They Wrote the Book

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A friendship forged in decades of early childhood education

By Mary Stachyra

When expectant mothers Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum met in the lobby of their Upper East Side apartment building, both sensed a connection. What they didn’t know was that the chance encounter had set the stage for a business relationship and friendship that has lasted 30 years.

When it comes to childrearing, Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum say parents need to have fun and maintain a sense of humor.

“Working with Ellen is a joy every single day. I never, ever take her for granted,” said Schulman, 58. “We always see things eye to eye.”

Birnbaum, 61, agrees.

“It’s not that we always agree about everything, but most of the time we do because our philosophy is the same and our values are the same,” she said.

Schulman graduated from Syracuse University with a B.A. in education, and attended NYU, where she earned a graduate degree in early childhood education. Birnbaum also attended NYU, where she earned a B.A. in education and in art history and fine arts, and later an M.F.A. in art history. In 1990, Schulman became director at the 92nd Street Y Nursery School, where Birnbaum had worked since 1981, first as a teacher, then as camp director. Seven years later, Schulman asked Birnbaum to step in as assistant director at the school, one of the most highly regarded educational programs for young children in
the city.

Admission to the 92nd Street Y is so competitive that Victoria Goldman, author of The Manhattan Directory of Nursery Schools, dubbed the program “the Harvard of nursery schools.” The school puts heavy emphasis on age-appropriate routines that nourish intellectual, emotional and social growth. As educators, Schulman and Birnbaum received many questions from parents eager to help their children continue developing at home. Over the next 10 years, however, they began to notice an increasing amount of angst and lower amounts of confidence in parents.

“Life has changed. It’s a lot more fast-paced then it used to be,” Schulman said. “When I started teaching, I don’t think there was a word ‘parenting.’ You were just a parent. And now it’s an industry.”

During regular meetings with parents at the school, the two had several discussions about ways to promote early childhood growth. It was during one such meeting that a parent had the idea that inspired Birnbaum and Schulman’s next collaboration.

“They said, ‘Who’s the writer? Because you have a book in this. I’m going to introduce you to my agent,’” Birnbaum recalled. “But when we got the opportunity to write, we thought, ‘Well, we don’t have enough to say!’”

After caring for hundreds of children for decades, the words came easily. For several years, they labored over drafts after hours and on weekends. In 2007, Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years (Knopf, $24.95) was published. Their book advocated a common sense, intuitive approach to parenting. While school is necessary, they argue, what children learn at home is most important. They emphasize establishing routines that complement lessons learned in nursery school, encouraging independence, setting limits and being a good role model. Most of all, Schulman said, the book stresses the importance of “having fun and a sense of humor.” She urged parents not to second-guess themselves too much.

“There is no such thing as a perfect parent,” she said.

While it’s not unusual for staff to have long tenures at the 92nd Street Y, both Schulman and Birnbaum know that their years of friendship have been decidedly uncommon.

“I think it’s one of the remarkable things about us, that we know how good it is,” Birnbaum said. “Everyone says to us that this is what your next book should be about—your friendship.”


Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum
92nd Street Y Nursery School

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