If I could remove one line from every single person’s list of things they say to kids, it would be this: So, are you excited to go back to school?!
Because let’s face it – most kids are not. Even the kids that are really good at school and who love education aren’t sitting around thinking ‘Gosh, I can’t wait to stop sleeping in and eat mediocre cafeteria food midday then go home and do homework for 2 hours.’
School only seems exciting to people who are no longer in school – real adults. Young adults early in their career miss the freedom of college schedules. Somewhat young adults who are now parents love school because even though they don’t want to suffer through their kids’ homework for 10 months of the year, they love the structure and schedule that the school day brings for the entire household. Not-so-young adults look back on school fondly as the good old days – the heyday time when they played sports and secured the county/district championship, before responsibility then bills then diapers then AARP.
But the real reason I want to remove this line from every person’s kid-friendly repertoire is because for many kids, school and all thoughts related to school are an absolute nightmare. That might be for a dozen different reasons – because they are bullied, because they have a learning disability, because they are an introvert, or because their parents put too much pressure on them.
I have two children who both do well in school, as measured by grades and not pulling fire alarms. One of those children is an extrovert who can’t wait to see all her friends and start using an overly complicated calculator. This is the child you all imagine when you ask, “So, are you excited to go back to school?!”
My other child is frightened of all the coming change – new teacher, new kids, new room, new noises, new crowds. She’s spent the summer surrounded by family and church family and friends and in a cocoon of consistency, and she loves that. She thrives in that cocoon. And probably a solid 4 weeks ago she began internally dreading the first day of school. It has disrupted her sleep and her thoughts, and made her edgy.
The real-real reason I want to remove this line from every person’s kid-friendly repertoire is because some kids are anxious about school. And one of those kids is my daughter. And every time a smiling adult with the absolute best of intentions asks her if she’s excited about going back to school, they have no idea of the tidal wave of feelings they’ve set off.
And all the things I’ve desperately done to make her life and her days the absolute best they can be are just washed away in that tidal wave of unsettledness. I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles about how to make it better. I’ve tried everything I can think of to make it better. We draw. We stay busy. We make crafts. We read. We pick out clothes. We buy light-up shoes. We choose folders and post-its. We hate those colors and we return them and pick different ones. We meet the teacher. We find the room. We drive the bus route. We prepare lunch menus. We buy our favorite pudding cups and fruit cups. We pray. We even talk about how to be brave.
Those things sometimes help momentarily, but they are no panacea. And part of me wants the last 24 hours of summer to last forever, while the other part is hoping to wake up and find it’s next weekend and we’ve all already survived the first week. But that’s not very brave, and it’s my job to set the brave example.
And so I ended today with a list of modified questions to try to get her to refocus her anxious thoughts about school: Of the kids you know in your class, who is the funniest? If you get to pick what the art teacher focuses on first, will you choose clay or paint? Which teacher are you most excited to see and hug when you walk in on the first day? Let’s make a bet – will the first pizza day be cheese or pepperoni?
In the coming couple of weeks when you see other children, or your grandchildren, or your nieces or nephews, or kids at church or in your neighborhood, please do lean in and talk to them. Show them you love them and give them a hug and ask questions that confirm for them that you are interested in their life. But instead of ‘how was your first week of school?’ you might consider asking who was the most fun to play with this week or what was their favorite part of this week or what is the most exciting thing they are learning about right now.
Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
There are a lot of little ones out there looking to us – the big ones – to show them how to be brave. And showing kids how to be brave is more than just telling them you have to face your fears or pointing to helpers that wear uniforms and save lives. Part of showing kids how to be brave is simply helping them focus on positives.
If anyone in the 757 sees us in the coming few days and asks my daughter what was the best thing about this week, she is likely not going to mention school. My guess is she will say the bungee trampoline. I thought this would be a chance for her to be brave, but as it turns out she couldn’t wait and she loved it and she squealed with delight – and the whole ordeal was actually a chance for me to be brave, because when I saw how high the jumping got it took everything I had not to tackle the way-too-laid-back-in-superhip-overpriced-sunglasses-man that was running this thing and demand he get her down right that instant.