I Felt Guilty for Not Teaching My Daughter to Read Before Kindergarten, But Turns Out I Didn’t Have To

I didn’t cry the day my daughter went to kindergarten. While other moms dabbed their eyes, I was quietly amazed by how ready we both were for her to take this next step. As I tried to help her button the denim dress she picked out for her first day, she gently pushed my hand away saying, “I got it, Mom.” I felt a tiny sting but mostly pride—she was ready.

But I didn’t completely escape the blues. The culmination of guilt that was building all summer hit me later that first week. I was shocked by how quickly five years had gone by. What had we done with all that time? Did I do enough? Did I make the grade as a stay-at-home mom?

There was one major ding I especially put on my report card: I hadn’t taught my daughter to read. I could almost let everything else go, but the fact that she did not yet know how to make out words on a paper really got to me. How could I, a college-educated, middle class mama, not have taught my bright almost-6-year-old how to read? It’s not that I didn’t try, but there was friction when I pushed her to read. There was also her frustration with trying and her frustration with me when I encouraged her to try. “It’s just too hard” or “Why do you ask me to try all the time?” is all she would repeat.

I also became influenced by the parenting movement that preferred play over traditional learning. I read books about it, including Einstein Never Used Flash Cards and Bright from the Start. I had made some concrete decisions that I wasn’t going to push too hard to teach her. And the activities we did do emphasized that. I took her and her younger brothers everywhere with me and we picked fruit from local farms, baked sweet treats, took family vacations, swam, and created so much art. They would learn as we went.

So, where was this idea coming from that I failed her by not teaching her to read? Somewhere this expectation was still stuck in my mind as something I had wanted to do but never accomplished. I think for me it tapped into the deep well of guilt that builds up in us as parents. It’s that constant self-doubt that has us wondering: “Have I done enough?”

And then there’s the kindergarten cutoff. It’s momentous for so many parents. It’s an invisible line, a stopping point for taking measurement and taking stock of your child’s education. It is a completely arbitrary line, one that we have created and, of course, endowed with extra special emotional meaning, signifying the handoff of your child to the educator in the classroom.

In reality, research has shown only a tiny fraction of kids can read before they reach kindergarten. But it’s no secret expectations for our little ones have increased—studies show 80 percent of teachers now think kids should learn to read in kindergarten as opposed to 31 percent in the 90s. What if my daughter didn’t learn to read by the year’s end? Would it be my fault that I didn’t push her harder?

I whittled and worried for the first few months of school about her reading skills until our first parent-teacher conference. My husband and I sat nervously perched in tiny chairs like we were there for an interview, only to find out our daughter was doing just fine (we already knew that, didn’t we??). She was right on par with the rest of her class in terms of reading readiness.

In the months that followed, my guilt continued to fade as I saw what she was accomplishing. First, the papers that came home where she’d sounded out words and misspelled them in the cutest but logical ways. Followed by natural attempts at sounding out words she saw in our everyday lives. I loved seeing how much easier it was for her and how proud she was at her success.

Courtesy of Danielle Harding

And then summer hit, and she was mine again. My little girl had learned so much from organized education, but there was even more that I continued to teach on nights, weekends, and then again full time once school was out. I realized that my job had never really ended in teaching her life lessons like how to get along with friends and pesky younger brothers, how to act in public, and how to handle emotions when things don’t go your way. Cooking, cleaning, fairness, and responsibilities—these jobs were left to me to teach.

Of course, I still question whether I really made the grade now and then. On a play date recently, the other mom casually dropped how her son (almost a full year younger than my daughter) was reading fluently before kindergarten. I felt jealous and inadequate, but I consoled myself that her child is likely the exception as opposed to the rule.

I also smiled to myself thinking of what my mom told me when I confessed my parenting failures to her—she remembered very little other than playing and napping in her kindergarten class in the 50s. Not knowing how to read in kindergarten didn’t hold her back: she still became a doctor.