At some point in all of our lives, we were uprooted from the comforts of our home and tossed violently and without warning into the realms of our peers, being advised to share nicely, play gently, speak kindly, and listen carefully. Thrown from the one and only nest we’ve ever known directly into the mouths of the wolves. When it comes to describing preschool from the perspective of a three-year-old, this is it. This is how it feels. And we’ve all done it. We’ve all been there. And we all survived.
This is what I try to tell myself every Tuesday and Wednesday morning when I pack Coen up to head out to school. “I survived. I made friends. I became social. He can do it. This is important. Keep going, mama. Keep going.” I pack his lunch, cutting PB&Js into rocket ships or putting a smiley face with chocolate chips on the bread. I gather coats, snowpants, boots, gloves, hats, fieldtrip forms, art projects, show-and-tell items and (assuming I remember) my laptop, purse and cell phone. Every preschool morning has been a cry-and-whine fest since he started a little over a month ago. He will get out of bed and sit on the couch in his pull-up and pajamas, waiting for his pancakes and banana or whatever other random concoction of breakfast crap I can pull together that could be deemed “healthy” by your neighborhood pediatrician. He will eat it slowly (seriously, like he’s chewing cement-based molasses), so I’ll say, “Coen, eat up. We need to get you to school.” That’s when it hits him. It’s a SCHOOL day. Here come the waterworks. Every morning. I hear this. Every. Single. Morning.
“Why do I haaaaaaave to go to schooooool? I don’t want you to gooo to woooooork.” Every morning he asks Nate why he has to go to work. And every morning, he hears, “To make money.” Logical. Sensible. Correct answer, actually. Buuuuut, doesn’t go over so hot on a preschooler. So, we tried ignoring the questions and the whining. We tried answering all of his questions. We tried redirection, bribery and straight-up lying. Nothing worked (big shocker). After our worst morning drop-off in the history of the existence of preschool, his teacher Kathy asked me a bunch of questions about his behaviors at home. Is he OK when our plans change abruptly? Does he deal well with not getting his way? Is there any jealousy regarding his little sister? I answered her and she looked perplexed. He seems normal and happy at home. She told me it seems that he has slight separation anxiety because he cries a lot throughout the day and needs constant reassurance that we’ll be returning. Well, if that don’t make a mama feel like a puddle of sadness, I don’t know what does! So, I told her I would work on it. And I meant it, darn it.
So, I did. I went home and researched online. I read and read and read. The last thing I wanted was for my child to be miserable on the days we weren’t with him, especially while being surrounded by toys, teachers, and friends. I wanted him to thrive and grow and socialize and learn and speak up and make some little buddies that he could talk about at the dinner table. I was bound and determined to work on this with him, and I spent the next few days doing just that.
After a night of staying up late in bed trying to get inside the head of my child, I think I put some pieces together. He’s sensitive. He’s one of the most sensitive and emotional children I’ve ever known. He doesn’t like to see people sad. He comforts and hugs, yet yearns for his own attention. He lashes out to get attention, sometimes in ways that are not what you good parents would call “appropriate.” He knows we will be back to get him – I knew that wasn’t the problem. He’s not a dense child. So, after hours of staring at the baby pictures on the wall and picking ungodly amounts of dirt from under my fingernails, I had a plan!
The next morning, I promised the kids a trip to the Children’s Museum, but we needed to make some stops along the way. Exciting, right? Our stops were going to be to both my and Nate’s offices. I wanted Coen to experience, in person, what we do all day and to see that we enjoy where we go and who we see. At my office, we walked around and talked to all the super fun people and took candy out of all the jars within his reach and I even let him play at my computer for a while to see how fun that could be. We filled (and refilled) our cup at the water cooler, high-fived the tallest guy in the building, and walked out with a Buzz Lightyear Pez dispenser. Now, who wouldn’t love THAT job?
Our next stop was Nate’s office, or as I call it: “Silent Hill.” Nate was happy to have us come in and see his new office space, freshly redecorated with photos of the kids and a calendar I made him last Christmas. His cube-mate had window decals of Snoopy and Woodstock, which Coen thought was pretty cool. He was introduced to some of daddy’s friends and got to sit in the spinny chair for a good long time eating candy he still had stashed in his pocket from the aforementioned candy jars. This place was pretty cool too, he decided. Then, it was off to the Children’s Museum. Phase I complete. Comfort.
On our drive to the museum, I told him how much fun we have at our jobs and that he never ever has to worry about us when he is at school because we are with our friends and having a great time, so he should have a great time too. Yes, it was a bit of a stretch, but you stretch what you gotta stretch to give peace of mind to those who need it most. But, hey, I like me some candy jars and I’m a pretty big fan of the water cooler myself, so it’s not like I was LYING.
Later that night, we sat at the table and cut out colored squares to paste on to a calendar. This was meant to show him visually which days are school days and which days are stay-at-home days. We crammed an envelope full of stickers to place on each day as it passes so we can look forward to the next one. Now, on the eves of school days (or the “white days”), we talk about what’s going to happen the next day and how much fun he’s going to have. He knows that I’m going to my work, daddy’s going to his work, and Mabel is going to her daycare. And all of us are going there to play with our friends. And on the eves of our at-home days (or the “red days”), we talk about what anticipated activity we have going on the next morning. Regardless of the fact that it’s been less than two weeks and we’ve gone through about $14 in stickers, Phase II complete. Preparation.
Lately in our house, we’ve been watching a lot of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and there’s an episode where Clifford PROMISES his buddy T-bone that he will watch over his pile of leaves while he runs home for a minute. Clifford can’t help but jump into the leaves and then feels guilty, so he walks all over Birdwell Island trying to locate every last one of T-bone’s special, brown, crunchy leaves (it’s really a ridiculous plot line since we all know T-bone would never know the difference between his leaves and any other random leaf on the island! But dogs can’t talk either so that shoots my deductive cartoon-dog argumentation in the foot). Anyway, it’s about only keeping promises you can keep (yes, that was my point). So, before bed, I’ll ask Coen if he is going to be happy at school tomorrow. He always says yes and I make him promise. He says, “Yes. I promise.” So, the next morning, when he starts whining or being sad, we will remind him of that promise and 80% of the time, he will change his attitude and put on his best face for the day. Phase III complete. Declaration. Thank you, Clifford.
I know he’s still young, and I know it’s only been a month. I just don’t want him to have bad memories of school or associate unpleasant thoughts with what-could’ve-been friendships. He’s only three, but the force is strong with this one, so I’m sure his memory will be better than that of the average Joe. I only remember one fleeting moment from my preschool days (where I was blindfolded and told to walk with a cane while holding a friend’s hand so I could feel what it was like to be blind. Yeah, nothing scary about that!), so I just don’t want Coen’s fleeting moment to be a sad one.
We have had three good drop-offs since we started this new routine and I don’t expect it to last forever, but I’m loving where it’s gotten us so far. The teachers have said he hasn’t cried at all and rarely asks about his parents (victory!). We hear stories about Addy, Audrey and Evan over dinner at night, and we’ve been asked to play “calendar helper” with him while he imitates the teachers and we get reprimanded for not raising our hands.
This morning was my icing on an already well-frosted cake. He got out of the car, walked himself up the stairs without a tear, and greeted his teacher with a huge, dimpled smile. I took off his coat and mittens, holding my breath waiting for the melt-down (it’s habit, OK?). I hung up his coat, signed him in on the binder, gave him a hug and started to walk away. He looked at me when I turned back around and smiled reassuringly, then waved and shouted, “Bye mommy. Have fun with your friends!” And off he went.
He is a growing little boy and I’m such a proud mom. I know he has beautiful wings. Sometimes he just needs a little push to know that it’s safe to spread them. Children are forever a challenge and when it’s not one thing, it’s another. Embrace the challenges and know that you will get through them if you work as a team and you work HARD. No one said this was easy. And on the days that you just want to throw in the towel, just remember: “I survived. This is important. Keep going, mama. Keep going.”