Being a parent is hard — this is a universally accepted truth. You hear it all the time before you have kids, and once they arrive, you realize just how true it is. My oldest child just started Kindergarten, and I feel as though I’m entering an entirely new phase of parenting. And this new phase is much harder, and more complicated, than I imagined.
Throughout the first several years of my children’s life, I focused on the big stuff — eating, sleeping, walking, talking, not hurting themselves and not hurting others. Parenting was hard, but in a physical way — not sleeping, forgetting to eat, carrying small people on my hip pretty much everywhere. Certainly, I was emotionally tested, too — repeating myself 100 times, trying so hard not to yell when I was frustrated, taking several deep breaths when explaining that, no, we do not use markers on the dog. But mostly these lessons were in black and white — basic rules on how to function in the world.
Recently, I felt a shift in the complexity of my children’s problems and the importance of my response as a parent. It started on the first day of Kindergarten. My daughter came home excited to tell me all about her new school and classroom. As she was filling me in on the details of the day, her face fell. She had just remembered something that made her sad.
“Mommy, the boys at my table laughed at my backpack. They said there was a picture of poop on it!”
She had tears falling down her face, and it took me a minute to figure out what she was talking about. I realized she was referring to the infamous chocolate ice cream emoji. She has an emoji backpack, and she and her brother have always assumed it was ice cream, and not needing any more talk of poop in my house, I never mentioned the alternative.
This is one of the first times my sweet girl had been made fun of, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I hugged her and told her that she knew it was ice cream, and those silly boys didn’t know what they were talking about. I thought to myself, that should work, right? She looked at me suspiciously, as if she didn’t quite trust what I was telling her.
“But why would they laugh at me and call it poop?” she asked earnestly. What I wanted to say was that sometimes kids are mean, little boys think poop is funny, and throughout life you will probably get laughed at for much worse. But that seemed a little heavy for the first day of Kindergarten, so I went with “As long as you like your backpack, that is all that matters. If they want to laugh at it, just ignore them.”
She moved on, and I haven’t heard much about poop vs. ice cream since. But I was a little shaken by the encounter. Partially because it made me sad to think of my little girl getting laughed at, and also because I felt like I wasn’t prepared for my response. Turns out, this was just the beginning of the emotions and complications to come out of Kindergarten.
The next day she realized that three of her best friends from preschool were in the same class, and she wasn’t. She missed her old friends, and she didn’t understand why they were together and she wasn’t. Or why many of the kids in her new class already knew each other, but she didn’t know anyone. Each time we talked about it, I realized I needed to choose my words and the tone of my voice carefully. Part of me wanted to cry with her; I missed her old friends, too! Another part me wanted to tell her to shake it off; she would make new friends and move on before the week was over. I didn’t want to make too big of a deal of it because she has a flair for drama, but I couldn’t just brush it aside, either. I think I managed it well, as she has settled in and made new friends just as I knew she would. But I don’t know for sure that I handled it the right way, and I never will. We are at the point where there is less black and white; a lot more is gray.
I realize there were plenty of questions and emotions in preschool, too, but because I was so much more involved in her preschool life, I always felt prepared to handle them. I knew all of her friends and their parents, and I could tell when there was a real issue or if she was just having a bad day. But with Kindergarten, she is off in her own world, and I just get the bits and pieces she chooses to share with me.
I love that she comes to me with her problems and easily shares her emotions with me. But when she is looking at me with her big brown eyes, eagerly anticipating what I’m going to say, trusting that I’m the grown up so I must know the answer, I worry that I actually have no idea what I’m supposed to say. Most of the time, I just want to scoop her up and tell her she is the most amazing little person in the whole world, and everything will be OK. But I know that isn’t the answer she needs. Although most of the time our conversations end with something along those lines, I am trying to guide her the best way I can, while still letting her find her own way.
I’ve heard the expression “bigger kids, bigger problems,” and I realize I am just getting started in the world of “big kid” problems. But I am already missing the days where her biggest problem was that she couldn’t wear her Elsa tiara to school.
Does anyone else feel like Kindergarten was when parenting started to get real?