A few years ago, at a parenting group I was facilitating, were two Mums – good friends who lived near each other and had children the same age. They both had a question for me “why have our boys turned into ratbags?”. I checked their connection techniques, and their relationship building stuff like quality time, reading, mealtimes, bedtime, play. It all sounded great.
“Wait a second, how old are your kids?”
“Four and a half.”
“Both going to school next year?”
“Doing school transition?”
“You’re talking to them about being “big boys” and how great school will be, and how they need to learn to do lots of stuff to get ready for school?”
Has your preschool child changed from a ‘pretty good kid’ into a screaming me-me? This usually happens about six months before the child is due to start school. I reassure parents that this behaviour is normal. Parents don’t always understand why.
Soon after a child turns four, his parents and his preschool/long daycare teachers, local shopkeepers, random people on the street, start talking to him about going to school. As the child approaches the fifth birthday it’s not in vague terms like it used to be, it’s with a bit more intensity. Enter the tantrums, aggression, and defiance. She becomes more demanding, her emotions are all over the place.
Underneath it all, despite all of the bravado, your child may be terrified of going to school. He talks about being a ‘big boy’ but he is really just a little boy who is desperately going to miss his primary caregiver. It’s a huge transition regardless of whether your child went to preschool/long daycare or not.
The big boy/girl talk sets up a lot of unrealistic expectations. Parents and preschool teachers talk about how the kids grow ‘too big for their boots’. The kids are being told “you’re a big boy now, you can do that for yourself” or “when you go to school, you’ll have to…” However, the adults around them also remind them frequently of all the things they are too little for. Kids know they are not big because when they are standing in a crowd of people they are looking at everyone’s butts.
It helps to talk about the big changes and how scary it can all be. It helps to keep focusing on the process and shoring him up with descriptive praise. It helps to gently talk about the positives, but not in a way that forces them on the child or sounds like a con job. Kids know when adults are being false, and it exacerbates their insecurities. Gentle honesty rather than harsh reality is the best policy. The difference is in the delivery, and ultimately how the child integrates the new information and experiences.
Despite all of our patience and understanding, it’s a rite of passage. It’s part of the process of separating, for both parents and children. Your children test your commitment to them through their mistaken behaviour. All mistaken behaviour is related to a fear of some kind when you peel away the layers. Life gets a whole lot busier when your kids go to school. They are no longer in your world. They (and you) gain a few extra layers socially and emotionally and that creates some dilemmas. Although they become physically less dependent on you they need you MORE emotionally.
After they go to school, the new kindergartners will be so tired. Your kindergarten child will lament about how she has to work all day and doesn’t have much time to play anymore. The child will come home and flop for a while, and then go into a play frenzy and won’t want to come to the table for dinner. All normal.
The siblings who have been left behind, the ones not going to school, may be really angry because their playmate has abandoned them and they are doing lots of interesting things now without them. That anger will be expressed in all sorts of interesting behaviour. More patience and understanding required, more tuning kids in to their feelings.
Take time and walk with your children, physically and emotionally. If you are able to walk home from school, then do so. We live a five minute walk home from school and it frequently takes up to thirty. My boys like to connect with their friends after school. they play a little handball. I catch up with other parents. The boys like to run around the school oval enjoying the space to themselves, we sometimes play ball. We walk home slowly. The boys can talk about their day, or not. I’m frequently carrying their school bags as they run back and forth playing games on the footpath. We interact with other people in the neighbourhood. And when we finally get home we have afternoon tea together to connect at a deeper level, before the boys go off for more frenzied play or to do homework. Don’t ask them questions, just reflect back what they say to you in the same tone and affect and see what conversation comes from the space and the quiet (reflective listening).
Foster their friendships. Children don’t need a whole gaggle of friends. Just few ‘good’ friends support your child’s social and emotional wellbeing, and studies have shown that children do better academically when they are feeling safe and well. A good friend is someone your child feels comfortable being herself around. They talk freely and also feel comfortable about playing in silence together, they share the same interests, she smiles when she talks about her friend, and she knows she can be politely honest with her friend without worrying about being “unfriended”, there is give and take in the friendship. When your little ones start school you just want to wrap them up in family life after school and on weekends because you don’t get to spend as much time with them anymore, but it is so important for them to develop their friendships in kindy as soon as possible and a few playdates outside of school supports this process. A good friend is like having shock absorbers for the bumps and knocks ahead.
Children have lots of transitions in their lives – preschool, school, moving house, new babies, blended families, holidays, birthdays, high school, first part-time job, learning to drive. Good stress is still stress. Our children require us to be gently honest with them, to acknowledge their feelings, to see things from their perspective, and to offer whatever help and support they need to make a smooth transition. They still need boundaries and limits around their mistaken behaviour. But we’re the big ones, and role modelling wisdom and kindness teaches kids to be wise and kind.
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Categories: Child Development