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In the months leading up to my son starting preschool, advice, promises, and premature celebrations were coming from all directions: Just wait until he's in school, you'll have so much free time! You'll be able to go to the gym, clean your house, sleep . you won't know what to do with ALL THE FREE TIME YOU HAVE!
While this was a bittersweet milestone, I was starting to get excited. Free time was something I had rarely enjoyed as a stay-at-home mom, so after three years of constant duty, I was ready for a little alone time. We were ready — or so I thought.
Because we were in the process of moving during the height of preschool applications and deadlines, we started school in November. Our teachers anticipated some separation anxiety due to the late start, and suggested that I stay with my son in the classroom for the first week of school. I was fine with that; I wasn't feeling entirely ready to separate yet, either. He'd been in plenty of classes and activities before, but all were mommy-and-me; he'd never been alone.
We had chosen a co-op preschool to help ease the transition. I'd be working in his classroom twice a month, and we hoped that as he got to know the other parents and teachers, he'd feel comfortable when I wasn't there.
My husband and I prepared our son as best we could. We talked about school, had a playdate with a classmate from the neighborhood, and generally acted like it would be the greatest thing since sliced bread. He seemed ready, and more importantly, he was excited.
The first week was a success. He loved the school, was making friends, and kept telling us he felt like a big boy. I won't lie, we were pretty full of ourselves, boasting, "See, we prepared him, and it went perfectly!"
Oh, how wrong we were.
When the following Monday came, his demeanor changed. "You're not leaving me, are you?" he asked, with tears in his eyes. I know the crocodile tears of a toddler; these were the real thing, and there were more tears and begging before we agreed that I would stay at school again for awhile. He went, but begrudgingly, and his excitement was gone. He clung to me that day and wasn't interested in much afterwards. Our school director explained that it was a common phase and said not to worry. She advised that we continue hyping up the school experience and be patient.
"Patient" was an understatement. You know how you've heard about that one kid who takes longer to adapt? That was my son. Sure, we could have cut the cord and just left, but it seemed too harsh, and I felt lucky to have the choice, even as I was conflicted. And that's the way it went – every school day for three solid months.
Some days I was angry or resentful. At times, I considered withdrawing him from school and trying again next year, but I kept at it. We kept at it. I made sure we met up with kids from school at the park to socialize outside of the classroom. We started carpooling; having a classmate in the car en route to school helped tremendously with his anxieties.
Then finally one day he turned to me and said, "You can go now, Mommy." That was it — he stopped crying, the anxiety was gone, and he started running into his classroom every morning instead of clinging to me, crying. I had finally graduated from preschool for the second time.
The experience didn't do my knees any favors (repeatedly getting up and down from tiny toddler chairs was murder), but it taught me a lot. And strangely enough, my best teachers were the kids themselves. Here's what they know, but I had to be taught:
1. Ask for help. I never want to bother anyone, which means I try to do more than humanly possible, resulting in chaos, tears, or both. But kids have no qualms speaking up. Sand in your shoe? Help, please. Can't reach something? Help, please. Poop stuck on your bum? Help, please. There's no pretense, shame, or judgement, and problems are solved quickly. Imagine needing help and immediately asking for — and receiving — it! What a novel concept.
2.Honesty is (almost) always best. I hate saying no, which often leads to commitments I regret. Kids have no filter, and it's mostly great. You don't want to do something or go somewhere? Say no. It works!
3. Unconditional support feels amazing. Kids are each other's biggest cheerleaders. They are truly happy when a peer succeeds and there's little to no jealousy. When my son finally peed in the potty, his classmates drew him pictures and texted videos of congratulations through their parents. What does it cost us to cheer others on? Nothing. Not one thing.
4. Play matters. Preschoolers won't sit and focus for long, nor do we expect it. They get breaks to paint, eat, and play. As adults, we can't spend the day on the swings, but we need to cut ourselves some slack and walk away from work for a few minutes periodically to reset and refresh.
5. Don't dwell. I still cringe over an awkward email I sent a co-worker years ago . but kids forget what they did in minutes. You'd never know that one had an accident on the floor yesterday that sent him into hysterics when he bounds into the classroom today, confident as ever. Kids let things go and move on.
6. Judgment is learned. It's refreshing to be around such open and positive minds. Boys play with baby dolls, girls drive the play tractors. My son and his friend love the color pink and wear it often. One little girl asked if pink's a "girl color." "No," my son's friend answered. "It's just a color." If only they could stay so nonjudgmental forever.
6. "It's just a color." If only they could stay so nonjudgmental forever.
7. Watch birds. One day a bird was building a nest outside; the kids lined up at the window to watch. Had that been me on a normal day, I'd look briefly, remember all the things I should be doing, and miss most of it. There are so many wonderful things to see if we give ourselves permission to stop and look around.
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.