The Tiny Graduate

I've just served my daughters their lunch and our older girl, Fern, sits staring at the plate.


“Dad?” she says, wide-eyed with a 5-year-old's naked curiosity. “Are these grapes that somebody picked… in the future?”


I know where this is going, so I play along: “Why yes, sweetie. They were picked in the future.”


Fern pauses, her eyebrows furrowed. “Dad? Did they graduate?”


Yes, the grapes graduated (from grape school, I guess?) This is a game we've played a lot lately: nearly every doll and toy animal in the house has graduated by now, each striding confidently into its own stuffed future.


And – did you guess? – Fern is about to graduate, too: out of nursery school and into kindergarten.


I'll admit it: before I was a dad, commencement ceremonies for little kids seemed a little precious. I don't mind play-acting, but is playing graduation any different from playing fire station or ballerinas? Who really considers switching from second to third grade any more important than a move to a different classroom down the hall?


Well, Fern is taking graduation very seriously: she's worried whether she knows enough for kindergarten.


Teachers talk about milestones, those mental benchmarks they expect children to reach by a certain age. Fern can't spell her last name, and we're told that her kindergarten teacher will expect that. I know I could force her to learn by holding some doll hostage (or, I suppose, rewarding her). But, I know from experience how badly that kind of drill would backfire, distracting Fern from learning in her own way.


Every time I pressure my daughter to learn something specific, she balks. Letter sounds, in particular, mostly seemed to bore her – until she spent a day with a friend who can spell “robot.” She came home that afternoon searching the house for Rs, Bs and Ts – not to mention lasers and jet packs. Letter sounds? Mission accomplished.


Is that, then, what's expected of a nursery school graduate – phonics and a dollop of number recognition? Because I fear that if there were a preschool SAT test, Fern wouldn't pass. The notion of rote academic skill building for a 5-year-old turns my stomach: I just won't do it. In not too many years, I'll be helping her with multiplication tables. Must we really start now?


So, I asked Fern what graduation means to her. Apart from not knowing enough, she worries about changes. “There will be new kids and old kids,” she said once, with both eagerness and fear in her voice. She often mentions “my new teacher” in a tone far too bittersweet for a 5-year-old. She doesn't want to lose her beloved preschool teachers. But just as much, she thirsts for this new, unknown adult to accept her as a kindergartner.


Ambivalence: that's Fern's graduation lesson. She's excited and petrified, proud of her past and anxious for her future. Learning to marshal all those feelings is a remarkable milestone for anybody, let alone a preschooler. So, the graduation ceremony isn't pretend-play, and it isn't even what I feared: a measure of academic achievement. Graduation is a celebration of how our little girl's emotions have grown up, along with her body and mind.


After lunch, Fern's little sister shouts “Airplane!” and points outside. Fern doesn't bother looking. “You know,” she explains to her sister, “I used to look at airplanes a lot, too. Now I look at stars.”


Now, there's a kid who's ready to graduate. Maybe we'll play “Pomp & Circumstance” on kazoos, but that won't make Fern's first graduation any less significant than the many more that await her.


Graham Charles blogs at