By Cindy Finch
The school year has begun and all is well—or is it?
Although it seems that the beginning of school and the reestablishment of routines should bring a new settling for children, the reality can be quite different. I’ve recently heard from some families that the start of school has brought some new, different, and sometimes concerning interactions between parents and children. This may be one of those times in your family’s life together, or you may find other times more challenging. (That’s the interesting thing about child development. There are trends and patterns, but the pathway for each child can be so individually timed).
Exciting times—like starting a new school year—call for a balance of sameness, of predictable, regular days. I often hear parents talk about how tired their children are during the first month or two of school. Becoming part of a group takes a lot of energy, energy that your child may not have to participate in other activities. There are new routines to learn at school, new relationships to begin, and new ways to experience your body, mind, and emotions. There can be a lot of comfort for your child of knowing what to expect at home.
Along with the expanding boundaries children experience when they become part of a class, there may come some behavior challenges at home. Tiredness may be part of it. However, when children experience the new successes they have at school—washing hands alone for the first time, reading that first word, digging a deep hole in the sandbox and filling it with water, figuring out how to enter play with other children, learning that teachers can be resources to you, remembering the rules of a game, figuring out how many people are in class if two are gone—there can be an attempt to renegotiate the rules, boundaries, or expectations you have for them at home. Challenging behaviors by children during the early days of school can be a way of communicating, “I’m growing, learning, and changing, and I want you to understand that and adjust—now.” Parents have a huge task during these early days of the school year to make decisions about rest and predictability when that is called for, reasserting family boundaries when that is appropriate, and revising the rules and roles of family life when you are ready.
There are many times in family-life that require parents to both listen to what children say they want and listen to our more mature and experienced perspective of what children need. Parents have the responsibility for providing a structure for the family and having a big-picture view of what we want family life to be and where this family is going. Children cannot do that. Children can have a voice, can negotiate, and can make decisions—but only within the structure parents provide. That’s why it is so important that children have some voice, opportunities to negotiate, and some decisions that they can have the final say on—because by controlling the underlying structure of the family, we control much.
If we want our children to know how to do those things—have opinions, make decisions, express themselves— anywhere else in their lives, we need to give them a chance to try it out with us in the safety of our homes and within the security of the parent-child relationship. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is negotiable—no parent has enough time and energy to do that all day and into the evening—and children don’t need that in order to have a good childhood. Many decisions about family life are unnecessary to negotiate because they are embedded in the structure that you provide. In fact, I believe that children take comfort in knowing that they are listened to and that parents will make the final decision—considering the child’s perspective, the needs of other children in the family, the needs of the grownups, and lot of other things (like schedules, commitments, and responsibilities)!
However—and this is a big however—family structures should never be impenetrable. Every voice matters in a family and, whether we intend this to be true or not, everyone in the family has a hand in shaping the direction this family is moving as part of our lives together. When we listen to them, children insist that we grow as parents and help us refine the structure of our family life.
Thank you for talking with me—it helps me to understand what the people I spend my days with are experiencing and the questions that you have. Our discussions also help me grow personally and professionally, and if we are all learning something in our lives together at The Children’s School—then many things are going very well.