I thought I’d share my experience with our new 18 month old boy L at Tumbleweed. He was kind of in a unique situation—because of the timing of when he started with Tumbleweed, for several days all of the other kids in his group were older than him by at least a few months. So he would be surrounded by the “big” kids for a while! My mission was to make sure his whole new life experience with school—with pretty loud, fast-moving, and super excited kids—wouldn’t be too overwhelming for him.
His first day (he started with once a week) seemed great…at the beginning. His dad hung out with us for a while to make sure L was comfortable enough to be there. We all could tell nobody would leave him alone all day. Our preschoolers were already showing L around the house, bathrooms, and toys, holding his small hands. It was a truly sweet thing to see.
And it was time for his dad to leave. He gave L an “official” good-bye hug and kiss and L seemed a little sad. At the same time he got quickly “kidnapped” by others to play with. This was a big distraction from the sadness. Though it was not 100% clear for me if L understood his dad was leaving the school for the day, I decided to let go of my plan to wave with him by his dad at the window and let him play.
But I realized soon after that I should have done it differently. He came back to the front room and "asked" me to open the door, saying “Yaya!” (this is what he calls his dad). But it was too late. Dad had already left, and the chance to see him off has already gone. I explained his dad had left and he’d be coming back. But somehow, I didn’t feel so convincing. How could I? L didn’t see his dad leave for real.
No matter how sad it can be, we make sure a good-bye happens. Especially young ones take longer to process what good-bye means to them and what being in school means to them. To let them develop this understanding, they have to “experience” the pattern. Parents leave. And they come back! And there is an option to have fun at school while they’re gone. Pretty good deal, I hope. But it’s OK to be sad to say good-bye. It’s absolutely natural to miss your parents during the day. We don’t “trick” them as if their parents don’t exist until pick-up time. We don’t do a circus show to keep on distracting them so that they don’t have time to miss their parents. They know better anyway. We’d rather let them face the reality and talk about it.
But I failed on that first morning with L. After I felt a bit guilty about it for about a week, L came back with his dad. This time, I picked him up (because he’s too short to see) and waved at his dad through the window…with tears. It was hard….for L, for me, and for his dad, I’m sure. All day long, I could not help picturing in my head his dad pushing his bike off with tears (not that I saw tears or anything), wishing he could stay home with L all day, every day. Because that’s exactly how I would feel if I were him.
There is no question that he had another fun day with his older friends. But in between those happy moments of playing, different things reminded him of his parents. He’d say “Yaya….Mama…” So I simply acknowledged the feeling.
Me: “Are you thinking about your dad and mom?”
L: “Yeah” (with big nods).
Me: “You miss them very much.”
L: “Yeah” (with even bigger nods, with tears in the eyes).
Me: “Your dad is picking you up this afternoon.”
L: “Yeah” (still the same).
Me: “Do you think he is coming by car or by bike?”
Me: “Are you gonna go home in the trailer again?”
L: “Yeah” (with a slightly happier tone of voice).
Every time he was sad, we had this conversation. What I did was in fact very simple. Just repeat back what he said. Instead of trying to quickly redirect his attention to something else, talk about it. This process of acknowledging how he is feeling and reassuring we know he misses his parents helped us build a relationship with trust.
I was glad that L had a chance to see his dad actually take off even if it was sad for him. Because, by the end of day, he’d see his dad coming back, through the backyard gate. It’s not that dad magically appears from smoke, as if he was gone to use the bathroom or something, and this was somehow taking him 8 hours. He left the school, then he came back. It’s real. And it eventually becomes a familiar pattern for L, hopefully soon.
T: Are you missing your mom and dad?
L: Yeah (with tears).
S: Let me bring your family picture.
Then S sits down next to L, holding L’s framed family photo.
S & T: This is your Yaya. This is your mom.
L: Yeah. Yeah (with big nods and tears).
Even if L was sad at that moment, I could clearly see his heart getting warmed up by his friends acknowledging how he was feeling. And I gave them space, feeling so proud for them.
Welcome to our community, L!