over) and that I had to walk two little boys in and out of their two separate classrooms, two times a day, and while pushing a double stroller and very newly postpartum. The rest of the parents/nannies/grandparents on pickup duty mostly just blinked at me in awestruck…wonder (that’s what I decided it must have been), flattening themselves against the wall as I navigated the land barge to the ladybug room and then the ant room in turn.

Needless to say, that arrangement was ill fated. So, true to impulsive form, and after our not-ready-for-school-it-turns-out 3 year old had yet another night of tantrums and nightmares, I calmly dialed up the very, very kind director of the school and quit, cold turkey, on a Tuesday.

So for the rest of fall and well into Christmas, we settled into a not terrible rotation of trips to the library, one day per week of crafts and reading lessons with my mother’s helper (I have her 4 hours on Mondays this semester, which is probably not quite enough, but it’s better than nothing!), and an increasingly disturbing amount of Netflix in the afternoons.

After the dust and glitter around the holidays settled, we looked around and reevaluated how our non-system was serving us. It was sufficient for the survival season that is months 1-4 postpartum, but now that I’m back on my feet and Luke is mostly predictable, we decided we were up for adding a little more structure. So, over the past 3 weeks we’ve made a few key changes.

The biggest one was that our oldest started attending pre-K at a Catholic Montessori school from 8 am – 3 pm, 2 days per week, which is definitely the longest he’s been away from home.

It’s been a little up and down for him emotionally, but overall the change has been incredibly lifegiving, for all of us. It’s a good ramp up for him as he faces down the specter of full-day kindergarten next fall, and he seems to be blossoming in the Montessori environment.

It’s a beautiful thing to see his mind awakening, and it gives me so much peace in my mother’s heart to see that I don’t have to be everything to him, that I don’t have to shoulder the burden of every last detail of his development and formation. But without ceding my primary responsibility. It’s such a relief.

The other change we’ve made has been pretty radical, but the payout has been pretty incredible. About 2 weeks ago we prayerfully and, honestly, regretfully, made the decision to go screen free at home during the week, dangling the big fat promise of family movie night every Friday as the digital carrot that would placate our little media junkies.

And guess what? The first 4 days were about as terrible as you might imagine, and tracked oddly parallel with the narrative in that perennial childhood classic: The Berenstain Bear’s “No TV Week” (<— I’ve been spelling that wrong my whole life long).

There was wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Withdrawal tremors. Tears and plaintive negotiations and deep sighs. But, about 5 days into our little experiment, something shifted. The kids started turning away from me and toward each other, negotiating for wrestling matches, lego design sessions, and fort building. They started “reading” to each other and to themselves in the little corner of the living room that Joey had begged me to turn into a “home atrium,” and even though nobody can actually read yet (and I don’t care, because science!) they would all of a sudden be capable of 30 minutes of sustained, self-directed silence.

And as for me? Well, I’ve had some of my own digital delirium tremors over the past fortnight as I’ve been forced to engage flabby, atrophied motherhood muscles and build blanket forts, read chapters of books aloud, and generally engage more during the daylight hours than I thought myself capable of.

But surprisingly? It’s been really, really good. And the endless spare time I thought I’d lose by not having a show to throw at them has been recouped by me ditching Instagram and my personal FB account. Because mama can’t enforce what mama’s not willing to practice herself.

I’m not advocating for a screen blackout across the board. We still spin our CCC movies in the minivan during longer drives, and we’re still watching Broncos games on Sunday and a family movie on Fridays, (which mostly I ignore and read during, but physically attend with my body on the couch. It turns out there really are only so many times you can watch Star Wars.) and they still get whatever cartoons are playing in the kid’s club at the gym a couple times a week, but I’d estimate their total consumption has been reduced by 80%.

And the results have been pretty astonishing.

(ESSENTIAL ALL CAPS CAVEAT: if you are in survival mode, for whatever reason, don’t let this convince you that you are ruining your children and their childhood. You aren’t. We live in a tremendously individualistic and isolated society for the most part, and when there is illness, a new baby, or other high stress times in the life of a family, sometimes Netflix is the only available babysitter. I get that. I’ve been there.)

Less fighting, less whining (relatively speaking, given our demographic), less sibling violence, less parental snapping, and just a general increase in peace in the home. And honest to goodness gratitude when they do get to watch a precious few minutes of something as an unexpected treat.

I don’t think technology is evil, but I don’t think we should passively let it flow over us at the rate it has developed. I had plenty of cartoons and shows in my childhood, but I couldn’t summon them on demand, and I didn’t melt down and shriek at my parents if something less-than-amazing was offered to me, crying out that a more acceptable option be produced.

Not that, you know, any of my kids have, uh, (cough, cough) ever done anything like that.

So there you have it, the state of our union, at least for now, with a crew of inmates numbered 5 months, 2 years, 3.5 years, and 5.25 years. I might be back here to eat my words in a month or 7, but for now, it’s working.

Cute little Netflix zombies.


  • Bonnie

    “I don’t have to be everything to him, that I don’t have to shoulder the burden of every last detail of his development and formation. But without ceding my primary responsibility.”
    Yes! to ^^^that! I am so grateful that my family lives in a town with a wonderful (and affordable) Catholic school AND a great public option, too. I have no heart for homeschooling and you have summed up exactly how I feel. None of that is to knock homeschooling, of course, but Yes. Me too.

    And you’re right about the screen time, too. We still have it but with rules (everyone is dressed and breakfast is done and *only* PBS Kids with tv off at 8).

    • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

      That line got me too Bonnie! “I don’t have to be everything to him, that I don’t have to shoulder the burden of every last detail of his development and formation. But without ceding my primary responsibility.”

      And I’m someone who IS homeschooling (soon) and I DO have a heart for it! And I’m so glad I do want to because we DON’T have an affordable Catholic school available and sending our kids to our zoned public school would only be *slightly* better than sending them to a juvenile detention center. But Jenny, that line perfectly articulates the intense pressure I feel bearing down on my shoulders from taking on this homeschooling responsibility. And I’m sure there will be MANY times when I wish that pressure could be relieved. Catholic Montessori sounds AWESOME! I hope this works out for everyone. And if it doesn’t, whatev. You can always change, as you are well aware. 🙂

  • Amy

    I love this post! I’m the Mexican version of you living in Nothern Virginia! My kids ages 9 months, 2.5, 3.5, and 5.5! The iPad/tv time is a constant battle some days we do great and some days we don’t. My biggest stresser is that their play can get destructive, wild, rowdy, and wild (3 boys, 1 girl). So to calm them from their fun play I put something on but I know there are other ways. It’s just hard and I’m a tired wimp! Anyways I’ve so enjoyed your blog and it’s been a great help! I especially love your honesty and sense of humor!

    • Kathleen

      I hear you, Amy! We have identical twin boys who will be 5 years old in a few weeks and they are WILD. I describe them like tumbleweed rolling through my living room. or a pack of labrador puppies that talk back. or they have the energy of 100 horses. each. or they have two speeds: mach 10 or asleep. One of my son’s teachers said in 20 years of Montessori teaching, every set of twin boys have been VERY physical with each other and another seasoned, sweet teacher (who’s also a grandmother) at the school said to me, “When they’re together, they can be a formidable pair.” it can be so defeating because their physical play aka rough housing with each other is NON STOP and they run over furniture and beat on each other and sometimes the only way to make it stop is to either a) turn on a show or b) one of us puts them in the car and makes a quick errand somewhere or (as I had to do on Christmas Eve) just drive around and look at the Christmas lights. So yes, I totally hear you and sometimes I beat myself up for the amount of screen time my kids get, but we are in a really, really rough season and, as a last resort, we do rely on it.

      • melissa

        I was so happy to read these few comments, because while I am 37 weeks prego with number three, and I know we will most likely be watching a fair amount of tv in the coming months, my 3.5 yr old and 2 yr old are exactly this. Constantly on top of each other, rough housing, trying to scratch each others eyes out or stealing every single toy from each other that they touch it seems like. I know they love each other but it is exhausting, and sometimes putting on a show or a movie is the only way to get them to stop attacking each other. This balance is so hard! But this post made me breathe many sighs of relief so thank you once again Jenny.

        • Jenny Uebbing

          Daddy is much more relaxed than I am about rough housing (and it shows, sometimes literally in drops of sweat and blood) but with 3 boys I’m learning that they actually need to wrestle/punch/jump/crash…as long as it’s not brutally dangerous, bullying or unfairly outsized, I’m just letting them drop to the floor in a sweating ball of limbs and kind of referring from my nursing perch in the corner.

          • melissa

            Haha love it. I should probably be a little less crazy about it, and/or enlist my husband for rough and tumble play when he gets home. Oddly enough the problem with the kids wrestling is that somehow my 2 yr old daughter gets the upper hand on my 3.5 yr old son 9 times out of 10 and he isn’t too thrilled with that arrangement haha. Girl power!

  • Dorothy

    I am always so encouraged hearing from moms of many littles about how they’ve (for the most part) gone screen free! Thanks for sharing!

    I’m a mom of a 16 month old and am 6 months pregnant, and we are hoping to stay screen free. It probably helps that we actually don’t have a television in our living room (for practical purposes, tv not entirely functioning correctly)….hahaha. But we’ll see how things go once the second one comes along.

    • Phoebe

      I have a 21mo and a 5mo. My husband is very committed to no screens for the children till they are much older. (I agree with him, it just helps to have his very strong opinion to fall back on when I’m tempted.) So far we’re doing ok. The toddler is used to being in her room or her crib for a while on her own, while I get the baby to sleep or exercise quickly. I hope to get both of them used to being by themselves for age-appropriate periods, so everyone has space to decompress, and I get a breathing space. I grew up with no tv (eventually, family movies, but not toll I was a teenager), and we don’t have a tv at all, so it’s not foreign to me. I know my mother and my siblings and I all survived. We loved to read books and play imaginative games with each other. (but, only 1 boy with 4 girls)

  • Sarah

    I just love your honesty. Willing to admit openly things like too much Netflix, makes me feel so normal! We too have let TV take over, and I admire your brave, very brave decision to turn it off. Thanks for being real!

  • Stephanie

    Love your writing and appreciate so much your honest sharing of your journey. And, from the 8 months pregnant with #4 survival zone: THANK YOU FOR THE ESSENTIAL ALL CAPS CAVEAT 😉

  • Kathleen

    As a working mom, my kids have been in daycare since 18 months old. I know I’m biased because of my own situation, but I fully believe in sending the kids out of the home at least 2 days a week, as soon as you are able to. Our boys are now the same age as Joey – in PreK 4 at a Montessori school. This is their 2nd year at Montessori; we started them last year in PreK 3s and we’ll also keep them in Montessori for Kindergarten, so they’ll have 3 full years of Montessori. We can’t say enough! The teachers are kind and gentle. Our children do really well, academically & socially. The Montessori method is so sound. I have a friend who’s a 5th grade teacher and she had both her sons in Montessori through Kindergarten and she said they adjusted beautifully to 1st grade in the public school. She said she sees behavior issues in her 5th grade students, some of which are attributed to not getting enough practice with fine motor skills, but the Montessori method is pretty strong in this area. Anyway, my husband and I are huge Montessori fans and I’m sure you’ll continue to be happy with your decision!

  • Tia

    I noticed something similar when I finally fortified myself and pulled the plug on shows. We only watched about 30 min. per day,but that 30 min. was like a black hole that had this tremendous inertia. After 30 min. the kids whined for more. Everything else felt so out of control. Their play the rest of the time was awful. So basically I just decided that no matter how tired I am or insane they’re being, no TV! And things somehow seem much more manageable. They seem to enjoy playing with each other more, are whining less, and are contributing more to family life. Honestly, though, my attitude change is really key. Before when I felt my patience slipping, I was mentally grasping at some relief from outside myself — which took the form of Netflix. Now, I have the internal realization that this ship is toppling and I’m the only one who can get it righted or we’re all going down. Somehow that helps me mentally to a more responsible, in-control state of mind, we ride out the choppy waves and things DO settle down.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      YES. This. Every word of it. I should just erase the post and put this paragraph there instead. It was SUCH a crutch for me to throw a screen at them and escape into my pity party of “my kids are monsters, I deserve a break” which then bred more monstrous behavior and the whhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiining. I wonder if anyone has ever died from listening to whining?

  • Caroline

    Sometimes I feel like I have an Internet hangover, and I hate myself in the morning. And then I feel like I’m a recovering addict, when I make those first feeble steps to not partake of the poison that is the allure of THE SCREEN TIME. Twelve step program anyone? And then I pick myself up again. Does anyone else ever feel like throwing the thing out the window?

  • Diana

    It wasn’t until I started looking to buy Berenstain Bear books online a few years ago that I realized I had been spelling it wrong my whole life!

  • Heidi Hess

    I think the no-screen time is great and I encourage it! My kids are 17, 15, and 12 and we had very little screen time in our household and, as I look around at their age-mates, I think it was one of the best parenting choices I ever made.

  • Kharking

    Vacillating on school options is one of hobbies right now too with our parallel family (5.75, 4, 2.5, 6 months). I like the montessori idea but looking into tuition around here made me gag and then just laugh. So after three months of half time at the local elementary, we are now homeschooling.
    We have always been a low screen time family but one unexpected benefit of homeschooling is that there just doesn’t seem to be enough time for it between school and play time. They have hardly asked. I do think that having my head more engaged (6 months PP seems to be a turning point for me regardless of sleep) is a big component though.

  • Hannah

    I am so inspired by this!
    I grew up screen-free (after #5 was born, my mom relied on tv when she had 4 kids under 6 yrs old), and remember we played a lot and invented our own games.
    Now I’ve relied on it a lot with the kiddos. And gotten addicted to the internet.
    Lent, here I come 🙂

  • Melissa J.

    LOVE the no-screen suggestion! Our kids are 10, 8, 4, 2 and 8.5 months. It is amazing how easily even the little ones can get hooked to the iPad. I would love to go no screens during the week for all of us, but not sure my husband would be on board for himself… Any advice there?

  • Katie

    Can I ask which school had the Catholic Montessori program?! We are a year or two away from starting to make schooling decisions for our son but I’d love to know more about good options in the Denver area!

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