All these people who collect data and tell us web-related stats would say that ‘how to’ and ‘list’ posts get the most views and clicks etc etc. I thought about writing this post in that way but though I do write posts like those, sometimes I feel a bit, well, like a know-it-all. We all have different levels of knowledge on different subject areas and could be well within our right to be a know-it-all on a certain topic, because we do in fact know pretty much all there is to know about it. Perhaps I could do that with… Crochet. No, maybe not. Let’s go with… Getting dressed, I think I know all there is to know about that.
But in this case, I have never experienced a child going to school. My blog is about sharing stories and I feel I have done some important things before my son starts, so I want to share the story of it. It actually represents a general approach we take in all manner of situations to help our kid’s emotional health as they grow so they can handle life when they go it alone. It felt like the first major step of going-it-alone was taken when I left him in his classroom and walked away. For a whole 2.5 hours. It’s a small-major step, I’ll admit.
So, this is what I did…
I asked him the following question: Is there anything you’re worried about with starting school?
This may seem like an obvious question to you, but perhaps not. I was alone with him and there were no distractions so he could answer fully and know I was listening.
I asked and he told me something. I will share many things my kids say on here but won’t always share the heart-to-heart words and moments. His fears seem like something that need to be kept private. It was a very understandable fear and it surprised me a little, that a four-year-old would have thought of it.
I didn’t tell him he didn’t need to worry about that. I didn’t try to ‘fix’ it. I said that I understood and asked if there was anything else.
The next thing…
I waited for the emotional fall-out and tried to simply listen to it.
The next day he was incredibly emotional. I can’t even remember what he was crying about, but for a boy who doesn’t cry over a lot, he was crying about everything. I had my suspicions as to why but was mostly a bit confused, I sat and cuddled him after one big cry and he suddenly burst out:
“I don’t want to go to BIG SCHOOL!”
Ah. By asking about his worries I had given him permission to feel his anxiety and grief about the change and the unknown. It was important for him to do that so the feelings could pass.
Yet after this outburst, I was still surprised when his difficult behaviour continued and intensified on some days. The thing is, the major event still hadn’t occurred and the anxieties would resurface. I realised when I hope that allowing him to offload will deal with the behaviour, I end up disappointed. It shouldn’t be my reason for allowing him to let it all out.
My reason should be that he needs to, probably every day. He’s a sensitive boy and this is easily missed with a child who isn’t shy, who is fearless in most situations, who is strong and determined, who is curious and explorative, and who is often pushing limits and boundaries. It makes sense to me what Respectful Parenting expert, Janet Lansbury says about limit-pushing being the result of discomfort of some kind, not an innate desire to just be naughty. I don’t believe my boy is just “being a boy” or is a “naughty child”; he is a sensitive child. He needs limits and boundaries, perhaps even more so because he’s is easily unsettled and anxious. I don’t always deliver these with the kind firmness that he needs. I feel like I’m always failing at that.
I think parents can be concerned about asking their children to express their negative feelings, or asking a question like mine, because they think they’ll cause the feelings by basically suggesting them. But any parent who has tried to persuade a child to feel good about going to the dentist will know that children’s feelings aren’t too readily changed or created. Almost every child is likely to feel some element of concern about a significant change. You either invite them to tell you about it, or you don’t.
We can also perceive crying to be a negative thing. Something to be stopped and fixed. We can live with the idea that children need to be protected from things that make them unhappy, and somehow ought to be persuaded not to be unhappy about anything.
But what happens when they grow up and realise that their parents aren’t perfect? That people let them down? That life is hard and sometimes cruel? That pain is just around the corner? Suddenly, the world is hugely negative and upsetting and no one is going to persuade them otherwise or shield them. It is an almighty shock, I’d imagine.
Surely though, making them verbalise all this worry will cause a negative spiral with it getting out of control and overwhelming them?
Well, that’s why we did something else…
We celebrated the change.
In the same conversation mentioned above, I asked him what he was looking forward to. I explained that talking about our worries can help but also, making to choice to think more about the positive things than the negative. We made a little list. Turns out, there was a lot to look forward to!
This week we went out for dinner the night before his first day to celebrate him starting Big School. We were excited and positive about trying on uniform. If he showed an interest in something or asked one of the many why-questions we get each hour, we reminded him how he would learn about these things and lots more at Big School. Things like how we make electricity (he was loving the wind turbines in Northern Ireland), and why we have bogies, naturally.
After his first morning we had family round, all unplanned in the end, but I was so grateful for it as the clear message was; this was a big day and you’ve been brave. But also, this is an exciting day and we want to hear all about it and celebrate this new step in your life.
I’ve decided to coin this phrase for us as parents and how we handle these times, and life in general. As the kids grow up we’ll encourage them to have these for each other too.
Big ears for listening to the bad and big smiles for celebrating the good.
It’s cheesy but encapsulates the priorities – listening not fixing, and maximising positivity.
Much love to you if you’re little one started school this week. If your week has been like mine, you’re probably looking, and feeling, a mess.