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Forget being accepted by Yale, it's hard enough to make it into a good preschool—A Commentary by Ken Harbaugh ’08

The following commentary was published in the Canada National Post on March 17, 2008.

Forget being accepted by Yale, it's hard enough to make it into a good preschool
By Ken Harbaugh ’08
It’s that time of the year again, when acceptance letters for America’s hardest-to-get-into schools are starting to arrive in mailboxes. Living in New Haven, Conn. — home of Yale University — I know I’m not the only parent who is nervous every time the postman arrives. My daughter Katie’s letter should be here any day now.

Except she’s only three, and the schools we’re waiting to hear from are preschools. But they all have five applicants for every opening, and waiting lists a mile long. And my favourite part: They made us fill out real applications, with real recommendation forms.

When I was Katie’s age, I don’t remember “applying” to preschool. This is mostly because I don’t remember much of anything about being three, except for an indestructible pair of overalls and a plastic truck that my older brother set on fire. But another reason I don’t remember applying to preschool, is because 30 years ago that would have been considered … dumb.

So when I got the first “application” in the mail, I thought it was just an anomaly. Not so. Almost every preschool we visited has something like it, not just name and address and emergency stuff, but real questions. For the kid. The recommendation forms are the best part. My favourite line, which is supposed to be filled out by “the child’s current tutor,” asks about her “capacity to lead.” She’s three!

The fun-loving dad in me wants to laugh, to fold these recommendation forms into paper airplanes and teach Katie to throw them off the highest building in town. But the other dad, the protective one, who’s already preparing his speech for the first boy who thinks he’s good enough to date her, that dad wants to keep anyone — admissions officers included — from judging my daughter.

At some point, I may care about Katie’s leadership ability. I’m as proud of her already as any parent can be. She is the greatest kid that has ever existed in the history of the world, and I know she is going to grow up to be even better. But why rush it? For now, I just want Katie to make friends and learn to play (as long as it doesn’t involve setting toy trucks on fire). The only thing I want her leading is the collection of stuffed animals upstairs.

This essay was supposed to end here. But the mail came today. I’ve got an open letter sitting on the kitchen table, telling me that my daughter has been accepted by the best preschool in town. Katie’s in. She’ll be taught by great teachers. She’ll be surrounded by super-gifted kids, each of them a brilliant leader in their own right, children leading children.

Sure, the whole process has gotten a little neurotic. But perhaps neuroses are inevitable when our kids are involved. I realize that I am effectively choosing surrogate parents. There will be days when Katie’s teachers see more of her than I do. I’m fine, then, entrusting my little girl to people who care too much, rather than too little, about who she is. Leader or not, as long she’s got a dad to worry for her, she’ll be fine.

As for this acceptance letter, I’m forced to swallow my pride. It says all the right things, about family, about community … the stuff that really matters. Besides, I can tell it is going to make a great paper airplane.

Ken Harbaugh is executive director of The Center for Citizen Leadership.