It’s been a lot of years ago, but we remember it well — sitting in our living room in McLean, Virginia, talking with a group of friends about the preschool-aged kids we all had at the time, and about what kind of preschool we should enroll them in.
The Washington, D.C, area was a hotbed for early academics, and we had all received ads and circulars and fliers touting various preschools — all of them promising to teach our 3- and 4-year-olds to read, or to do math, or to develop good study habits — all based on the assumption that the best thing parents could do for these little kids was to give them an academic head start, to make sure they were the smartest kids in their kindergarten class when they started school in a couple of years.
I remember one particular advertisement that came in our mail that started, “Want to get your child into Harvard? Better get on our waiting list now!” It was an ad for a preschool that apparently had managed to get address lists from the maternity ward of the local hospital. Our baby was 3 weeks old when the ad showed up in our mailbox. So, before they turn a month old, start preparing them for college, right?
Well, we weren’t so sure. We weren’t sure it was wise to push kids too hard too soon. We weren’t sure that little kids didn’t deserve a real childhood where play was the main thing, not academic learning. And we weren’t too sure that we wanted to give up our own precious time with these little ones by sending them off to school too early. Oh, and one more thing, we also weren’t sure we could handle the exorbitant cost of some of these hot-shot commercial preschools which seemed to think we could afford Ivy League tuition right now!
So, we brainstormed about it, we and these good friends who had little kids the same age as ours. We asked ourselves what was the most important thing we could give our children at this age — what was the most important thing they could learn during these enormously formative preschool years. And the answer we came up with was a bit unique and a bit surprising.
We decided that the most important thing we could give these fresh little souls was happiness, and we decided that the most important thing we could teach them was joy. We all agreed that helping them be happy was more important at this stage than helping them be smart, and we felt that the happier and more secure they were when they started kindergarten, the better they would do and the faster they would learn.
It seemed a bit pie-in-the-sky at first. I mean, can you really teach happiness? And how would you go about it? But the more we worked on the thought, the more realistic it became. We realized that happiness, or joy as we preferred to call it, could be subdivided into its various types. There were the social joys of friendliness and kindness and sharing and service; the physical joys of the body and the earth; the mental joys of imagination and creativity and of setting and accomplishing a simple goal; the emotional joys of spontaneous delight and of calmness and peacefulness; and the spiritual joys of simple faith and gratitude.
The more we thought about it, the more intrigued we became.
We talked to kindergarten and first-grade teachers who told us they disliked getting kids who were so far ahead because they were bored and less excited to learn; and that other kids who were socially and emotionally well-adjusted quickly caught up and often passed the kids who had a lot of academics as preschoolers. A little “kindergarten readiness,” they told us, like knowing letters and numbers, is a good thing, but being way ahead of everyone else is not.
Mostly just to collect our ideas and to clarify our own personal philosophy of parenting, we started writing about methods for teaching the various “joys” to small children. Friends and neighbors helped, and before we knew it, we had compiled a book that was a parent’s guide for teaching and reinforcing happiness. Deseret Book published "Teaching Your Children Joy" as one of their first books with their new Shadow Mountain imprint and it was later published by Random House and became a best-seller. About that time, were called to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in London, and Richard's wonderful mother, Ruth Eyre, an early education specialist, took our book and fashioned it into a complete preschool curriculum, and Joy Schools were born.
Since that time, more than 200,000 families have created neighborhood Joy Schools, sharing the costs of hard-copy lesson plans and cassette tapes with moms rotating as teacher. Today, more widespread than ever, Joy School families simply download their materials electronically at JoySchools.com, and it seems now that wherever we speak in the world, there are Joy School moms in the audience.
But this is not a column about Joy Schools, it is a column about the philosophy of giving kids the gift of a real childhood and of teaching them the awareness and appreciation and character qualities and joys that will prepare them socially and emotionally for school. When they have this — when they start kindergarten happy and secure and in tune with themselves and their world — the academics will come quickly and naturally, and they will be ready for it.
As New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors, the Eyres have now written 50 books and speak throughout the world on families and life-balance. For additional information, see www.valuesparenting.com or www.TheEyres.com.