When our eldest daughter started kindergarten, my husband and I were so excited, so geared up, so ready with our camera and video and surging pride. We had done it! We had made it through the sleepless babyhood, pea-smeared toddler years, and the endless probing questions of a curious and demanding preschooler. Our bank account had survived, and so had our marriage. From here on out, we thought smugly, as she disappeared into the kindergarten classroom with her humungous backpack and sweet, slightly teary face, it would be easy.
You’ve got to love a parent’s ignorance.
No doubt, kindergarten is a magical time. When you prepare for your child to start school, you embark on a beautiful journey — the formal education which shapes your child into the person he or she will become. Our daughter’s first year of school was, in many ways, magical. We witnessed her try new things, do new things and learn new things.
But there were surprises we didn’t expect, and it took us awhile to learn the ropes.
Now that I’m about to send my second daughter to kindergarten, I feel like I’m the senior on campus as opposed to the trembling, clueless freshman. I still have a lot to learn about parenting my kids through their school years, but now I’m going in as a member of the club.
Here are 7 truths from inside the secret society of kindergarten:
1. They’ll be tired.
Probably. Your child, even if he or she has spent full days in preschool or daycare, will be required to do a level of work at real school that they’ve never experienced before. Tasks like sitting still at a desk, following directions, lining up to go outside, back inside, up to the library, down to the gym. If you pick them up hoping for a full report about the intricacies of their day and all they do is grunt, suck their thumb or demand Goldfish, don’t take it personally. Early bedtimes, routines, full meals, down time and a few months to get used to it all will help.
2. They’ll be tested
Literally. This might be hard to believe, but kindergarten is not like it was when we were small. Sure, they might learn to tie their shoes, but they’re also starting a complex curriculum of reading, comprehension work, fractions, and telling time. And in many districts, including the Seattle Public Schools, kindergarteners will be tested. The standardized tests, as they are in Seattle, might be computerized. They might be used to evaluate your child’s eligibility for specialized streams, such as advanced learning. And they might be done as early as October of your child’s kindergarten year. If you haven’t introduced your child to computer games and to the functioning of a mouse, I highly suggest you do. Whatever you personally think of this, I am telling you that your kindergartener will need to be computer-literate. Develop a way of talking about tests. In our home we learned to remind our daughter a test was coming that day, to feed her a solid breakfast, to remind her to do her best and always give an answer even if she didn’t know the right one, and most importantly to have fun.
3. Your school needs you.
The (nearly) invisible power behind many a school is its parents. From Day 1, or before, you will be approached a million different ways with earnest requests for help — money, volunteer hours, supplies. You will be shocked, and then amazed, by the efforts that everyday parents like yourself put into making schools better places for teachers and children. You will be tempted, pressured and compelled to give your time and maybe your money. Do what you can. Your contribution makes the entire school a better place for all its children.
4. But don’t be a martyr.
You can’t do it all. No single parent — indeed, not 100 parents — can fill the endless needy bucket of a school. Choose your spots wisely. Kindergarten parents are the newest and easiest souls to pounce on, and pounce those experienced parents and PTA members will. This is not a bad thing. But pace yourself, dear kindergarten parent. Think about where your skills, time and money could be best put to use and don’t overcommit.
5. You don’t have to keep all that art (but you’ll have to keep most of it).
There will soon be a Mississippi River’s worth of artwork flowing into your home. This arts-and-crafts tsunami (popsicle-stick boats, origami cranes, finger-paint mazes, trip-inducing string balls, gluey glue things) will carry on for many years. You cannot keep it all. But you cannot throw it all away. Develop a system, my kindergarten parent apprentice. Binders, steamer trunks, wallpaper — just come up with something. Fast.
6. They need you to let go.
When my daughter started kindergarten (and sometimes still), she was a shy young thing. Gregarious, even earsplitting when among close friends and family, she shrunk back a bit when thrust into the large, intimidating world of an elementary school. I worried about her making friends, about her raising her hand to ask a question, about her being able to make her way to the bathroom (for months she worried about getting locked in because the door was heavy and hard to maneuver). She insisted that I walk her to her classroom door every morning, all the way through June (which I did, I admit). But what my daughter needed most to boost her confidence was actually for me to let go. You can’t sit next to them in the cafeteria. You can’t raise their hand for them in the class and make sure the music teacher notices their difficulty with the C note. You cannot be there. They have to walk this road alone, and you have to let them. Because that is how they grow.
7. But they need you to hang on, too.
Ask your questions, even when the answers are “Nothing, yeah, uh huh, I dunno.” Sit and help with homework. Open a line of communication with their teacher, the school staff, the principal. Learn the other parents’ names, even if you’re busy rushing off to work. Host a moms’ or dads’ night out. Know their friends. Ask who talks the loudest, who chases the girls, who brings what for lunch. Find out what terrifies them (the big kids? The big halls? Losing their library book?) because something undoubtedly will. Put a note in their lunch. Hold their hand and walk them to their classroom sometimes, even when they are older and embarrassed by you. Their magical journey starts now, and this is your in to their new world. Take it while you can.