Monday, August 22, 2011
Back-to-school blues: How do parents handle a child’s first day of school?
While many parents focus on how their child will feel on the first day of school, professionals say the day is often just as hard on adults.
A few years ago, I found an old frame stashed at the bottom of a box I hadn't dug through since college. The dusty photo shows five-year-old me saddled up against my mom the morning of my first day of kindergarten. I was wearing an outfit I'd so carefully selected, and I've got a backpack twice my size slung around my arm.
Upon closer look, our plastered-on smiles tell the real story. We're faking it. There we are, smiling for the camera so we could look back on that moment decades later and remember what a momentous occasion it was. Truthfully, I was terrified. My mom hid her sniffles behind a pair of oversized sunglasses.
The first day of school is a milestone for kids of any age. In fact, it's sometimes scarier for parents than kids, especially for parents of an only child, experts say.
“When your child is starting kindergarten, they're away from you in a different sense than going to childcare,” said Arminta Jacobson, Elaine Mathes professor in development and family studies at the University of North Texas. “It's a growing up stage – for parents, too.”
That's certainly the case for Crystal Landeros, mother of Jewell Love Landeros, her only child who starts kindergarten in Ennis on Monday. “She's my baby!” Crystal Landeros said. “For the past two weeks, I think I've kind of babied her extra. I can't believe she's going to kindergarten.”
Crystal, a working mom, took off Monday and Tuesday so she could take Jewell to school herself. “I feel emotional because she's growing up and she wants to do things on her own. She's not going to need me pretty soon,” she said.
Those feelings of attachment – whether the child is starting kindergarten, or high school, or is leaving the home and going to college – are completely normal, said Jacobson, who is also a mother of two. And she can relate. “I was very excited for our son [when he left home for college], but I wanted to be a part of it! It would have been great if I could just live in the dorm with him. I felt like I was missing out on what was going on in [his] life somehow.”
Tips for parents
Some parents should emotionally prepare for the start of school just like students do. Rule No. 1: Try not to cry in front of your child when you drop him or her off at school.
“When [parents] walk into the classroom for that first (or second or third) time, and you want to express your emotions and shed those tears, believing your baby needs to see just how much you will miss her, think twice!” said Sarah Feuerbacher, director of the Center for Family Counseling at Southern Methodist University. “To your child, your tears are a sign that something is to be feared or disliked, and she may also think she has done something to hurt you. Sing the theme song to Saved By The Bell to keep your focus elsewhere until you get to your car, and then pull out that box of Kleenex.”
She also gives two more useful tips as the school year kicks off:
- Reading, writing ... and rest
For your child: “Many children create their own routine during the summer, including sleeping, eating, drinking, and even using the bathroom at their leisure,” Feuerbacher said. “A structured school routine can be a shock to a child’s body system ... These changes to a body can cause a child to become uncomfortable or even sick, so talk to your child about how staying physically healthy will allow them to feel well and function better at school and at home.” She suggests having your child wake up to an alarm even on the weekends to establish a routine. And try to get kids to bed at an appropriate time, even when it's not a school night.
For you: “If your child needs sleep, you do, too!” she said. Don't try to cram too much in after the kids are in bed. “Slow down, prioritize, and know you don’t have to be Super Man or Wonder Woman all the time.”
- Make new trends, but keep the old.
For your child: Kids will feel like new experiences are less scary if they can create a comfort zone at home. “Some children will immediately want to talk about their days; others will need some time to unwind and collect their thoughts and feelings,” Feuerbacher said. “A natural tendency is to require a child to do any homework or chores before playtime, but some children may need that playtime in order to be productive later on during the day.”
For you: Try to think of the first day (and weeks) of school as a tradition -- one you can create and continue with your family. “Every year, mark the end of the summer by making a memory box or a collage that recounts the fun you’ve had together; begin the school year with a family pool party and BBQ to celebrate the start of something new and exciting; let your child feel both security and maturity by letting them help plan their weekly breakfast menu, and when they make it through the end of their school week, they know a hug from you and smiley face pancakes will be first thing on the agenda Saturday morning.”
Many parents are as nervous as their kids about the first day of school. Making arrangements, like taking kids to school on the first day if that isn't the normal routine, will make them feel special. For Crystal Landeros, that gesture also makes her feel special and allows her to experience Jewell's milestones one at a time, as if they're not all flying by so fast.
“I just really want to be there for her big moments,” Crystal said.