“My son Jonathan had gone to two full and three half-days of preschool the year before he went to kindergarten,” says Andrea, a local mom. “I knew he was ready and eager to start ‘big kid’s school.’ It never occurred to me to ask myself if I was ready for Jonathan to start school.
“The first day I walked Jon to school. All the kids lined up outside with their teachers. The bell rang, and they started into the building. The kindergarten teacher held out her hand to Jonathan. He took it and walked inside with her. He never once looked back at me. I was devastated. It was as if I had just lost something precious. I was almost physically sick.”
“Caro is an only child, but she has been going to family day care since she was an infant,” says mom LaNelle. “I work part time in the family business, and I was delighted that she was going to start school so that I would have more flexibility and more time for myself. In fact, I was so eager to have her start school that I felt a little guilty.
“The big day came. We drove over to school. The kindergarten kids were lining up. Caro looked at me and said, ‘Bye, Mom,’ and went off and got in line. That was it. I cried. I wondered why I thought Caro’s starting school would be so good for me.”
A Time of Transition
Both Andrea and LaNelle’s children had spent a good portion of their preschool years in child care. The parents and children were no strangers to separation, and both Jonathan and Caro were ready and happy to start school. So why did Andrea and LaNelle feel so devastated when their children walked into the kindergarten classroom on the first day?
Starting school represents a transition point in the life of you and your child. It is the end of a carefree, family-centered period and the beginning of a long, formal, public process intended to culminate in your child’s graduation from high school as a responsible young adult. Transitions, even happily anticipated ones, are emotionally difficult.
“For me,” says Andrea, “starting school represented a loss of control. I had carefully researched Jon’s child care environments. I knew that if he wasn’t happy, I could always remove him or change centers. But in public school, I didn’t have any real choice about where he went to school or even who his teacher was.” Andrea was bothered because on the first day of school Jonathan was going into a situation where she had limited influence.
“Starting kindergarten is different from day care, and the primary caregiver often does feel a real sense of loss,” says psychology professor Ann Lawson, Ph. D. “Even parents who look forward eagerly to their child starting school are affected.”
The sense of loss can arise for several reasons. As Andrea discovered, it can come from feeling a loss of control. You cannot direct what your child does in class or screen who his classmates are. You cannot decide to keep him home or easily change schools in the middle of the year if things are not working out.
Lawson suggests another reason that parents feel distressed is because their child’s first day of school brings back memories of their own school years. For most adults, school was a mixture of good and bad days, fun and tribulations. From your own experience, you know that your child will face uncomfortable moments — misunderstandings with teachers, bullies, exclusion, peer pressure, unfairness, prejudice — and you are powerless to protect him from those hurts.
“Parents want with all their heart to keep their child from suffering any unhappiness, but they can’t and that is how children learn,” says Lawson.
Finally, many parents are anxious about their child’s safety at school. Putting your child on the school bus feels riskier than driving him in your car, even though statistics show that it is not. Moreover, with recent publicity about school shootings, parents fear the potential for their child to become a victim of violence.
Even though anxiety and distress are normal feelings for most parents on a child’s first day of school, try not to show these feelings to your child. They will only heighten his own insecurities about school, and that will add to your stress.
Here are some suggestions for keeping your own emotions under control on that first day:
- Concentrate on seeing the first day of school as a beginning rather than as an ending.
- Visit the school and classroom and, if possible, meet the teacher before the first day so that you can picture where your child will be and whom he will be with.
- Make something small and personal such as a card pr special “magic” button for your child to take with him on the first day to serve as a connection between you and him.
- Plan to spend the morning after you drop your child off at school with friends. Go out to breakfast or coffee with other moms.
- Don’t feel guilty if you are looking forward to having some time away from your child. Being one hundred percent child-focused is not good for either your child or your marriage.
- Treat the first day of school as a celebration. Put your energy into making a special dinner, dessert or other treat to celebrate.