This school year is THE year for me—my youngest is going off to kindergarten. As a stay-at-home mom, this feels like graduation day. I'm sure work-outside-the-home moms feel the same, however. The bittersweet feeling of this transition is acute.
The last five years have been filled with so much parenting intensity. There's been joy, exhaustion, struggle, love, self-doubt and all the roller coaster of emotions that go with the early years of parenting. We've survived sleep deprivation, tried to keep our patience during many a toddler tantrum (which still rear their head once in a while), managing the ups and downs of potty training and now we have a 5-year-old who hardly resembles that little baby we brought home years ago.
Our 5-year-olds are now eager learners, excited by the world around them. They are now able to (mostly) hold a conversation with us for longer than a minute, even if it is about their favorite insect or fictional character. With our help and guidance, they have made amazing developmental leaps and are now ready to take on the new adventures that kindergarten will bring.
They still need us.
As a mom in this stage of life, it's easy to feel like our kids don't really need us anymore. Sure, they are still young, but they are so independent in many ways. There's no more changing diapers, hourly feeding (well, unless raiding the pantry counts), rocking and soothing. However, after sending my 9-year-old off to school a few years ago, I have a little more perspective into what this transition really means for parenting. As you might have guessed, these kids of ours, even with their "big-kid" mentality, still really need us.
They need us to model kindness
With school and more interaction with friends, our kindergartners will inevitably encounter some experience of unkindness. Many of our kids have probably encountered a bit of this already. Kids tease, they "unfriend," and they may even push or shove. This is normal, but it is difficult for us when we realize that the safe bubble we've tried to create for our kids is no longer realistic. They will get their feelings hurt.
What we do know from research, however, is that kids are wired for kindness at some level. In lab experiments, babies as young as 9 months gravitate toward the kind puppet or character. For this kindness instinct to really take hold in older kids, however, it has to be modeled... a lot. Schools who implement kindness programs such as Paths tend to maintain a kind atmosphere even into the middle school years (yes, it's possible!).
Modeling at home is crucial too, of course. Our daily interactions with our kids, but also with store clerks, waitresses and yes, even other drivers, all illustrate to our youngest observers what it looks like to be kind in a sometimes harsh world.
They need us to help them find their passions
With kindergarten, comes a whole new world of learning for our kids. Many kids gravitate toward certain topics right away—dinosaurs, trains, cowboys, mermaids. This intense interesting one topic is perfectly normal and actually kind of awesome for kids' developing brains.
While kids don't have to find their lifelong passion in kindergarten, I have found it helpful and fun (for them and us) to offer them opportunities that might spark their interests. School does a lot of this for us by exposing them to many different topics and skills. However, some kids may not find their interest in school.
My youngest child, while he loved preschool, didn't find anything that totally peaked his interest. I took it upon myself to find books, videos, etc. that might be something he could really get into. So far, it's been comic books! He loves "reading" them and trying to write his own. You never can tell where a simple interest can take kids' learning.
They need us to help them figure out emotions
Little kids (and even not so little ones) have big emotions. Although our kindergartners may be mostly past the tantrum days, those big emotions sometimes still overtake them. Long days of learning and less quiet time often mean meltdowns come days end.
Many schools are getting on the bandwagon with social-emotional learning, but it often falls on us moms to help our kids cope when big emotions try to take over. Kids often hold their emotional selves together well at school and the teachers may report they are so well-behaved under their watch.
Once at home with us, they often break down and let out all the emotional tension that has piled up during the day. We should consider this a good sign! As hard as it is to be the "emotional trash can" for our kids, it means they feel safe and comfortable with us to let their guard down.
This struggle has been real for me and my now 9-year-old. Even as a third-grader last year, he often came home an emotional mess after the ups and downs of a busy day. We can become the "emotion coaches" for our kids to help them figure out these emotions, label them and understand that no emotions are "bad." It's also important to realize, however, that we don't have to get our kids "back to happy" too soon and that making them happy all the time may not even be part of our job. We can listen, we can guide, but we usually can't force the emotions we want them to have.
Ultimately, modeling self-regulation is really the best gift we can give them. We don't have to join their emotional turmoil but we can be there to support them as they work through it.
They need us to help them find meaning in their struggles (but not fix the struggles)
This relates a lot to the issue I just discussed but in a more tangible way. Upon entering school, kids encounter a lot of challenges they haven't experienced before–kids that don't "play nice," teachers they may not enjoy, school work that is hard, etc. These are real challenges and our kids need real guidance. However, in many cases, we cannot "fix" the problem. It's tempting as a parent to try to fix it all—change teachers, separate classmates, call the principal... the list could go on forever.
In some cases, this type of intervention might be needed, but in many cases, we just need to be patient. Many times, kids work their differences with classmates, they learn to love that teacher after all or the little extra explanation you give on that math problem makes the concept "click" in their brain. Patience often pays big dividends in their maturity, growth and in ours.
Many times, our kids don't really need us to fix the problem, they just need us to listen and provide a context of meaning for their struggle. They just need a hand to hold as they face the challenge themselves.
My son got in trouble at school last year. Let's be honest, this is not one of those parenting moments you love. He had to go see the principal because he hit another boy over a football game at recess. I'll admit it--it was not one of my proudest parenting moments. However, once he faced the consequences of his actions and talked it out, he and that other boy became good friends later in the year. In fact, he played with him much of the summer! Growth and maturity take patience.
They need us to help them make sense of ALL the information they hear and see
How many times have your kids come home from school with a tale from a friend that you know is not true? Or maybe it's a story of something a classmate saw online that you know is fake. As my oldest son has gotten older, this, unfortunately, has happened more frequently. Last year, it was classmates watching videos of ouija boards and convincing others that they were real. Other times, it was classmates watching the news and not getting the story quite straight. My third-grader was convinced once last year that North Korea was going to bomb the U.S. at any moment.
All this is to say—our kids will hear all sorts of things at school and much of it, we will probably not like. It's our job to help them make sense of what is real, what is exaggerated and what they really need to be shielded from. In our age of digital technology, this has become one of our biggest and most important parenting tasks.
As kindergartners, this may not be so much of an issue (I hope), but as they grow, this issue becomes more daunting. Numerous times I've had to sit down and explain to my 9-year-old about how his friends may not be seeing the whole story or that everything they see online may be not true or appropriate. Hard lessons for a little brain to comprehend, but nonetheless important.
Kindergarten moms, I will be with you in spirit as you drop off your little ones. Enjoy the moments and be ready for a whole new parenting job.
Best wishes for the first day of kindergarten!
Originally posted on Thoughtful Parent.