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Child Caring

Start of kindergarten is worrying this mom

Hi Barbara,
My first-born starts kindergarten soon. She seems to be fine -- no regressions, no signs of anything but positive feelings. Me? Not so much. I'm alternately sad and nervous. Someone told me my anxiety could rub off on her. Is that true? I don't want that to happen obviously but I'm not even sure what I might do that could make that happen. Any advice is greatly appreciated.

PS. What am I nervous about? Everything from a Newtown scenario to whether whether she'll make friends.

From: Pam, Hartford, CT

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Dear Pam,

It's true, all kids typically are far more tuned in to our emotional state than we realize and, yes, our anxieties can rub off on them. How depends on individual relationships and personalities but, in a general way, what happens is that kids notice a difference in a parent -- whether it's a change in behavior or patterns -- and, using their limited capabilities of reason, try to figure out the cause. They almost always blame themselves. It's called magical thinking because a typical kid is so ego-centric -- she thinks everything is about her -- the logic she comes up with isn't, well, logical. In Early Childhood Today, Eileen Booth Church writes that 5- and 6-year-olds may use magical thinking to blame themselves for things that happen in their family lives: "Mom got sick because I was bad."

When it comes to kindergarten, typical magical thoughts a child might develop could go something like this:

"Mom is sad I'm going to kindergarten. I won't go. I'll stay home with her so she won't be sad."

"Mom doesn't think I'm smart/big/tall/grown up enough to go to kindergarten. What if she's right? I better not go."

So what can you do? Obviously, be careful what you say in her earshot. It's one thing to talk about specific skills she has learned -- "Look at how good you are at x, y, z!" But avoid general talk about "what a big girl she is!" Not only does it tend to sound sad and wistful ("Mom doesn't want me to be a big girl,") but also scary ("What if I'm not a big girl"). It can backfire.

Your worry about safety is relatively easy to fix. I guarantee you will not be the first incoming kindergarten parent to call a principal for reassurance. Call today for an appointment. Yes, principals are there in the weeks before school starts and, honestly, they are happy to hear from parents. Many schools have put new procedures into place since Newtown and are happy to explain how they keep children safe.

If your worries are about routines -- will I get her to school on time? will the transportation to family day care work? -- do some practice runs. Find a morning when your partner can be responsible for her and get yourself up and run your morning routine of getting her to school on your own, and see what needs tweaking. If you want to take it to the next step, make a game of it, just before school starts, and do it with her: "Let's pretend today is the first day of school. Let's get dressed and eat breakfast and go to school and play in the playground."

Is your worry about her making friends solely your worry or it is based in reality? Examine her social history. If she's always been a slow-to-warm-up kid, then you have reason to be concerned. When you have that meeting with the principal, share this concern and see if you can set up a few playdates with another incoming k'ger. I remember doing that for my son and it really helped. If she's been Miss Social in the past, maybe you're rehashing some personal history. Find a way to let it go.

Perhaps what's most important is that you find someone to talk to about your concerns. A spouse is a starting point but dads may (wrongly) see this as no big deal. In fact, anecdotal reports over the years indicate that dads tend to be harder hit than moms by the start of kindergarten precisely because they don't prepare themselves emotionally for its significance.

So yes, your little girl is growing up. Yes, this is "real" school and it feels different than daycare or preschool. Talk to friends and neighbors who have older children and can lend a sympathetic ear. Talk to moms going through it now, as you are, so you can laugh at and with each other. Maybe cry, too. Most important of all is to not keep your feelings to yourself because it's exactly when you think you are doing a good job of that that those feelings inadvertently rub off on our kids.