Ana Menéndez Mourns Her Four-Year-Old’s Childhood

It’s come to this.  Four-year-olds in our assessment-crazed land are waking up in the middle of the night whispering sums.  They’re facing the rigor of the Common Core State Standards, squirming in little chairs, deprived of gold stars—the littlest victims of educational goals and grownup folly.


Ana Menéndez, the daughter of Cuban exiles, is a journalist who has covered conflict across the globe. The author of four books of fiction, including The Last War and Adios, Happy Homeland!, earlier this year, she took to the pages of the Miami Herald unwittingly entering a domestic war zone.  Menéndez values play, which she knows is backed up by a robust evidence base.  But “the public schools,” she writes, “have not caught up to the latest research.”


By Ana Menéndez

It was past 10 on a Sunday night and my 4-year old couldn’t sleep. He sat up in bed, whispering, “One plus one is two … two plus two is four … one plus two is three.”

My son had never shown any symptoms of anxiety. Happiness radiates from him. And he’s outgoing to the point of hilarity: He once walked up to a hotel bar and asked if they could give him some milk.

Because he’s an only child, his father and I decided to enroll him in preschool so he could play with other children. We opted for the VPK program at his public school, purportedly one of the state’s best K-8 centers.

But now, half the year in, we were faced with a child so anxious that he couldn’t sleep.

“We have testing Monday and Tuesday,” he told me when I asked why he was counting. “And math is hard.”

My heart broke. Neither my husband nor I, both in our 40s, ever went to preschool. I don’t think I even knew what a “test” or “math” was when I was his age.

I had wished to expand his little world. And now I held a little boy who couldn’t fall asleep with worry.

I assured him that this was a silly test meant to measure the teacher’s skill not his own. That Mom and Dad didn’t care at all about this test and neither should he. But he kept insisting that the test was very important and he had to do well. When he begged me to keep him from school, I asked him what he was worried about. What was the worst that could happen if he didn’t do well?

He gave me his sweet child’s answer: “Mrs. ___ won’t give me a gold star.”

I finally got him to sleep by singing lullabies. But I was angry and shaken. The survey we were asked to fill out at the beginning of the year should have been a warning.

It asked us what educational goals we had for our son. I filled out the form, answering: “None.” I wrote something to the effect of: “We want him to learn to play, be respectful and get along with others.”

At the next meeting with the teacher, she said that in 30 years of teaching no parent had ever filled out the form that way.

Why not? Have we become so ambitious as parents that we are willing to rob our children of their playful innocence in exchange from some huckster’s promised academic “benefit” down the road?

Does anyone really believe that a child’s future hinges on his ability to master simple math by the age of 5?

I am a writer. My husband has a doctorate degree. We are a family that values learning and education.

But we also value play. At this age, in fact, play is learning. Dozens of recent studies back up that assertion. And yet, somehow, our public schools have not caught up to the latest research.

Instead, they are turning what should be the joyful childhood years into miniature versions of the competitive, soulless slog too many of us have accepted as the wages of adulthood.

That Sunday night, I sang softly to my son, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

And I lay with him a long while after he’d gone to sleep thinking, what purpose is served in this hard world by interrupting the merry reverie of small children?



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6 comments to Ana Menéndez Mourns Her Four-Year-Old’s Childhood

  • Myron V. Bontrager

    Amen and Amen!!!!

    As a Kindergarten teacher, I have long been irritated by administrators imposing what I always considered to be first grade curricular material on my students in the Kindergarten classroom.

    Far more learning occurs through a kindergartner’s play than can ever hope to be attained through the enforcement of a curriculum far too advanced for the kindergartner mind.

  • Violet

    Please tell us that you pulled your son out of that terrible place!!!! And please write about all the parents who have no choice but to put their kids in government-run pre-K pressure cookers.

  • Renee

    Trust me it is not teachers nor do I feel it’s totally administration that has created this for our kids. Look higher and follow the money. As an elementary art teacher I can say practical experience in so many things kids used to learn had been thrown out the door for pre-packaged Pearson and friends garbage..
    Kids are not learning cursive writing, how to use a ruller to measure and a million other practical things.

  • Norma

    Legislatures make these idiotic decisions, not educators…we are trapped as teachers and administrators. We are required to follow the laws, rules and requirements of our respective state. Only an overwhelming outcry by voters will change these destructive requirements.

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