Like so many parents, I fretted about my preschoolers’ first days of class. Will he think I’m abandoning him? Will he be scarred for life? (“That’s right, Dr. Therapist, she left me there with strangers for three hours every single morning!”)
I’ve made this transition with three children, and, amazingly, it hasn’t gotten any easier. I felt just as guilty leaving Kip, who entered preschool this week, as I did leaving Otto, now in kindergarten, and Zane, a big-time fourth-grader. Yet, until this year, it never occurred to me to stop by the annual separation workshop offered by their school, the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. I could just hear my mother’s exasperated voice: “Oh, come on, Hope, you parents today can’t do anything by yourselves. What ever happened to ‘just shut up and do it’? You think parents 40 years ago had workshops on stuff like this?”
Maybe my generation of parents does get a little more hand-holding. Until six years ago, preschool teachers here discussed separation issues and offered tips at Back to School Night. But when the school psychologist, Kathy Reiss, began working more with the preschool, she decided to offer a dedicated workshop on the issue. Anybody at the school was invited to attend.
“The main reasons were to help parents help their children with separation, to realize they are not the only ones experiencing this, and to give parents a chance to meet me,” Dr. Reiss told me.
Martha Haakmat, the head of school, agreed that the meetings were an opportunity for parents to get good advice while hearing other parents’ problems — problems sometimes bigger than their own.
“Parents rarely walk away with a foolproof plan of action to perfectly handle every difficult separation moment, but they do offer thanks and a smile for validation of their feelings and worries,” Ms. Haakmat said. “They may also secretly be feeling like, ‘Jeesh, I thought I was having a hard time!’ after hearing a story about another parent’s woes, and while this may not seem particularly generous to that other parent, it does help keep things in perspective.”
I asked Dr. Reiss and Ms. Haakmat if they thought we parents were in as much need of separation advice for ourselves as for our children, and their answer was a resounding “yes.”
“A very common place where parents can go off line in their thinking about separation is when we conflate our fears and feelings with our children’s,” Ms. Haakmat said. “We can forget that our deep sadness about separation (‘My child is growing up so quickly’) is also tinged with guilt (‘What kind of parent am I to be leaving my children?’ and maybe fear about trusting them to the care of others, while our children’s feelings are a lot less complicated and thus more easily assuaged.”
Dr. Reiss echoed the “don’t confuse your child with yourself” message.
“As parents, we have to be watchful of bringing our own stuff to the table,” she said. “If school beginnings were wonderful for you, you’ll see your child’s upcoming experience as an exciting opportunity. If you dreaded school every year, you’ll assume your child does, too.” As for my mother, the card-carrying member of the “why do parents these days need all this touchy-feely hand-holding when we got by just fine on our own?” club — of course parents can handle the school transition alone, Dr. Reiss said. But why not get help?
So I did. Here’s what I learned:
Never sneak out of the room. Your child won’t be happy when he figures out you’re gone. (I learned that teachers hate this tactic.)
Never make promises or bargains you can’t keep. Don’t say you’ll be sitting on the bench outside if you won’t.
Keep things stable. Don’t introduce any other new thing into the routine.
Expect regression. Your child might be great the first week and drag her heels the second, or she might be completely potty trained but start having accidents.
Don’t put words in her mouth. Don’t say, “I know you hate school.” Reflect instead: “I hear you saying you feel sad.”
Connect with old friends. Make a play date with a friend from last year.
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