“Look at the tiny armchair!” adults exclaim with a giggle when entering my office. In my practice I see adults and families, but very often children specifically. Some days the small chair goes unused. But on more playful days, children come running in, eager to sit in an armchair made just for them. A place in the circle to feel equal, to tell their story.
This fall the story for many of our children is complex. Coming off of virtual learning since last March, returning to classrooms armed with masks and hand sanitizer, lining up to have temperatures taken -- it’s a different world than we experienced growing up, or could ever have imagined for our own kids. Add onto that the usual start of school jitters, the friends and frenemies, the teachers, rules, school work, and all that goes into a brain that is absorbing new information at lightning speed, and “squeezy tummies” are inevitable.
I have been in education and counseling for over 20 years, and in that time the speed of childhood has ramped up exponentially. Adults often say that children have it much easier these days. With the pervasive video games, summer camps and play lands, the world has a lot more to offer them in terms of entertainment. Yet, we may fail to recognize that the expectations are increased as well; we sometimes forget that in the same way the day in the life of a child can have 100 joys, it can also have 100 little cuts. An adult’s glare in your direction, someone saying your lunch is weird or your shoes aren’t the right brand, being inexplicably deleted from a WhatsApp group, or just plain getting ignored. Maybe such a moment alone is not enough to cause significant trauma, but they are like small pebbles in a shoe. Enough of them and you can no longer comfortably walk with your head up.
For me, the hardest part of being a parent is knowing what to minimize and what merits giving oxygen to. Not invited to a friend’s birthday? Not a big deal. Maybe. But if that friend suddenly acts like you don’t exist and tells everyone to do the same, that becomes a legitimate worry. Not understanding math? Sure, math was hard for me too, and I survived. But if a child doesn’t know the basics of division, the years ahead in math class will be very hard.
This week my 9- and 10-year-old both started back to school. We received clear directions on materials to bring, and all the safety and health protocols. They were up early ready to go. Masks on, sanitizer in backpacks. Then, on the drive to school my daughter said she was nervous. Immediately I ran through possibilities in my mind … catching COVID-19, not remembering the new rules, a class bully? … so, I gently pressed about the reason for her nerves. She surprised me by announcing she was worried about German class because she hadn’t practiced enough over the summer. I was strangely delighted. A manageable, knowable, solvable kid worry!
At pickup time they emerged excited and full of stories of new friends, fun games, teacher jokes, and also the same first-day exhaustion as every other year. In the car they talked over each other with all of their news, masks dangling from little ears. A kind librarian who recommended an exciting new book, a favorite teacher who changed her hair color and looks like a movie star, a new classmate from America!
Their positive energy reminded me that kids are resilient. They deserve room to tell their typical stories in an atypical time. And thankfully these stories won’t always be about a pandemic. I am a concerned parent and counselor, but I vow to not let the coronavirus take center stage over the essential, profound, formative moments of childhood. This virus has already stolen so much from my little expat family. No Kool-Aid with Grandpa after walking the dog, no hugs and cookies from Grandma. It has taken the chance to hold their newborn cousin, robbed them of the annual Varney Games at the family reunion. I won’t give it the joy and anticipation of their start to school. That belongs to them. And to me and my husband. I will ask every day about the new students, about the silly moments, about their challenges and successes. The magical. The tough. Those experiences need to be honored.
We don’t know what the future will bring. Whether your family’s school experience is virtual, in person or blended, school is school and kids are kids. And it’s all a part of the human experience of this moment. It’s not perfect, but it is what we have. New friends, old friends, loving teachers, and the start of something exciting. That’s reason enough for us all to celebrate.
Talley Sjoberg-Varney is the founder of Clearly Sage Advice & Organics in Europe. She has been an American expat for 13 years. She is a social worker, educator and certified aromatherapist. She can be reached at http://clearlysage.com and firstname.lastname@example.org