As you may know, I have a kid. He’s a toddler now, and he’s pretty cool. His hobbies include bringing you books he’d like to read, trying to kill himself by climbing the curtains behind the couch, and using sign language to point out that awesome dog you may not have spotted. This is a pretty good phase, as a parent. Mostly you spend a lot of time going “Man, that kid is pretty awesome. HEY. HEY. PUT THAT KNIFE DOWN RIGHT NOW.”
I feel like I mostly have a handle on this kind of parenting.
The kind of parenting I am NOT as prepared for is the kind that involves navigating complex systems of social and economic snobbery, glue, waitlists, and tens of thousands of dollars. That is, I am starting to figure out how the hell preschools in Los Angeles work.
Husband Guy and I and our kid actually went over to my friend Jen’s house recently to pick her brain on this topic. “Jen will know,” I told Husband Guy. “She is VERY ORGANIZED about her research projects.”
And sure enough, even though Jen’s kid is only like two minutes old, she has already taken seminars and read several books. She has a large binder. SHE HAS A SPREADSHEET (which we stole.)
THE UPSHOT: it turns out that preschools in Los Angeles are this cruel joke designed to take all your money and make you freak out and feel guilty and inadequate. Among other crazy aspects, the waitlists are outlandishly long. Our kid is ONE, and kids don’t go to preschool until they’re about three, and we’re ALREADY KIND OF LATE.
(Seriously. HA HA HA. I know.)
(Also, if you have Netflix, you should check out the documentary Nursery University on streaming. It’s in New York, but really gives a taste of the insanity. There are all these families who’ve had their three-year-old in Krav Maga and kinetic sculpture since birth and who are panicking about getting into the ELITE PRESCHOOL, the FEEDER SCHOOL to the ELITE KINDERGARTEN. And then there’s the befuddled couple who are like “Oh shit! Really? I didn’t know this was a thing, man… shit. Um…”)
(They are my P.O.V. couple.)
Anyway! We’d been pretty successful at not giving in to this panic, but after getting the scoop from Jen and her spreadsheet, we realized that preschools in LA are just totally nutso, horrible, the kind of thing that suddenly makes you understand why people homeschool or have nervous breakdowns.
Here are some reasons they are terrible:
*Preschools are basically private outfits. I guess some of them are non-profits, but I don’t think all of them are. So some of these places are simply private businesses that want to turn a profit. I am a capitalist like everyone else, but this starts to get into some weird areas.
*Many preschools have only a thin veneer of OFFICIALNESS. A lot of them are basically run by some chick out of her garage. They just dress it up with words like “Montessori” and “Gnomes!!!” or “Child-centered!” – but basically, a lady and a building, that’s all you need to get started.
*I think there may be some kind of system for helping low-income parents pay for preschool. And there are Head Start preschools, which I think are maybe federally funded (?). But most preschools are private. And figuring out where they are and who they are and HOW MUCH THEY COST (a lot) is super complicated, for several reasons:
*Many preschools don’t have websites. So it’s unclear to me how you’re supposed to find them. By driving by? HOW CAN I FIND THINGS THAT AREN’T ON THE INTERNET???
*Preschools that do have websites usually have aggressively terrible ones. Like they will frequently hide pretty crucial pieces of information like “In which state is this school located” several layers in.
*Many preschools seem to cater to families with one child and zero working parents. The school’s hours are often something hilarious like 10:57AM-12:12:PM. As a PROFESSIONAL SCREENWRITER, I only sort of have a job, and even I would have a hard time with this schedule. I assume this kind of preschool is oriented toward women who have magically traveled through time from 1951 to get their hair done while their child is in school – everyone else can suck it.
*Many preschools are expensive. Like, college-tuition expensive. Mystifyingly expensive. If you’re a low- (or even moderate-) income family, how are you supposed to afford spending around $14,000 to send your child to “school” – especially when that “school” only lasts for a few hours and you still have to arrange and pay for care for the rest of your working day? It’s bizarre to notice how early the system starts separating the haves from the have-nots. It makes me cranky.
*A lot of these preschools prey on the insecurities of middle-class parents desperate to achieve a competitive advantage for their child. (In my opinion. Maybe this is harsh.) They have waitlists, but I also think… they kind of play up their waitlists. “We have a WAITLIST. OUR SCHOOL IS SCARCE! YOU SHOULD STOCKPILE OUR SCHOOL! VEBLEIN GOOD SOMETHING SOMETHING.”
*You pay a fee for simply applying to the school. (I also find this kind of funny. I have to apply to your school? Okay, fine. Here is my kid’s personal statement. It’s a piece of banana he’s been carrying around on the seat of his pants for several hours.) These fees range from around 50 bucks to 100 bucks. As my buddy Jen pointed out, if you do some math, you start to figure out that some of the schools with long waitlists and high application fees are basically raking it in from parents of students they will never even consider admitting.
*Another thing I find funny is that a lot of preschools are really into pretending that the “academics” your child is exposed to when they’re three is going to be the difference between them becoming a CEO/philanthropist, and a nine-fingered hobo. (??? Academics? THEY GLUE STUFF TO OTHER STUFF AND FIGHT OVER WHO GETS TO PLAY WITH THAT DUMPTRUCK.)
Anyway. Preschools! Crazy.
A few weeks ago, I emailed a preschool person to find out about when her school – which looked okay and is in our neighborhood – had a tour scheduled, so I could go see if they beat the kids with bamboo rods or anything. And she finally emailed back.
They didn’t have any tours scheduled for right now, but she strongly suggested that I go ahead and fill out an application “to at least get on file”.
Of course, there’s an application fee. (Which I guess I am supposed to fork over without ever having seen the school…?)
So for a while my theory was that this was an elaborate con! This school doesn’t really exist, it’s just a website run by Nigerian scammers, to rake in 50-dollar “application fees” from nervous middle-class parents in the fiercely competitive LA preschool market.
I kind of admired my imaginary Nigerian scammers, and thought they were onto something. If I were to do this, I would do up a lovely snooty website, claim to follow the precepts of an obscure Austrian pedagog, and say things like “Each year, interest in KINDERWALD HOUSE far outstrips the slots available. To secure your child’s place on our waitlist, enclose three letters of recommendation from rich people, one of them at least moderately famous, and a money order for three hundred dollars.”
(Eventually this place turned out to be real and scheduled a tour. So Husband Guy and our kid and I went over and hung out while the people talked about diversity and diversity and how interested they are in diversity, as I looked around in amazement, wondering if literally no one else noticed that every single parent there was a white person with funky glasses, a bunch of tattoos, and a job as a writer/graphic designer/editor.)