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New School Year: The First Day

The most wonderful and terrible thing about parenting is that from the moment our child enters our lives we are both teaching them how to be loved and how to love. We are showing them what they should expect from the world and what we expect from them in the world. Will they learn to trust their community as a safe place or learn to fear it?

The second most wonderful and terrible thing about parenting is that our children "dance to the music not the words." Children learn primarily by observing and modeling the important people in their lives. We orchestrate the music to which they are continually listening. Many soundtracks are comforting; some can be confusing and even frightening.

Robust research in child psychology grows out of John Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment. "Robust research" means that multiple studies and multiple researchers consistently keep coming up with the same or similar results. For over eight decades psychologists have studied the nature of human attachments, starting in infancy, going throughout the life span. Ideally, a newborn securely attaches to one primary attachment figure, most often one of the child’s two parents. The primary attachment figure is the person who is most attune to the infant, the one whom the infant depends upon to meet her or his needs. As the child matures the circle of trusted attachment figures grows, usually beginning with the other parent and expanding to relatives, friends, teachers, and caretakers.

Bowlby theorized that an infant begins with one primary attachment figure because of the need to survive. He reasoned that, in earlier times, if a saber tooth tiger threatened the child there was no time to look from one parent to the other, deciding who could be the best protector. The decision of which parent was the primary protector had already been made. That was the adult who the child immediately ran to in order to be safe from harm.

The tiger represents any threatening situation, some obvious, some subtler. The key to picking up a more subtle threat is empathy. Empathy, in part, depends on knowing another deeply enough to connect with their emotional life. The primary caretaker knows that snakes make her child giggle instead of cry out in fear. The primary caretaker knows that that same child is initially shy when entering new social situations, but with time and patience will warm up and enjoy other children. No one is as closely connected to the child’s emotional life, as is his or her primary caretaker.

Children, like all humans, do not like to separate from those they love, especially to enter an unknown environment. Even if the child is returning to the same school, as the previous year, things will be different. Parents may feel a bit of relief at the beginning of school because summer can mean little down time for a parent; however, the parent will also miss being with their child and be somewhat apprehensive about the child beginning a new year. The child is leaving the safe base of the primary caretaker. The parent is sending the child away from an environment controlled by the parent to a new place. Many emotions, coming from both parent and child, will be flying in the air as the first day of school approaches.

As parents we have a great deal of control accompanied by a great deal of responsibility. How does this play out in the big moments such as the inevitable separation on the first day of the new school year?

The two "wonderful and terrible" principles discussed above can guide your approach:

1) Your child learns from you what to expect and what to do in all, especially new, situations.

2) Your child is always observing, reading, and copying you, the primary caretaker.

First, examine your own feelings about school starting. How was it for you? Were you more anxious than excited? Could you sleep through the night before? Just as you are empathically attuned to your child, she or he is empathically attuned to you. Children often pick up on their parent’s angst without understanding the cause and without understanding that the angst is the parent’s, and not solely theirs. Mindfulness of your own emotional state is vital to understanding that of your child. Mindfulness of your feelings helps you empathize with your child’s feelings.

How to discuss your feelings depends upon the age and the temperament of your child. Children love stories in general and stories about their parents as children in particular. You can tell them about how you remember feeling when you first went to school. If your child is too young to understand complex stories let your memory of your feelings of “firsts” guide you in how you interact with your child. Treat your child, as you would have liked to have been treated.

Did you have any rituals such as laying out your first day outfit or planning a particular activity after the first school day? Some families go out to dinner or plan a trip to the park to mark the importance of the first day. Rituals often increase security since they are something that is predictable in an unsure world. The child can feel securely rooted in the attachment by knowing, “After school, Mommy will be there to take me to the park,” or “ Daddy is meeting us at Grandma’s for dinner tonight.”

As you construct bridges between your child’s parting from you and the after-school reunion with you, assure her or him that the place they are going to is not only safe, but, one they can manage. You have probably put a lot of time and thought into deciding where to send your child to school. Your confidence in that decision will come through to your child.

Your confidence in their ability to handle new situations will be based in part on faith. You will have seen them in some new situations but this differs in one important way. You will not be with them all the time. When it comes to having faith in your child it is always better to err on the side of optimism. Believing that your child will do well always beats having low expectations.

Because my parents separated and reunited several times I went to five high schools. In the parking lot, before entering my fourth high school for the first time I told my mom, "I can't do this. I just can't try again." My mother looked at me from the driver’s seat and said, “Well, Honey. You are pretty and smart and sweet and there are kids in there just dying to be your friend.” Without a word I kissed her goodbye and marched into my fourth high school for the first time.

As my mother, perhaps her evaluation of me as pretty, smart, and sweet was not entirely objective. But, even as a 16 year old, I quietly believed her. I made friends and did well in school. I could not have done so well without her belief in me.

You, the parent, know your child better than anyone else. It can be helpful to listen to the experts in child psychology; but then take what you need and leave the rest. In the end, remember that you are the expert for your child. Have faith in yourself--and belief in your child will follow. I know you all will have a great year!

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