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As the parent of any toddler can tell you, it’s a tough playground out there! And not just for the toddlers. Toddler parents don’t have it so easy either.

Here’s the scenario: Two moms are sitting on the bench while their respective children play in the sandbox. They chat, and realize that both will be entering kindergarten during the upcoming school year. Suddenly, one of the moms turns into a competitive monster. She reels off a list of her child’s accomplishments: her child can count to 45,678- can yours? Her child can say “Today is Tuesday” in Swahili-can yours? Her child can argue convincingly that Columbus actually brought 17 ships to the new world-can yours? And on and on she goes, until her cell phone goes off, reminding her to bring Junior to his class on Medieval Art.

The other mom remains sitting there, flabbergasted. And she starts to wonder: who’s the normal one? Will her child be hopelessly behind in Kindergarten (and, therefore, for the rest of his life?)

And you know exactly what I mean, don’t you? You’ve been there.

Speak to most Kindergarten teachers, and they’ll put your mind at ease. In spite of all the educational hype, kids aren’t actually expected to do quite all that by the age of five. Most Kindergarten teachers put more of an emphasis on the social skills. They would be thrilled with a classroom full of kids who can separate from mom within a reasonable time period, sit still and listen to a story for circle time, go to the bathroom unaided, and share with others. Knowledge of the alphabet is a helpful plus, possible combined with a knowledge of the letter sounds. The Swahili can wait until at least first grade.

So how did this all happen? How did childhood become a race to see who can get admitted to Harvard first?

The reasons are many and varied. Some of it is economics-with more parents working, there’s an increasing emphasis on “quality time.” For some parents that means lessons, on everything from the aforementioned Medieval Art, to soccer to foreign language. (For me it means making a collage with pictures cut from a magazine.)  Some of the reason has to do with the increased emphasis on assessment testing in elementary schools; parents figure that the testing will apply to their children earlier. (And it probably will, but certainly not at age 5.) Some of it is that parents are so busy, that it’s easier to drop their child off at a class than it is to sit and play. Another reason is that families are smaller than they used to be; a family of even three kids is becoming more of a rarity. As a result, parents can’t rely on siblings to play together-they have to fill the time, and they do so with things that adults find important, not necessarily what kids would.

So what’s a parent to do?

Don’t race off and enroll your child in every class you think will be important to his future. Kids have a wonderful ability to live in the present that we could all learn from. Take the time to teach your child the important lessons: the use of his imagination, how to be nice to others, how to share and so on. Read to him, and let him see you reading for pleasure. Turn off the TV and go for a walk. Indulge in a treat from the ice cream man, even if it is 10 a.m.

In short, let your child enjoy his childhood before you rush him off to Harvard.