Over the holidays my daughter turned 2 and so the talk among playgroup parents where I live invariably turns to one topic-have you thought about preschool? Due to unfortunate studies that demonstrate that children who attend preschool have a higher rate of completing college degrees than their non-preschool going counterparts, the race (and it is a race) to keep up and out do the Joneses starts here. Couple that natural instinct to compete and show-off how one kid is doing better than the other with the ridiculous No Child Left Behind standards now enforced in public kindergarten, and you've got quite a conundrum to navigate.

In the big trend setting cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, preschool picking has become a pressure cooker of stress for the parents. Clueless parents go to enroll their children in top-notch preschools offering to make them Mozart virtuosos or Nobel worthy chemists only to find that they should have gotten on a waiting list for these schools well before they started taking folic acid and Lamaze classes. A private preschool in Los Angeles can run a anywhere from $5,000 to $13,000 a year-pretty hefty price tag when you consider this is for three hours a day of instruction from 3-5 days a week.

In all the freaking out over sending kids to a good preschool, the parents need to take a step back, ignore what the neighbors are doing and think about what you would like in a preschool-both as a kid and as an adult. Really. Back in the day, preschool was about socialization, learning the alphabet and some numbers. It was about PlayDoh and crayons. While I welcome the idea of adding to this, if not to keep up with the neighbors then at least the Japanese and the Germans, we still need to be calm.

When I was in Japan, I was amazed at both preschool and kindergarten-which are often the same since kindergarten is more than one year.  One had a kiln. One had kids doing tai chi at three perfectly. One had the kids playing piano. So much is possible besides ditto sheets and graham crackers when you expand the horizon (or fly to Tokyo).

So what should a preschool be? What should it teach? What should it look like? As a parent what do you feel you lacked in your preschool experience? What do you want to make sure your kids get exposed to?

My sister-in-law says she's looking for a mission statement that she can get behind. She's looking for diversity of students and developmentally appropriate activities. Unfortunately she and my brother-in-law did not get their daughter signed up while she was still in utero, so my poor one-year-old niece is sitting on a couple of waitlists. We can only hope that some fathers get some east coast transfers or some international visas get rejected so my niece can bump her way up the list.

I want my kids to have the idea of school as someplace you go everyday. I want them exposed to music, art, science and principles of Buddhism and peace. I want them to have a lot of physical activity and exposure to a diverse group of students.  I want them introduced to foreign languages. I don't want them to have their imaginations squashed. I don't care if they learn to read in three languages and build their own computers and manage their own businesses through their handmade websites before kindergarten.

Nothing of course, is perfect and my 4 year old's experience in preschool has been mixed. The first time I volunteered (they make you volunteer) in his classroom I witnessed four boys turn an old Fisher Price Animal Barn into an airplane hanger. I thought it was cool, but the head teacher scolded them. "Barns are for animals, not planes!" They were using old lined scratch paper for art supplies and when I asked why they didn't use the construction paper in the closet they replied, "We save it for special occasions because it's so expensive." One day for breakfast, I noticed them serving graham crackers and milk. When I called them on that they said they were within state guidelines.

It's a state run preschool so I've got the diverse group of students and physical activity since everyone's concerned all children will be diabetic (but not concerned enough not to serve graham crackers). But the crafts are largely unimaginative and the music is non-existent (let alone the Buddhism and the peace). Those are things the kids will just have to get from my husband and me. But it's right next door-literally. I can walk him next door in thirty seconds in my pajamas. Before my son was enrolled he'd watch the kids playing out on the playground from our living room window and beg to go over. He loves his school and that's that. I can't take him out.

To compensate we have music time at home, better crafts than the school can afford, lots of play time to build train tracks and small cities. Papa teaches them computers and Spanish. I give them a little Japanese. Between the preschool next door and our living room, they're getting an education. Slowly it's coming together.

What boggles my mind is the idea that all these toddlers and preschoolers are expected to become the well-rounded, emotionally-stable intellectual giants that their parents clearly aren't. Many parents clamoring for academic preschools aren't college graduates! Will every child exposed to art in preschool become the next Andy Warhol? What about my friend Chad who could speak and write in three languages whose Okie parents didn't graduate eighth grade let alone think of sending him to preschool? Is the goal of bilingual (read Spanish) upscale preschools the idea that the kids will be able to converse better with their nannies and maids? What is our goal as parents who want to put our kids in preschool? What are we hoping to achieve?

Along with studies that show that preschool students do better in the college arena than their counterparts who didn't go to preschool are other studies that demonstrate that households that contain books and magazines in plain sight instigate an interest and love of reading more than households that don't. You don't even have to read to your kid 20 minutes a day (the present recommendation)-just have the books and that's enough. They have to see you reading and then they get the idea that reading and learning curiosity are important parts of our daily existence.

Perhaps this is why my kids prefer my father-in-law's house over any other house in their memory. With floor to ceiling bookcases in every room except the bathrooms, they've got a pretty good idea of books being an integral part of existence. My father-in-law's children didn't go to preschool but they are college graduates-one with a PhD. They took the kids to the library, museums, gave them musical instruments, art supplies , took them to the beach and spent time with them-a formula for success if I've ever heard one.