I don't know about you, but I second-guess myself, when I seek opinions from people who are almost certain to validate what I want to hear. Ex.: When I was a first-time mom getting some pressure to go to work full-time, all my working-mom friends assured me full-time daycare would make my kids more independent, more ready for school, and show them that their mom can have a career just like their dad. Yet, considering the source, I still found myself wondering if that was the right choice.
On the whole, the Mothering community is not as mainstream as the friends you describe, who've all had their kids in preschool since they were two. Plenty of members here would support never putting your son in school or giving him the kind of structure you find in classes and programs for preschoolers. I'd hate for the "crunchiness" of this source to leave you second-guessing the reassurances you get here, that what you're doing with your son now is absolutely fine and arguably better than having him in classes.
I'm fairly mainstream. My husband's and my older 3 kids all started preschool shortly after they turned 3. They're in middle and high school now and have always attended conventional (as opposed to home) schools. So, somewhat like your real-life friends, I appreciate the benefits preschool and a bit of structure can give.
I also know preschool is not critical to a kid's development and that our older kids' enrollment was not 100% for their benefit.
I was heavily pushed to enroll my oldest (twins) in preschool by the time they turned 3 because they received OT, PT and speech through First Steps and (here, at least), starting at age 3, these services are provided through your neighborhood school's special ed dept. Our neighborhood school would only send therapists to preschools, not to people's homes. I could probably have appealed that, through the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I was only 25 and didn't think of that. In fact, I worried that I'd be shortchanging my kids somehow, if I didn't enroll them in preschool like everyone else did.
I'm not our middle child's mother. I think his mother (who was more involved, when he was preschool-aged) put him in preschool because she was a first-time mom and that's what her best friend across the street was doing with her son.
All three of our kids made friends in preschool. They took fun field trips. They learned some things that we, their parents, might not have thought to cover at home (like counting in Japanese, or reciting the months in order).
Did preschool fundamentally change their innate abilities (or challenges) in making friends at the park, or in kindergarten? No. The twins were still on the Autism spectrum and will always struggle with social nuances. Our middle child (who lived as an only child until he was 8) still struggled with sharing (both toys and friends). Preschool did not affect this one iota.
Did preschool fundamentally change their academic readiness? No.
~~ The twins learned to read early because both parents and all their grandparents are avid readers and everyone read to them and played literacy-related games almost constantly; and the twins liked that and had an aptitude for it. Decoding written language early did not change the fact that they have learning disabilities - including comprehending and retaining what they read - and will always struggle in school.
~~ Our middle child had the same preschool teacher as the twins, but learned to read late. At home, he was not read to nearly as much and preferred a lot of gross motor activity to literacy-related activities. Reading late did not change the fact that he's innately very bright and, by 4th grade, was reading on an 11th-grade level.
Did preschool fundamentally change their ability to adapt to classroom expectations in kindergarten? No. It still took the twins a lot of repetition to adjust to new routines, every time they changed teachers throughout school. They're Autistic. Defiant kids will challenge teachers' rules, whether they first have a teacher at age two, or at five. A cooperative child will adjust to classroom routines in kindergarten, whether or not he's ever been in a classroom before.
Being attached to you, spending time with you, getting out around other people with you (at the zoo, park, library, store), is infinitely more important to your son's development than anything someone else will teach him two or three mornings a week. Enroll him in school or don't. Regardless, he will learn what he's ready to learn when he's ready to learn it, as long as he's exposed to things and his interests are encouraged. Three-year-olds who would otherwise spend all day every day in front of a TV would be better-off attending preschool. But if you offer to read to your son; if you ask him to help you measure things when you cook; or count how many squirrels you see on your morning walk; if you notice and respond to what interests him; if you involve him in the daily routines of your family (help set the table, help get the laundry out of the dryer, time to brush teeth, time to water the plants...) he will be as ready as he is personally capable of being, whenever he does enter school. You're doing a fine job, Mom.
P.S. Our youngest child won't be starting preschool until the fall, when he'll be 4 1/2. And that's mainly because he's interested in school, since his older brothers all go every day; and he wants more friends and play-dates. To facilitate that, I need to get to know more moms with kids his age. So he'll be going to a co-op. It's only 3 mornings a week, for two hours. And my husband or I will be there with him a lot.
Co-ops are usually cheaper than other preschools, because the parents run everything on a volunteer basis. Teachers have the only paid positions. They're also a great environment for making friends who might share your parenting priorities a bit more than your existing friends seem to.
Edited by VocalMinority - 6/10/12 at 7:46am