This year, well over one million American 4-year-olds will head out for their first day of preschool
-- the highest enrollment in U.S. history. The kids? Ecstatic. The parents? Not so much.
As the director of a New York City
early-childhood center, I saw firsthand the difficulties young kids can face in making this transition. It's a major change for them, as foreign as traveling to outer space. But unlike in space, in preschool
can hear you scream. Each fall, we comforted kids who shrieked in terror when confronted with the classroom's controlled chaos. Or those who cried steadily, clinging to their lunchboxes
and backpacks, proud of their new gear, but puzzled by the strange place they'd been left in to use it.
Even trickier was helping the parents deal with their
emotional tumult. Phone calls reassured fretful fathers that the daughter they'd "abandoned" was now gleefully pummeling Play-Doh
. Detailed daily reports -- "Malika drew an M! Rafael used the toilet
!" -- helped back-to-work moms vanquish their guilt at missing milestones. But most problematic were the parents of kids who adjusted too
easily, starting school like racehorses: Bang. Bye!
"Does he ever ... mention me during the day?" these needy moms would ask at pickup, waiting expectantly for their busy child to notice their presence. Or, "She can't sleep some nights, she's so eager to get here ...."
I'd explain that school is kids' first experience with something totally their own, a peer-based world separate from their family. "Your child needs these independent interactions in order to develop their sense of self," I'd say. "Don't worry: You'll always be the most important person in their life."
"We'd be more likely to believe that," the moms would reply, "if they'd stop begging us to bring them here every weekend."
"If you love somebody," I'd respond with mocking sincerity (my hallmark), "set them free. I know Sting sang it. But it's still the solution."
The solution is not -- as these moms attempted -- to instigate tearful conflicts with your daughter just so you can comfort her. Or to remind your son about all the war toys you've bought him, but which his teacher won't allow in school. Or to linger at drop-off, saying so many goodbyes that your twins implode in a transitional overload.
This, I'd think to myself, is how the spores of psychoses are sown.
I'd eventually confer with these intransigent parents. "Remember the joy and pride you felt on first getting something of your own?" I'd ask. "A nickel, a hairbrush, a gerbil? School -- this school -- is like that for your kid. Let them revel in it. And you revel in beginning your own new thing, too: watching your children become themselves."