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Taking back-to-school in stride

Taking back-to-school in stride

All my kids went back to school today (for the second year in a row nobody chose to homeschool – sigh), so I went to drop them off this morning. As I was hanging out in the playground waiting for the bell to ring, I was interested to notice the extremes of parental reaction. The expectation seemed to be that parents would either express exaggerated sorrow or exaggerated joy (depending on the age of the child) at their children heading off for another year.

The kindergarten parents were all making pouty faces at each other and talking about how kids grow up so fast and how the house would seem so quiet without them. They talked about how hard it was to send them off for their first time alone in the big world. Even though most of these kids had spent time at daycare and babysitters, the expectation was that parents were supposed to feel nostalgic and reflective on the first day of kindergarten, maybe even shed a couple of quiet tears.

The parents of older kids were a stark contrast. They joked about how summer vacation is only two months too long and about how the school year is just long enough to see a therapist and get ready for next summer. They gloried in the time and energy they'd now have to get things done. When the bell rang and the kids headed off, there was fist pumping, high fiving, and at least one running chest bump between two fathers who were lucky not to do themselves an injury.

I'm not sure why, but I've never really experienced either of those expected emotions as my kids headed off for school. Part of it is that my elder two never went to junior kindergarten, but even when the youngest one did, I didn't feel any of the expected emotions. Sure, he was going to school for the first time, but he'd done all sorts of things by that time. He never went to daycare, but he'd had babysitters, visited other people, slept over with his foster family, had his grandmother take him to the trailer for the weekend, and so forth. Going to school wasn't some grand moment of separation. It was just another step in his life, something to be acknowledged certainly, but not worth tears and upset.

Similarly, I didn't feel some great sense of relief and joy when my older kids went back to school today. Will I get more done when they're gone? Absolutely. Will there be less fighting and noise for me to endure? You bet. But I like having my kids around. I have fun with them. I enjoy their company. Going to school isn't some grand reprieve from my children. It's the next step in their lives and their development, something to be acknowledged certainly, but not the occasion of some wild celebration.

I'm not saying it's wrong to feel a little sad as you send your four-year old off to school for the first time. I'm also not saying it's wrong to feel a little happy that you'll have a chance to clean your house a bit now that the kids aren't there to tear it apart immediately. I'm just saying that those emotional extremes are often more about the social roles parents are expected to play than about what the situation actually warrants.

This is grade school. It's fun. It's sad. It's exciting. It's scary. Just like rest of life. So go ahead, experience that with your kids, because that's the best part of parenting. But let's not force some cultural idea of what we're supposed to experience on ourselves and on our kids. Let's just experience the lives we're actually living with each other. I think we might find that our emotions are a whole lot more interesting and complex than the socially expected joy or sorrow.