Respect can be learned at any school

DEAR PRAGMATIC PARENT: I have 2-year-old twins and have been researching preschools in the city. There seems to be a lot of competition for private ones, and the ones offered through the public schools are extremely variable. I’m not sure how crazy I should go applying to different places.

Pre-preschool Jitters in Chicago

DEAR PRE-PRESCHOOL JITTERS: Whether in the city or suburbs, it’s a competitive sport to gain access to the"perfect” preschool. I know parents who’ve started waiting in line at 3 a.m. just to snag that elusive spot for their tot. I’m ashamed to admit it, but when our family failed to get into our first choice school, I shed some serious tears. (Our chances for Harvard were ruined, after all.)

Before you spend countless hours and dollars applying to every school under the sun, though, maybe you can dissect what you-not everyone else-consider to be the ideal school. Boil it down by asking yourself: What do my kids really need when they’re 3? For mine it was (in order of priority): A safe environment, happy teachers and clean blocks, all of which-imagine this-were found at our second choice school. Once you narrow down your criteria, look online and then take a few tours. Do you trust the teachers? Are there a variety of activities? Will you blow the college savings fund in one month of tuition? Consider loitering around the pick-up door to chat with the some of the parents-they’ll definitely clue you in as to whether it’s the right school for your family.

Knowing the ABC’s is important, but at this young age socialization reigns supreme. Lessons in how to respect teachers and peers can be learned at any school, whether or not that school’s in fashion.

DEAR PRAGMATIC PARENT: My friends and I use the same babysitter. I want to pay the sitter more than they do. They are pressuring me to stay at their rate, which I think is too low. Should I just tell them it’s none of their business what I pay the sitter and pay the sitter what I think is a fair fee?

Generous in Hoffman Estates

DEAR GENEROUS: If we lived in a communist country, I’d say your friends were on to something. As it is, though, our free market society allows you to pay your hired help whatever you think is fair-and without anyone else’s counsel. (Don’t expect your friends to be thrilled about that fact.)

Your babysitter is the one who ultimately decides where she spends her time. Maybe that’s why your friends are anxious: They’re afraid you’ll score all of the prime weekend spots since you’ve upped the ante. But if you find the sitter drifts to others, maybe your kids aren’t worth the hassle of those few extra bucks.

In the future, you might want to zip your lip about pay or just offer a vague range when people ask what you give. It’s nobody’s business but yours-and your sitter’s.

DEAR PRAGMATIC PARENT: I’m in two wonderful play groups, but they’re both a drive from my house. I know there are tons of kids in my area, but I’m not sure how to go about meeting the parents. I tried exchanging information at a local park a few times, but nothing came of it.

Looking for"Close” Friends in Chicago

DEAR LOOKING: It’s true: You can never have too many friends. It’s wise to keep those connections outside your immediate area alive. Friends who aren’t"in the thick of things” can give you the all-important outside perspective and some balance. Plus, with all of the museums, zoos and parks around the Chicago area, you can always pick a place in the middle to meet far-away friends.

Like long-distance friends, nearby friends have a place, too. When we parents unite, which often happens at the last minute, we’re able to decompress and exchange ideas, listen empathetically and lend support throughout the stages of our kids’ lives. (As a bonus, if you need to run one kid to the doctor, you can park the other one with the friend for an hour.)

So, how do you meet these people? You have to put yourself out there. At the park district gym class, coffee shop or pediatrician’s office, you’ll find parents everywhere. Anyone you strike up a conversation with is a potential friend.

There’s a new mom in my neighborhood who pushes the stroller with gusto and hands out a"stay-at-home mom” card, with her phone number and e-mail, to every parent she meets. Try something similar-and also arm yourself with a piece of paper and a pen so you can take down a future friend’s information and make contact. (Be persistent, not pushy.)

It’s hard to be bold, but parenting isn’t for the weak. We all need friends as reinforcement.

Jill S. Browning is a mother of triplets living in Downers Grove.

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