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“Am I a bad mom for not wanting to take my kids to Gymboree?” I wondered aloud as we drove our kids to go on some futile errand or another.

Maybe not.

But am I a bad mom for judging others who do think it’s valuable?  I know, I know, they’re making a different choice.  One I wouldn’t make.  One I keep trying to convince myself does not have a Right or a Wrong, just a Best for Each Family.

But in reality, I think Gymboree is a stupid, overpriced excuse to let kids run wild in a child-safe area while their parents either worship the “teachers” as demi-gods, or else just use it as an excuse to socialize with each other. Is there value in Gymboree (or Sally’s Music Circle, or Kinder Art, or Tot Time at Bounce U)?  Yes, I can say there is.  I can flex my thinking enough to consider benefits of the programming:

  • Provides the aforementioned safe space for kids to play.
  • Kids need to get their ya-yas out.
  • Indoor space you can go to when suffering from cabin fever deep in the blahs of winter.
  • Provides  45 minutes or an hour of structured time in what might feel like a long stretch of an amorphous day as a stay-at-home parent.
  • Models developmentally appropriate child-oriented ways to interact with and stimulate children.
  • “Educational” (at least they’re not plugged into Angry Birds or Might Morphin’ Power Rangers)

But Gymboree is $82/month for one class, for one kid.  Oh, and unlimited “open gym”s.  If a parent is staying at home to raise kid, they’re taking a defacto pay cut right there, and $82/month (per child) is a chunk of change I’d rather to put into a college account, not tummy time.  At least not tummy time I pay $82/month for.

If you can afford Gymboree, good for you.  There are other issues I have with Gymboree and its ilk.  What I don’t like about the “classes” that are “taught” is that it undermines parents’ confidence in their own abilities, instincts, and competencies to take change of their kids’ development.  They begin to worship the teachers because the classes offer things like “flashlight play” and “auditory development” (singing songs).  My kids began tracking visually without flashlights, and responding to songs as they lay cooing in their pack n play in the dining room.  I dangled a half dozen baby toys from an empty wrapping paper roll, and they watched our faces and the movement of the toys.  We sang and shushed several times a day to get them to shut up and stop crying, or to go to sleep.  Teach parenting skills, by all means.  But don’t change $82/month (per kid!) to bill it as “auditory” and “visual” development.  Another beef I have is that these “classes” begin too early, way before kids “need” the structure that an organized class provides.  Do infants and toddlers need routines?  Absolutely.  But an 8-week-old doesn’t need any more structure to his days than mom and dad can provide within their own routines of eating, sleeping, and diaper changes.

In addition, you can do it all at home.  Or on your own, with limited materials.  I don’t think you have to be a musical or artistic genius to “Dance and sing to a new musical style each month including Latin, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Classical and more”.  Get a Putamayo CD and some egg shakers.  Or Easter eggs filled with rice.  Kids need to run?  Take them to a tennis court or an empty field at a local college.  Take a trip to Lowe’s and buy an 8’ length of drainage hose for $9 and let your kids put balls down it.  Bubbles from the dollar store or one of those endless Pinterest recipes.  Couch cushions were our pillow forts, providing endless variations on building, toppling, and safe exploration.  Water play is a giant Tupperware bin and a towel on the kitchen floor.

If you’re not so creative, not so resourceful, try some free or inexpensive resources instead.  The local children’s museum has a family membership (up to 4 ppl) for $120/year.  You can go every single day and build with blocks, go “grocery shopping”, play doctor, explore music, art, water play, and even develop your auditory and visual systems.  My local library has story time two mornings a week.  For Free.  During the summer they run tons of programming including animal visitors, pet shows, science experiments, and special story hours (Dr. Seuss, pirates).  Take your kid to a playground or a wide open field.  If it’s rainy or cold out, two local malls have safe indoor play areas for young children that are also free.  Many nearby nature centers are free or inexpensive.

You don’t have to be a Pinterest genius, creating “sensory baths” or thematic units based on the seasons.  Even Gymboree says kids learn best through play.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate, costly, or look pretty.  My mother babysat my kids yesterday morning in her decidedly child unfriendly house.  I sent down some books and snacks, just in case. For an hour and a half, they sat on her porch with pots, pans, and measuring spoons, stimulating their auditory development by banging on different materials including chairs, cabinets, and the washing machine.  She doesn’t have a degree in early childhood education.  She doesn’t even read Parents magazine.  She definitely doesn’t do Pinterest. And she never took me to Gymboree.

When I was a baby/toddler, she took me to a program provided by our synagogue for a nominal fee that offered babysitting for the kids, and a workshop or class for the moms.  She got to get out of the house, socialize, and had easy access to me in case I needed to nurse or be changed.  No one was selling her the snake oil that is prepackaged child development for the pre-dental set.  I banged on pots and pans.  Later, I went to nursery school when it benefited all of us.  My brother had just been born, and I needed some attention paid to me separate from the new baby.  So off I went to our synagogue’s nursery school program.  No one tried to push her into the Mommy & Me classes with a pretense that it was for me any more than those groups existed for the Mommies to have a chance to talk to another grown-up.  But they’ve repackaged the activities, thrown a dose of parental guilt (and the hefty fee that accompanies beginning your child’s “education” at 2 months). Moreover, no one was making her second guess her intuition about parenting.  In those days, that’s what grandparents were for.

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August 2013