Fall is here and another school year is underway. I’m grateful for the difference I feel when I compare this year to last. Last year my 2 ½ year old son, Jonah, declared he was ready to start going to preschool three mornings a week and although it felt too soon to me, he wanted to go to school like his big brother. He wanted to feel the weight of a backpack, stand in line singing softly, hang his coat on his very own hook and place his shoes just-so in a row with the other children’s. His lip would stick out whenever his older brother brought home another painted masterpiece and in the morning when we did the school run, he would often quietly slip off his shoes and sneak off to a chair — making himself as small as possible in the hopes that I would simply forget to bring him home with me, allowing him to stay with the big kindergarteners.
When I agreed that he would benefit from a few mornings a week to be with his own people there wasn’t the nerve-wracking decision process that often accompanies a first child; we knew exactly where we would send him. We visited the beautiful in-home Waldorf school run by a long-time teacher and as Jonah ran under the branches of the canopied pine tree, discovering the wooden swing hanging on the lowest branch he laughed in delight. His older brother sighed and lamented that even though he was excited to be a first grader, he really wished he could be little and go there, too. Decision made.
The first day of school went as I’d expected; he alternated between very excited and very, very quiet as we got ready and set out for the day. He willingly obliged when I asked him to stand on the lawn for his first day of school photo, even giving a big smile. We had a quick, quiet good-bye once we’d hung his items on a hook and pulled on his slippers. I walked out the door, glancing back to see him standing, a little dazed, near the cubbies, allowing myself to feel some of the anxiety I’d been feeling all morning slip away. In the car I wiped away the tears I’d been holding back for hours, then set off gleefully for my first morning of freedom in a very long time, blasting NPR as I ran errands. At pick-up he was upbeat and I checked “First Day of Preschool” off my mental list of things to obsessively worry over. But on day two, everything changed.
The next morning, my sweet little guy came into bed to cuddle and after a few minutes asked, “Do I have school today?” I replied, “Yes, you do,” and a major meltdown immediately followed. It lasted through breakfast and getting dressed, died down as we dropped off a big brother then promptly started again as we headed off to school, reaching fever pitch about halfway there. I used everything in my bag of tricks to calm him down to no avail. We walked through the door, me carrying him as he cried hysterically, desperately trying to wiggle out of my arms and run back to the car. His teacher quietly observed as I tried to wrestle him into his slippers, singing to him softly all the while. I offered to stay for a few minutes, hoping to calm him down but it didn’t work and I ended up leaving 15 minutes later when I handed my screaming baby over to the teacher. I left quickly, his cries following me down the gravel drive. That morning I cried, too, as I drove home, any sense of victory I’d had the previous day vanished.
This became our routine for two weeks. I felt awful that I’d been so wrong about his readiness to start school. I felt guilty that I’d committed to work responsibilities that now required me to send him, whether he liked it or not. I began to dread our morning cuddle sessions on school days, knowing the question he would inevitably ask and the answer I would be forced to give. We all tried every diversion tactic we could think of to make going to school the positive experience it had started out as, not the exercise in torture it had become. Every morning my son’s teacher reminded me that he was fine as soon as I left and would quickly jump into his day, but it still felt wrong to force this on him.
Finally, one day when I picked him up I asked his teacher if there was anything else I could do to turn this around. I expressed my guilt, my exasperation and my resignation as I explained how it would start, early in the morning and build steam from there, feeling the low burn of shame that we as parents feel whenever we realize that our child has a problem that we can’t seem to resolve. She reminded me that we adults talk way too much, the sheer volume of the words we speak instantly diluting the power of the messages and lessons we desperately want our children to absorb. Her suggestion was to simply avoid the question, not by lying or ignoring, but to instead open the door to something else, a world of possibility and excitement rather than fear and dread. She recommended responding instead with something like, “I don’t know! We’ll have to see where the wind takes us!” In this moment something clicked and I suddenly realized that my son was a child much like I had been; his imagination vivid, his ability to immerse himself in a world of his own making so strong. I immediately started thinking of ways to gently walk my son around this mountain, rather than forcing him up it, me poking him with a stick to keep him moving.
That night I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time, thinking of the possibilities for the next morning and excited for our new start in Operation Drop Off. When the question came over breakfast, my response was, “I’m not sure! We’re dropping Baba at school then we’re off to see the world!” He wasn’t sure what to make of this. He asked again, tearfully, while dressing and this time I avoided the question altogether, instead saying, “Did you know that every day, after the children have left your school and the floor is swept and the napkins are folded your teacher goes for a walk? And do you know what the slippers do when she leaves?” It worked. He took the bait. He sniveled and said, “No. What do they do?” “Well!” I said, “As soon as Mrs. Hartman leaves, the slippers all head out for an adventure. As long as a child has worn them they can go anywhere they want.” He thought this over as I kept going, “If we stop by your school and check, I bet we’ll find some sand in your slippers today from the Sahara Desert. Did you know they were going there yesterday?” He shook his head.
And so we set out for the day, me returning to the adventures of the slippers whenever he declared that he did not want to go to school as we drove. By the time we arrived, he still clung to my leg but willingly walked into school. He watched me curiously as I slowly pulled one of his Padraidge wool slippers from the shelf and placed my hand inside. I jumped back, acting surprised, and exclaimed, “Jonah! There’s sand in your slipper!” This is the moment where I was sure the curtain would be pulled back, that he would call me out for this lie and we’d be right back to tears and screaming. But that’s the difference between adults and children, isn’t it? He quickly shoved his little hand into the slipper, feeling around and announced, “Mrs. Hartman! There’s sand! In my slipper!” We all laughed, the anxiety we’d felt for the last two weeks deflating like a balloon, the tension leaving the sunlit entryway of the school.
There were a few extra hugs and a few pleas of “Stay, Mama!” as I left but no tears and no prying him off my leg as my son walked to the window on his own to wave goodbye for the first time. I stood in the driveway, blowing him kisses, jumping through the air like a lunatic to catch the kisses he blew back through the pane of glass as he giggled wildly and my heart swelled. Success!
As the seasons changed, thinking of where Jonah’s slippers would have gone while he was away became a family activity. We found ice from Mt. Kilimanjaro, a banana peel left by a rainforest monkey, moon dust, a cactus needle that needed to be carefully extracted, kernels of dried corn from a farm, and a few peanuts left by Squirrel Nutkin, who was getting ready for Winter. We stuck with it, creating an adventure for the slippers every time he protested school and by the time we brought the well-traveled slippers home for Christmas break he had embraced school fully and the travel-weary slippers were ready for a much-needed rest.
This experience with my son instantly shifted the way I parented; I’d always considered myself willing to break out the magic as a last resort, but in doing so I’d been missing out on the opportunity to give my sons a childhood full of wonder and possibility on a daily basis. By using my imagination I could plant the seed and they would quickly take over. I’d wrongly assumed that because my oldest son was a very linear, rational child that he didn’t need this escape as much but I quickly realized he needed it even more than his younger brother.
We began playing, “Follow the Duck” (our take on follow the leader) when our legs were too tired to continue on our walks, waddling down the sidewalk, quacking and flapping our arms. Were we going grocery shopping? Absolutely not! We were warriors and a dragon had been spotted at Whole Foods. We had to start on the right side of the store, working left, gathering necessary supplies to battle the dragon that would ultimately await us at the checkout line where we would fight him off with zucchinis, toothpaste and eggs. And the time that our house was invaded with microscopic bits of Skunk Moss growing on every flat surface, threatening to fill our home with the stench of skunk? Well, we immediately gathered our feather dusters and furiously wiped it away, just in the knick of time. There are also the rare occasions when an emergency arises; something so important that we have no choice but to transform from our normal selves to our alter-egos and become…”Team Bun-Raf-Ion,” an unstoppable trio with the speed of a bunny, the grace of a giraffe and the strength of a lion. Team Bun-Raf-Ion is truly a last resort, only used for occasions such as stopping to buy a water bottle for a field trip mere minutes before school starts. Yes, children might beg and plead to wander through the toy-lined shelves at Target but not Team Bun-Raf-Ion with their laser focus and lightning speed. Of course, Team Bun-Raf-Ion has become expert at finding emergency bathrooms in public places, thanks to years of diligent training.
There are days when I feel overwhelmed by my adult responsibilities, days when I would love nothing more than to just go about my day with minimal extra effort, lost in my adult concerns and thoughts with my willing children following obediently behind, and much of the time they comply. But sometimes they don’t and as I feel frustration rise inside I remind myself that negotiating and cajoling requires far more effort than distracting and immersing. Imagination and creativity are not means of avoidance, they are some of the most powerful tools children (and willing adults) possess. When we force our adult worries and priorities onto children we only draw them farther away from the place they should rightly be; in a world of their own making. It is in this world that children feel most comfortable and most at peace and if we allow them to exercise those muscles by actively joining in and encouraging it in our daily routines we give them a chance to experience something beautiful and magical while slowly working their way into our adult world in their own time. It is easy to feel caught up in the holiday spirit this time of year, when lights seem brighter, the air seems crisper, and our days quickly fill with excitement and tradition, but I’ve learned that the real magic lies in the shoes that need tying, the spill that needs wiping and the teeth that need brushing all year round.
Jenny Halsor is currently sipping a decaf, coconut milk latte in Golden, CO while deciding what to eat, play, read, knit and cook next. Read more at Scully Crossbones.