Mom triumphs over fears about kindergarten

This is the first time I’ve had a quiet house and an alert brain at the same time in nearly 2 months. Our family has plunged into several bold new frontiers. Among them, two parents with new part-time schedules(!!!), Cal starting a playgroup, and Jo (and me) staring wide-eyed at his new public school.

The dust is starting to settle. And I’m feeling pretty damn proud of myself, because amid it all, I triumphed over my mounting fear and worry about kindergarten.

My particular fears and worries are these: that public school (and many private schools too) focus too much on academics and not enough on social, emotional and creative development; that this focus on academics seeps into our kids and snuffs out their sparkles of play and wildness and self-direction.

While we’re at it, you should also know that the idea of public school–a place where any and every child can go to learn, be safe, cared for, and nurtured–makes my heart swoon with the chorus of a thousand hyped-up songbirds. Those songbirds know when and why to pipe down though, since they know what I do–the public school system in our country is tragically uneven, rolling weighted dice to determine which kids happen to get more safety, teachers and resources, and which kids get precious little.

With these worries and fears and smart songbirds, I sent Jo to kindergarten every day for the past 6 weeks. He would come home mostly happy and tired and would lose it over the smallest things, and I would sniff him all over to try to find clues about what was happening at school and whether it was fine or terrible.


My triumph started on the day of our first big Kindergarten tragedy. Jo woke at 6:30 and climbed into bed with me, saying “I don’t like my school. And the only thing that will fix it is home school.” Eek. You know too well the dark corners of my thoughts, little boy.

After a good long bout of listening to his worries “My teacher is too serious, Mom,” we made it to school. Jo burst into tears as we neared the door and buried his face in my neck. I just kept saying “Dad and I know this is a good place for you, and I believe in you,” while trying to hold back tears.

Once I got out of the building, I had a good cry and was already planning the parents I was going to call to launch an elementary homeschool co-op and FAST.

Instead, I ran into an experienced mom who I trust (Thank God for Those), and she reminded me essentially, “Hard doesn’t have to be bad.” Ding ding ding. In other words, this is a hard transition for Jo and me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the school or the teacher is bad. It might just mean that kindergarten is really different than co-op, play-based preschool and getting used to the new system is hard sometimes. My job as a mother isn’t to remove the difficult things from his life, it’s to help him navigate, to help him keep going.*

*Taking on this job assumes that I have sussed out the particular Difficult Thing and decided that it’s ultimately worthwhile. If not, then we don’t give a rip about that Difficult Thing and move on to something else.

After my talk with the Experienced Mom, I knew that my particular crisis of confidence was stemming from the fact that I didn’t know enough about The Difficult Thing. My only experiences of the school day and Jo’s teacher were for a half hour on welcome back to school night and a minute or two at pick up and drop off.

My not-knowing was resulting in wibbly-wobbly confidence, and that was making things even harder for Jo, who is very good at his job: to constantly scan my slightest emotional cue for whether everything is okay. As he read me on that crying dropoff morning, I was ready to run for the hills.

The only way to know if running for those hills was smart or stupid was to get more information.

I set up a meeting with Jo’s teacher the next day.

The results of the meeting:
I think Jo’s teacher is doing his absolute superninjapower best to help our kids feel safe and heard and inspired. He told me the specific times of day that Jo can find him if he needs to talk or get some snuggles (not that he can’t get that throughout the day, but there are particular times when he’s more available).

This small detail was such a eureka for me, since at Jo’s preschool, there was always a grown up available for whatever social or emotional tangle came up, and now Jo is in a classroom with one teacher responsible for a whole swarm of kids. It’s felt so good to explain this to Jo and know that he has a plan for how he can access his safe grownup at school.

My biggest Eureka! of all: When Jonah would occasionally complain about there not being enough “fun time” at school and his “too serious” teacher, he was voicing my exact worries in 6-year-old terms. What I forgot myself is what I’ve been talking with Jo about this week: serious can be awesome.
Remember when you were learning to ride a bike, how serious you would get? And what came out of that? YOU CAN RIDE A BIKE. That serious was awesome! Remember how hard it was at preschool at first, when you didn’t know how to join games? And then what came out of that hard time? YOU GOT ALL YOUR PRESCHOOL FRIENDS. That hard was awesome!

In the end, I found out that the Difficult Thing is okay. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good, and I can work with it.

I can feel my confidence. I found my kindergarten mojo. And I know Jo can feel it too.

Yesterday at dinner when I asked him how school was, he gave me a big, earnest thumbs up and said “My class is awesome.”

Huge. Sigh. Of. Relief.

It’s not like this fixed every issue I have with an unfairly distributed school system that emphasizes academics at the expense of emotional and creative and social intelligence. But it has calmed my fears about whether Jo’s teacher was really there to take care of him, and reminded me that my job as a parent (and Jo’s job as a kid) is changing. He’s getting older, more capable, more responsible. And, as he should, he’s being presented with bigger and (gasp!) more serious challenges.

My job is to listen to Jo, address any problems I see that need to be corrected and then shine my confidence about the school we’ve chosen. This is a good place. Your teacher has your back. Some things in your life are getting more serious, because some things about growing up are serious, and that can be totally awesome.

10 thoughts on “Mom triumphs over fears about kindergarten

  1. There is some interesting research agreeing with you that hard is not always bad. In fact, having kids face difficult things, fail, etc, without having a parent swoop in to save them, produces “character”, which is an actual measurable thing (who knew?). Having that sort of stick-to-it-iveness actually says more about what a child will accomplish in his or her adult life than how they perform in academics. Check out the following books: How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough and The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley.
    (All that being said, I still think endless standardized tests are a waste of time and a “hard thing” that no one should have to do. )

  2. AHM, as someone who’s just put their second child, 17 year old in college this last month, some of this HARD stuff keeps coming back and you (I know I do) have to keep reminding yourself that hard is not bad – and it’s all about being there for them, helping them navigate – sometimes letting them navigate on their own, knowing you will support them regardless of the outcome or hurt that may result. I suspect each time I learn more as a parent than even she does (or at least I pray she does 🙂 So this stuff changes and evolves but never really goes away. Always tickled to see how well you put your finger on many of these. Keep the faith.

  3. Great news all around.

    Even at this really, really elder age, I still have a few fond memories of kindergarten.
    Miss Massey, way to go.

    Since this was all back in the stone age it may surprise some readers to know that my class of kids cut a record. Yep, that’s correct. A real vinyl disc with all our melodious, glorious voices singing our little hearts out.

    This was also back in the day when traveling film makers would contract with the school to produce a short film featuring my entire class singing such classics as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.
    These short films were shown between main features at our local movie palace.

    That could have been the beginning featuring our version of the long term UP Series. Familiar with those? Seven up, 14 up, 21 up, etc.
    Check it out.
    Interesting to see how we carry some idiosyncrasies from the very beginning.
    Guarantee you will have a different take on what your kids are now up to.
    After you watch some of that series, video and interview your own kids.
    Character studies all around.

    These days, as I am coming full circle, I wish I had a grownup man to talk and snuggle with.
    So glad Jo has a male teacher. My theory is that especially little boys(little girls as well) can never have enough positive male role models.
    Just dread the day when he starts playing mindless, violent video games. I think we have all witnessed the male influence that derives from such crap.

    Good wishes all around.

  4. Phew! It is so comforting to believe that the hard is valuable (and there are many reasons that public school fits this bill) but I know that there will also be many times when we won’t be so convinced. Tough stuff this parenting.

  5. Acculturation starts so darn early.

    I often assume the role of wise grandpa to the neighborhood kids. Ugliest situation I am currently trying to dissolve is that several of the neighborhood younger girls think they can’t do so very many things…..and that they aren’t smart.
    The opposite problem exists in the local kid boys. They think they can do everything especially if they just get louder.

    All knowledge starts in the home, eh?


  6. I absolutely love this. My eldest is in preschool and loves it, we have no problems. My youngest (11 months younger), hates it. He bawls his eyes out when I take him and I feel so cruel. The look in his eyes when I take him makes me feel like an evil that has taken away his main comfort (which at the moment, is me.). I know I need this time to focus on my writing and my degree, however his little face makes me feel so selfish and heartbroken that I have been considering pulling him out. I do see the subtle changes in him from his attendance, he will now try and play with other children at the park, he is so much more imagitive and he is learning things he just couldn’t from me when I am trying to work and be with him. Your post has given me the confidence boost I needed to know that we are doing the right thing, and that although it is hard, that does not mean we’re doing wrong. Thank you x

    1. You are most welcome, Cassie! I’m actually working on a piece right now about this exact challenge we’ve both faced…when your kid is struggling with something and it makes us question our choices as parents, “Am I making the right call here?” and they can feel that doubting and I think it spirals their fear into a worse place. I’ve been thinking about this a ton because of the recent Kindergarten triumph and how much it reminds me of a similar realization Jo and I had when he was 3 or so: Thought that might be helpful for you, since its geared more towards the younger set. I really think that the key distinction that has helped me is that I have to face my fears and worries, and once I check in with the situation…school, daycare, preschool and confirm whether I can be confident about the childcare (I did have one situation where Jo’s upset was well founded, and I was glad I listened to him and looked into it so we could find a better sitch), and if I find that my confidence is well founded, I step into it and ride it hard. GOOD LUCK. xo

  7. Thanks for writing this! I have had the exact thoughts you wrote about here for most of this school year as this was my oldest child’s first year in public school (kindergarten). There are only a couple of months left in this year, and I feel like I’ve mostly made my peace. I definitely agree hard is not bad. And “hard” will continue visiting for the rest of our lives. Getting to walk alongside my kids in this time will (hopefully) help them to better navigate what’s to come. I’m passionate that I shouldn’t try to shield my children away from hard and different. Your words here remind me I’m not alone.

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