Starting school without any tears

September 3, 2012

One of the most harrowing experiences known to parents is that of having their screaming child physically torn from them by a stranger, then having to walk away to the sounds of their child crying and begging them not to leave. Just a necessary part of letting go? Teaching your child independence? Or an unnecessary, cruel and detrimental way of managing a delicate situation? I think the latter.

I made the mistake of allowing this to happen once, when my child was two and a half. I vowed I would never allow this to happen again, and have successfully avoided such a situation all but once, when I was taken by surprise one morning at school.

It first happened at a playgroup that clearly didn’t believe in settling in arrangements. They fully bought into the ‘just let them cry it out and they’ll be fine’ philosophy. There were hysterical children and parents everywhere. It was carnage. I subsequently withdrew my child from the playgroup’s register, returning several months later on the pre-agreed condition that I remain with him for as long as I felt he needed me to, even if this meant I never actually left and became a sort of volunteer parent helper with cutting out and sorting coloured pens.  As it happened, I remained with my child for his two mornings a week for about a month. When I finally left there were no tears, nor were there any on any subsequent occasions. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there, being a lively and sociable child who loves being around other children in this type of environment. He just needed time to feel comfortable and safe enough to be there without me. Trying to rush this was counterproductive.

Before making the decision to move him to the pre-school attached to the school he would eventually be attending, I was careful to speak to the staff there about their settling in arrangements. They were happy for me to do whatever I judged best. I planned to stay with him for at least a week, but 3 mornings proved sufficient. There were no tears throughout the year there.

In the summer prior to my child starting school he showed considerable anxiety about the impending change. It was a great comfort to him that I could repeatedly assure him that I would be staying with him for the whole time on his first day. Feeling safe and reassured by the knowledge that I would be there with him considerably lessened the anxiety and stress of the first day. There was no dread of a separation, no need to fear. He knew I would be right there with him. It worked perfectly. I sat in a corner of the classroom with a book. My child joined in with the other children, engaged with the teacher, in short, did everything the other children did and that he was expected to do, just ‘checking in’ with me occasionally.

On the second day I explained to him exactly what would happen when we arrived; “The bell will ring then you’ll all get in line. That’s when we’ll kiss goodbye, then you’ll go into school with the other children, and I’ll be back at lunchtime, just like at nursery”.

This way there were no surprises, he knew what to expect. From his behaviour and reaction on the first day I had made the decision that he was ready for me to leave. As with all the settings he had been to, once the decision was made and I had told him what would happen, it was important that I stuck to it, not letting him feel like there was any choice, any room for negotiation. So making the decision was the tricky part – I needed to be sure he was ready.

This is how it worked for me. It won’t work like this for everyone. Every child is different and will react differently. But I firmly believe that time invested at the beginning saves a lot of tears in the long run, and makes for a much more happy and settled experience for a child, helping develop a positive attitude towards school. The conventional wisdom is to leave quickly, even if your child appears distressed. But as with many aspects of parenting, the conventional wisdom is not something I go along with!

Attachment theory and neuroscience already inform us in no uncertain terms of the detrimental effects of leaving a child aged under three without an attachment figure. But with our early school starting age pushing children into school when they’ve just turned four, and consequently pre-school at three, we need to consider if it’s reasonable to expect a child, at such an age, to be comfortable being left in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar adults and unfamiliar rules and routines. Yes, it’s often simply fear of the unknown. So why not simply stay until the unknown is known?

I get tired of hearing the old story, “They stop crying as soon as you’ve left”. For me, this doesn’t mean they’re OK. It just means they’ve stopped crying. Children can have a myriad of feelings, fears, misgivings, and anxieties without expressing them through crying. What’s the point of expressing them if no-one’s going to listen?

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., & William J. Pieper, M.D. put this nicely in “The Smart Love Parent”:

“When parents come to pick up their child, they may well be told that the child stopped crying almost immediately and was “fine” the rest of the morning. The flaw in this reasoning is that the child’s behaviour, rather than her feelings, is being used to measure success at separating.”

As with any parenting decision that goes against the traditional majority, we shouldn’t be afraid to stick to our guns, to stick to what we know is best for our children, to trust our instincts. Speak to the staff and explain your position beforehand. Make your child’s school experience start as you want it to go on – happy and stress-free.


April 18, 2012

I don’t punish my child for his behaviour. I haven’t done for a few years now. Before I made this shift in my approach and attitude I would have thought these statements sounded extreme. But now I often find myself reflecting on how I actually never feel the need to punish. My child presents his fair share of challenging behaviour, yet strangely I never find myself wishing I could dish out a punishment, or having to remind myself not to. The less you punish, the less you need to punish. Punishment only makes behaviour worse.  I was commenting on this to my husband last night, then suddenly remembered that earlier that evening my child had hit out at me. Surely this would be considered by many to be punishable behaviour. Yet it never occurred to me at the time, and reflecting on it afterwards, I’m still quite certain that it was right not to punish.

My child had been at school all day. When he came home, after a snack, he said he wanted to play ‘rugby on the bed’ with me. This is his name for playing rough and tumble, and one of our main ways of reconnecting with each other. We had a lovely play and a giggle together for a few minutes, then he heard voices, looked out of the window and saw his friends from next door playing outside. He immediately announced that he wanted to go outside and play with them, but with a hint of regret at ending the time we were having together. I commented that we could always have another play later, and off he went.

There was never an opportunity to resume our rough and tumble play that evening for one reason or another. When I announced it was bath-time my child started bouncing on the bed – a clear and common indication of his intention to be uncooperative. Being accustomed to these tactics, and having various means of dealing with them, I was unphased until he started hitting out at me. His hits were more like swipes, reminiscent of the warning swipe a cat might give with her claws retracted. There was no intention to hurt, but there clearly was the  intention to communicate something.

“No hitting”.

He continued.

“No hitting” – this time gently taking hold of his hands. I knew there was something wrong, and I had a pretty good idea what it was.

When he was calm we talked.

“Are you sad that it’s bath-time?”

“Yeeeees”, came the sad cry.

“Do you feel like we haven’t had enough time to play together?”


“Tomorrow I’m picking you up from school early so we’ll have all afternoon”, then realising this was trying to fix things and not validating the feelings he was experiencing right now in that moment, “We were playing rugby on the bed then you went outside to play with your friends, and we never got a chance to play again”.  A cuddle.  “Let’s get ready for your bath really quick so we’ll have time for some extra books tonight”.

A minute later he was playing happily in the bath.

Did he ‘get away’ with hitting? Was a punishment required to ‘teach’ him that hitting is wrong?  I think not. He knows hitting is wrong. That’s why he was doing it. He was doing wrong because he was feeling wrong inside and couldn’t quite find the words to tell me about these feelings.  He may not even have been sure exactly what those feelings were or what gave rise to them. He may have felt angry at me when he realised the day was nearly over and we had not had enough one to one time together.

I reminded him “No hitting” and gently enforced that limit. I then helped him process the feelings that had given rise to the behaviour. That is all that was needed. If I had responded by putting him in a timeout, or saying ‘no books tonight’, giving him a ‘sad face’ sticker on a chart, or come up with some other parent imposed ‘consequence’ would this make him less likely to hit again? Absolutely not. If anything it would make his behaviour worse. He would feel bad about himself, angrier with me, and more disconnected from me (the very issue that caused the behaviour in the first place), and the opportunity for me to help him process those feelings would have been lost.

He lost control. He did wrong. He’s a kid and he’s not perfect. I’m not going to punish him for that. I will, however, be more mindful of incorporating one to one time into our days. My child is not the only one with lessons to learn here.

Punishment does not teach. Empathy, understanding, and love teaches volumes and equips children emotionally to deal with their feelings and problems in a more mature way.

My round-up of the events of 2011.

December 31, 2011

Child celebrated 4th birthday.

Had party in house.  Was a bit chaotic, and I was exhausted, but the kids enjoyed it.  Can’t bear Wacky Warehouse parties and the like. Traditional party games, small numbers, personal atmosphere while they’re still small enough I say.

Discovered child could walk.

And by that, I don’t mean he didn’t take his first steps until he was 4, I mean we discovered he could walk more than 300 yards without whining.  This was a revelation. My husband and I used to be keen walkers, but this all ended once child became too big for the carrier. Now, after a couple of years of pining for the great outdoors, we’re back in business.

On a holiday in Snowdonia, where we had expected to spend our days mostly riding small steam trains and visiting petting farms, we thought we’d just set off on a walk and see what happened.  7 miles and a considerable ascent and descent later, entire family very happy, child very pleased with himself.  To add to our delight, after we spent the week mixing walking days with steam train and playground days so as not to push our luck, child said the best thing he’d done on the holiday was climbing big hills, and the only regret he expressed was that he hadn’t climbed Snowdon.

So, to everyone who told us we needed to force him to stop using the buggy or he’d never learn to walk far – HA!!

Trying to force a child to do something before they’re ready is nearly always counter-productive.  There are so many examples of this in parenting, potty training probably being the best known one.  Patience please.

Discovered the art of having a holiday with your child, from which you don’t return home needing a holiday from your child.

 Child is amazingly hopeless at amusing himself whilst parents attempt to get ready to go out in morning/relax after day out etc within small confines of holiday accommodation. However, child is not shy – this is a major asset. Cue other children and lots of safe outdoor space visible from window/patio.

Child started school.

My post ‘Starting school before the rest of Europe – a head start or a pressured start?‘ will fill you in some more on my feelings about this, but suffice to say that I worked myself up into unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety over the summer, whilst considering home schooling and/or emigrating.

Am relieved to report, however, that not only is child enjoying school so much that he expressed some displeasure when I announced school would be closing for two weeks over Christmas, but I am no longer at loggerheads with certain key members of staff following unexpected u-turns from both parties (ie: me and them) on the subject of child’s part-time attendance, resulting in a happy union somewhere in the middle.  All is harmony.

I still think they start far too young though…….

Child stopped waking us up at hideous times of the morning.

See ‘How a slice of bread changed my life‘ for more details. So far, this is still working, although I still live in fear that it’s just another phase which will one day end. Also, strangely, the slice of bread is no longer an absolute requirement. Perhaps it was just required to break a habit, or change a situation, and has now served its purpose. I’ve really no idea. I’m too busy enjoying my extra 1 – 2 hours in bed.

Happy new year to all my readers.  Come back in 2012 when normal service (including some more serious posts!) will be resumed.

Don’t take the bait

November 29, 2011

My son really likes control.  I have become expert in side stepping around power struggles with him.  I also like giving him choices.  Not only do they encourage autonomy, but they give him a feeling of having some control, making him more likely to cooperate with my requests.  I usually find this is true when it comes to eating, a potentially endless source of conflict and anxiety for parents.  However, I’ve recently been experiencing the following scenario.

I give him a choice of what he would like for his meal.  He tells me his choice.  I prepare the requested dish.  He sits down at the table and looks at it.  He starts to whine and say he doesn’t want it.  How annoying is that?

In one of my less patient moments I tried, “Well that’s what you said you wanted, so I’ve made it and you can sit there until you’ve eaten it!”  Result:  power struggle.  Child refuses point blank to eat food.  I get even more annoyed, resort to bribes and threats about pudding or where we’re going after the meal (I don’t agree with bribes and threats, how has he driven me to this?), they don’t work (I already knew that, so why did I try them?), he eats enough to feed a mouse, then either spends all afternoon being bad tempered because he’s hungry, or I spend all evening stressing about him waking up early in the morning because he’s hungry.  Everyone’s a loser.

On the next occasion, in a wiser, more patient moment I tried a casual, “Oh dear, that’s a shame” and carried on washing the dishes.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.  Brilliant.  (I managed to refrain from making any smart arse comments along the lines of “I told you so”, or “Thought you said you didn’t want it”.)

On the next occasion, being slightly bemused by his contrariness I commented, “I asked you if you wanted pasta and you said yes”.  Reply: “Yes, but not with cheese on.” (I had grated some cheese on top. I usually do.  He likes it.)  My response, “Oh dear. You’ll have to take the cheese off then”.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.

What’s going on here?  It’s as if he’s looking for a fight. Is he testing me in some way?  I’ve already given him a choice of what he would like to eat, but it’s like he’s double checking; “Am I being forced to eat this?  If so, I’m not going to”.  If this is the case, it’s a great example of coercion provoking counterwill.

Whatever it is, I’ve definitely learnt not to take the bait.

How a slice of bread changed my life

November 14, 2011

I have never been a morning person.  I hate getting up in the morning.  I particularly hate getting woken up before I’m ready to wake up.  So for me, one of the hardest things about being a parent and that I’ve never got used to, is getting woken up every morning. Every morning.  7 days a week.  At the weekend, on holiday, on your birthday, when you’re sick, every day.  It’s utterly relentless.

I have tried various tactics to make my son’s waking time later; blackout linings, making his tea time later, bedtime snacks, warmer bed clothes, fewer bed clothes, toys laid out in different ways to busy him for longer before he comes into our room, various different central heating timer settings, fairy lights on a timer switch that indicate ‘OK to get up’, then ‘OK to come into Mum & Dad’s room’……Nothing has really worked.

As soon as he was old enough we started leaving milk out for him to drink when he woke up.  After all, I’m always thirsty when I wake up.  But this was never one of my delay tactics, just something I thought he should have.

A few weeks ago, we added to this a slice of bread.

The first morning, I awoke in a sort of panic.  Where is he?  Is he OK?  Apparently he had got up, eaten his bread, then gone back to bed and dozed back off to sleep.

Every morning since then he has either done the same, or if he has not gone back to bed he has played happily in his room until we get up.  Sometimes for an hour or more.  (and this is a child who never plays on his own)

This is too good to be true. Could something so simple as a slice of bread really have ended the era of the early morning wake up which I was expecting to continue for several more years?

I feel so much more rested, less grumpy and able to face the world.  Why did it take me so long to think of something so basic?

Change the situation, not the child.

October 21, 2011

Advice I recently read in a book by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D., “Hold On to Your Kids“:  “It takes a truly adaptive parent to sense the futility of harping on behaviour and to stop railing against what the parent cannot change……It takes a wise parent to focus on what the child is reacting to: the circumstances and situations surrounding the child.  In other words, a parent must first let go of trying to change the child.”

This was written in the context of a natural discipline technique, but was something I found helpful to keep in mind when my child unexpectedly started crying at school drop off times.  My child has attended pre-school for a year, and never cried at drop off time. It is a situation I studiously avoid, by being very careful about settling in arrangements, so it was to my surprise and great discomfort to find myself in a situation where my child was being forcibly pulled away from me by a less than sympathetic adult, leaving me feeling I had little choice but to walk away and hope for the best.  Walking away from my child when he is crying, however, does not hold any place in my parenting philosophy, so I was determined to find a solution to avoid a repeat of this scenario.  Reports from my husband the next day of a similar experience left no hope that it was a one off.

Since my child seemed fine on collection, and continued to assert, as he has always done, that he likes school, I felt the problem must be something about the drop off arrangements.  What was different from pre-school?  At pre-school the parents went into the classroom with their child, settled them into an activity, and left whenever they were ready.  At school, the children line up when the teacher appears at the door, then go in alone, leaving the parents outside.  This makes the separation much quicker, and takes away any flexibility regarding the exact moment of parting.  My child likes to feel he has control over things.  Could this be the key?

The next morning I told my son that he did not have to get in line when the teacher appeared if he didn’t want to, that we could hide round the corner then run out and shout boo at the last minute, or that he could just get in the line, or go in, when he was ready.  He liked the idea of hiding and shouting boo, so we did this.  I feared he would try to extend the hiding bit in order to delay the parting, but not at all.  He ran out, shouted boo, joined the line, and went in happily.  The next day we didn’t need to repeat the hiding game, but he just took a few moments to decide to join the line.   This occurred some weeks ago, and we have not had any tears since.  A subtle change to the situation was all he needed.

Has anyone else had success with changing a situation?  Or any other school drop off experiences?