‘One more kiss and watch them walk away’: The emotions of watching your little one start school
Letting go of your child's hand as they start Big School is a very big step for parents... and an emotional one.
No matter how much we prepare ourselves, it is hard not to feel that lump in our throats as we walk away from their anxious little faces. For me, it was holding my son’s hand on the walk to school that brought tears to my eyes that day. I felt that physical link to him intensely as he skipped along beside me. Letting go of his hand represented a severing of sorts to our two-person clique.
It was the first time I realised he wasn’t just mine. He belonged to the world, to himself, and all the relationships he was about to form. It was the start of something necessary, important and wonderful for all of us, but it also marked the end of his total reliance on me. His world got bigger that day.
And while I was cheerleading from the side (aka peeking in the classroom window) I felt the loss of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on – a jumble of emotions. There was resentment that I had to share this funny little boy with others, fear that he would struggle to fit in, pride that he was taking the next important step in his life and sadness for myself because my baby wasn’t so little anymore.
Starting Big School is more than just a milestone. It represents letting go of the baby years, the gut-wrenching feeling of exposing them to all the things we have tried to shelter them from – feeling left out, feeling anxious, unsure of themselves and afraid. We are opening them up to the humdrum of playground life – without us to chaperone.
And in the COVID-era, there are more challenges to face along the way.
It will push them (and ourselves) right out of our comfort zone. It is hard to sit back and know that, no matter how much bravado they display, they will struggle to overcome all the mini-challenges that lie ahead.
Of course, the beginning of their schooling also represents all the amazing opportunities coming their way; new friends, learning experiences, social skills, finding out more about themselves, asserting their personalities and growing into their own skin.
It is the start of trusting the world with our most precious cargo. That’s also why the teacher is so important to us – we hand over the baton of caring to them for a few hours while our child is away from us.
Handing over the reins
Deirdre Holland Hanon is a behavioural therapist. She is about to embark on the big school journey herself. “As a mum myself, I will be experiencing it for the first time this year. I imagine it will create a big shift in our family life.
“I expect it will also begin to shape his little personality in new ways. We will see new strengths and weaknesses coming through in them, and I advise all parents to see these as all positives.
“It’s the perfect time to assess these strengths and weaknesses and help and nurture them as best we can.”
Eoin Flynn is a stay-at-home dad. He writes a blog about his journey through parenthood called The Walking Dad. He says his daughter starting school is greeted with excitement, with a tinge of regret. “A mere fifteen-hundred-odd days on from my daughter’s birth, and my own rebirth of sorts into a more purposeful form, it’s time to hand over the reins.
“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, the highest calling I’ve ever mustered, for the best part of those hundreds of days, but tomorrow I become obsolete. Redundant. No longer of need.”
“I’ve been a stay-at-home dad, the highest calling I’ve ever mustered, for the best part of those hundreds of days, but tomorrow I become obsolete. Redundant. No longer of need. School starts tomorrow so it’s time to let go. Bow out gracefully and trust in the skilled, enthusiastic educators in our local Educate Together. And that’s not to say that there won’t be some relief in the handover.
“I’m happy for someone more qualified to field some of the tangential questions that a four-year-old’s mind throws out — my answers to which have probably not been perfect.
“I did see this moment coming and have slowly been re-acclimatising myself to the adult world of work. But if she’s growing up, I suppose I must too.”
Pack some pants!
So how best to handle this milestone? We asked some 1st class parents for tips for those who have little ones starting in Junior Infants in the coming week.
“Don’t underestimate the impact of your child taking such a huge step by themselves. It is hugely emotional for everyone and planning a glass of wine the evening of their first day is no bad move for parents.” – Katie Gilmore.
“Try to organise a parent’s email or WhatsApp group so you can run things past each other. It is also handy to have the list of children’s names for party invitations.” – Jen Foley.
“Keep a bottle of head lice treatment in the bathroom press. You are bound to get them when the shops are closed. If you do get them, try to inform the teacher so you can stop them spreading – once lice get into the classroom, it is very hard to get them out.” – Lenore Daly.
“Pack a spare pair of pants in their school bag just in case. No matter how mature you think they are, a tiny accident or incident may happen!” – Phoebe Kilty.
“Try not to let your child see you upset. Don’t linger. Even if they are emotional, remain calm and firm. The teacher is used to it and prepared for this. Just hug and leave.” – Patricia O’Keeffe.
“Don’t plan any after-school activities for the first few weeks. They will be mentally and physically exhausted and will want a few extra cuddles and attention from mummy and daddy.” – Petra Ouiska.
“Don’t rush in to solve a problem your child seems upset about (within reason). Give them some suggestions about how they might deal with it themselves. This stage is all about overcoming their challenges and new experiences. Try to let them iron them out themselves to boost their self-esteem.” – Tracey Cooney.
Let them shine
So to all the parents who have the too-big uniform ready to go, the pencils sharpened and the lunchbox ready, we get it. We know you feel torn between giving your little one up to the world and wanting to give them the world on a plate.
We know you will have a sore face from smiling reassuringly at your child as you watch them nervously cope with this new environment. We also know that you will shed a tear as you picture them being ‘brave’ without you – their babyface unsure of what comes next.
This bittersweet moment is all part of the journey through parenthood – it is about letting go, it is about having faith in the system – and other people to keep your child safe for you.
It is about acknowledging that this is their time to shine and it is you who has polished them so beautifully for this moment.