Sociology Lessons in Kindergarten
I happen to know several children who are either in kindergarten or will be soon. Hearing about their experiences and those of their parents made me realize that kindergarten offers many sociology lessons, both inside the classroom and out.
Lesson #1: Socialization
This is the obvious one, but it is nonetheless important. One of my nephews is currently a kindergartner, and I recently asked him what he thought the most important thing he has learned so far. He told me that he learned that even if someone tells you to do something that is against the rules, you shouldn’t do it or you will get in trouble. This is a big lesson, one that often takes much trial and error for children (and many adults) to learn.
Even though he spent time at preschool, kindergarten provides a new level of institutional challenges. His progress is monitored more closely and measured (What grade level is he reading at? His math skill level?) The state has formalized specific skills that children are supposed to learn at each grade level in order to be sure that they are ready for the next grade. In kindergarten, children also learn what it means to exist within a larger institutional setting. Students learn much more than just their class’s curriculum, including things as mundane as fire drills, how to walk quietly through the halls, behaving on a school bus, going on field trips, and the importance of arriving to school on time.
My nephew’s biggest apprehension before starting kindergarten was meeting many new kids after forming friendships with preschool classmates who would not all be at his school or in his class. He has made many new friends by now, mostly in his class, but also met some older kids on the playground where play is less closely monitored than in preschool. Through these interactions, he has picked up on some language his parents probably wish he hadn’t. He has also seen children get sent to the principal’s office and has talked about how he does not want that to happen to him, so he is learning to following the rules by observing his peers.
He gets along well with others, but some friends of mine are worried about their daughter’s ability to make friends when she starts kindergarten, as she is an only child and prefers the company of adults. Her parents want her to learn to interact more with children her own age but are afraid that she will experience rejection. By contrast, a family in the neighborhood has chosen to home school their kindergartener due to their travel schedule. Some friends expressed concerns that their son, though very bright, might be missing some of the basic lessons of learning how to get along with people in a structured institutional environment. One other neighbor suggested that the key lesson of kindergarten is learning to follow rules, which the boy might miss out on if he doesn’t have the socialization experiences that other kids have.
Lesson #2: Social Change
When I attended kindergarten in the mid-1970s, it was only a half day long. I have vivid memories of walking home from school with my mother at noon, eating lunch and then being put down for a nap. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1970 45 percent of women 25 to 34 were in the paid labor force, which would rise to 66 percent in 1980 and to 74 percent in 1990. Economic changes meant more women with young children needed to work for wages, so a half day of kindergarten would be a challenge for many parents by 1980, when the majority of young women were in the paid labor force and the stay at home mom became a luxury that many families could not afford.
This basic change meant full-day kindergarten, which requires more resources for schools; in the past one teacher could teach both morning and afternoon kindergarten in the same classroom, but now two teachers and two classrooms are needed. Because the typical school day is shorter than many parents’ workdays, many schools allow parents to sign their children up for before and after school programs, extending the kindergartener’s day from about 4 hours decades ago to 8 or more hours. Not only do these broader economic changes affect kindergarteners, they mean that children get several more hours of early education than they had in the past. Partly because of that increased classroom time, there are higher expectations for what they will learn that year. For me, reading wasn’t part of the curriculum until first grade, but many of today’s parents of kindergarteners are told that their preschoolers should read before kindergarten even starts.
Lesson #3: Social Inequality
For many people who can afford it, kindergarten comes with choices. Public or private? Some public school systems offer the opportunity to sign children up for lotteries to attend special public schools, like charter schools or concentration schools. One family I know won such a lottery and their children attend a school that concentrates on music education. Another child of a friend attends a science magnet. To get into one of these schools, parents have to first know that they exist and then learn how to navigate the district’s application process.
If parents can afford a private school, they have to decide which kind of private school will be the best fit. The friends who are the future kindergartner’s parents have spent many hours agonizing over which kindergarten would offer the best fit for their child’s needs. For other parents, the choice of a preschool is just as deliberate, because they hope the cache of a good preschool will catapult their child into a very selective kindergarten. For many—if not most—parents, kindergarten means the local public school, like it or not.
And once school starts, inequality plays out in other ways. Whether a child has opportunities to read makes a big difference in their school work. A colleague of mine who grew up poor once told me he was shocked as a child to see books at a friend’s house. He thought only libraries had books. After a head injury his parents couldn’t afford to take him to a doctor for treatment, and his vision was blurred, so he couldn’t read anyway. He didn’t get glasses until he joined the military.
Likewise, a child who comes to school hungry or who experiences instability in their home or neighborhood will be less able to concentrate. I never had homework in kindergarten, but my nephew does. He is fortunate to have a desk in his room, but other children might not have a quiet space to read or do homework, leaving them behind others who do.
Kindergarten is about learning to play nice with others, but it’s also much more. What other sociological lessons does kindergarten contain?