How do I decide when it’s right? (If you need to make decisions for the next year now, this may help!)
“Should I send my 18-month-old out this year or not? I have a newborn at home and can’t decide. What’s best at that age if they don’t have to be sent out?”
Spoiler alert: I don’t think there is a right answer. In fact, my takeaway is:
- you never to have or “should” send your child to someone who is “professional” or “more experienced.” You are already the best person to take care of your own child.
- You can (or maybe, like it or not, you need to) expand your own village and outsource the care to another loving and capable adult.
Ugh, not a big answer I know. Well, the truth is, it just comes down to what’s working for your unique family right now. Since the answer is so nuanced, this is going to be a little long. (Disclaimer: My own 20 month old son is leaving the house for the first time and I’m excited! I’ll explain why at the end.) First, let’s dispel some myths.
Myth 1: Your child NEEDS more stimulation/socialization.
It’s not true that at 18 months your child is magically getting too old for what you can offer and suddenly needs a teacher and classmates.
The truth is that life is learning. The receptive mind of a child under the age of 3 learns automatically from the environment – playing freely in the park, running errands with you, helping you around the house.
And socialization happens in the world too, especially in the family (or 2:30 in the park). A toddler “needs” no classmates and doesn’t actually play at all together with them – at that age they play in parallel.
You also don’t have to “learn” how to share, take turns, take circle time, put away toys, etc. These are all developmental skills that 1) are learned over time, 2) can also show up in real life so practiced at home will.
Myth 2: Your child will be behind if they don’t go to playgroup now.
You can’t be left behind in life. When you provide quality care for your own child, they learn life skills simply by living real life with you.
Myth 3: Children belong at home as long as possible, and sending your child to playgroup will damage their bond.
First of all… attachment doesn’t quite work, especially at 18 months when it’s pretty much established. We can’t say definitively that a single thing damages bonding, and the child’s personality also plays a role here.
Also remember that the teacher becomes a new caregiver, which is perfectly fine if you trust the teacher and feel safe in leaving your child in her care.
So children belong at home? Yes, but… not when Mom is drained, upset, out of control, or just not loving it. Not just to “stay at home as long as possible” – there are no plus points for that. It’s not the location that matters. It’s the quality of the relationship.
Myth 4: Taking a break from your child will make you a better mother.
Who tells you that? Is it someone who says objectively and lovingly that they see you drowning and want you to have time to fill your own cup first? Or is it a societal message that a career is more important than being a housewife…or that taking care of children is impossible to find fulfillment…? There’s no shame if you need some space. And there’s nothing wrong if you don’t.
Myth 5: It’s easier to have a toddler at home if you live in the city/suburbs.
I’ve actually done both, so I can tell you that each has its pros and cons, and ultimately it comes down to you. You can stay in a one bedroom apartment and plan walks, destinations and activities for rainy days. You can live in a big house with a backyard and still have to go to the library to see other people. Any environment can be maximized.
Myth 6: The choice you make now reflects who you are as a mother.
You are not a better or worse mother because you keep your child at home or not. Look, I sent my first baby out at 8 weeks and my second at 14 months. I wouldn’t do that now, but that was my skill or ability back then.
Whatever you decide now is just… a moment in time. Whatever your current circumstances. This is when we must believe that “kids grow up good,” as in, our loving home buffers our children from the outside world.
So what does a toddler actually need?
- A consistent daily routine. That’s not to say things can’t be changed (“going out” can be different every day), but there should be a general order he can look forward to (so the outing is always before nap time).
- Order in the environment, for example a place where he can return a toy or find his shoes
- Opportunities for real-world activities such as household chores. Did you know that the Montessori classroom is actually modeled after home?
- More challenges as he gets more powerful – remember he turns 2 this year! You don’t have to get all Pinterest-y, but “preschool activities” like playdough or jigsaw puzzles help develop hand muscles and fine motor skills, and things like musical instruments expand his little world
- Plenty of time to play outdoors – in all safe weather conditions
So… will you be taking your toddler on trips? Do you let him choose the apples in the grocery store and put them in the cart, Using spoons and cups in the bath, helping to transfer laundry, and mixing and pouring in the kitchen? Do you let him use crayons, stickers, paints and modeling clay? Can you chase him in the park?
It doesn’t really take anything special – just some perspective and patience. If you can’t imagine including your child in your daily routine or offering activities every now and then, a playgroup might be a better option. Not because YOU can’t and another professional can. Just because you might not be set up for it like a classroom with toys and teachers is.
Other things to note:
- If you just have a newborn, remember that the easy part is already over. (Sorry!!) Newborns are easy to transport, especially when they sleep all day. In a few months they will be more active and take two naps – morning and afternoon. A toddler’s single nap usually falls right in the middle of those two. You may need to adjust times or make sure a child sleeps in the stroller so you don’t end up napping.
- Expect to get nothing done when you have two kids at home. Like a good day, you might be able to set out dinner or fold a load of laundry. This will not be the year for a side job, a spotlessly clean home, or anything other than childcare. You need very low expectations and a lot of conviction This His full-time job and probably a domestic help.
- How many other children are at home? Entertaining a toddler (a baby doesn’t count) is different than, say, three children under the age of 4. It’s like a small class, so it might be more hectic, but they’ll also all be playing (or fighting!) with each other. .
- Logistical considerations: how far away is it, how long is the day, what is the care like, what is the sleeping or feeding like?
- Financial considerations – I didn’t bring that up at all because the question doesn’t, and I recognize that everyone has different reasons for wanting or needing a playgroup. Obviously, some parents need childcare so they can work. Some parents may choose to work even if the salary basically covers childcare just to get out of the house. Some parents might decide that staying home with the kids is a priority (or be more financially prudent) and rearrange finances to make that happen.
Why we go to playgroup
Just for illustration, here are some reasons or considerations why I send my 20 month old to playgroup and why I look forward to it:
- So far he has been at my house.
- My other kids are at school, which means he’s the only one home – so it’s both more difficult and time-consuming to “entertain” just him.
- I feel a little tired chasing him and I realize that I’m being careless in providing opportunities that I want to give him but don’t want to (e.g. he should draw and use stickers).
- His personality and skills (independence, communication skills) make him a good candidate for an out-of-home program.
- I have faith and confidence in the playgroup he goes to.
- I’m just ready to work on it as a company – I look forward to having time to bring more of my ideas and projects to life!
- In an alternate reality, I might be homeschooling all 3 of my kids. But that’s not what my life looks like right now. I accept the limitations of my lifestyle and the choices or sacrifices I am/unwilling to make.
I hope this helps either make a decision or confirm a current one. Whatever you decide, you should feel safe. That means making a decision that takes into account your level of knowledge (I hope that helps!) and your current bandwidth, finances, logistics, etc. You can only ever do what your resources allow. This is “do your best”. And when you’re feeling guilty about a decision, that’s an inner “check engine” light that your actions may not be in line with your principles or beliefs. (Unless someone else blames you – then you need better company.
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