Q. My first child starts first grade next week and I thought it would be a snap. He's been in play groups, nursery school, day care and kindergarten and loved it all.
This time he seems nervous about it, and now I am too.
Is this natural? Is there anything I can do?
A. There's bound to be a certain uneasiness at the start of every school year.
Imagine quitting work for the summer, then moving to a new office in the fall with some of your old colleagues and many new ones. Each of you would have new duties, which you wouldn't understand, and a new boss you might not like.
Wouldn't you worry?
Change is hard on anybody, but it can be especially tough on a child. His frame of reference is so much smaller than yours; his ideas are bound to be askew. The worries racket in his head before school starts -- and then continue once he's there:
* What will happen if he's late?
* What if he loses his milk money?
* Will he be able to go to the bathroom when he needs to? And what will happen if he can't?
* Why did Miss Smith get his name wrong again?
* Did anyone hear him call her "Mom"?
* What if he's called on and he doesn't know the answer?
* What if he has to recite aloud?
You think you've got worries.
It helps if a child, of any age, can look over his new school before he starts. He needs to meet people who go there already so he can ask them questions. And he needs to talk out his worries with you, which means that you listen thoughtfully to each problem before you answer.
Finally, he needs you to recognize that school is work: To do it well, your child must be well-fed, well-rested and well-prepared.
Most of the preparation is made the day before, both by what you encourage and what you deny.
Sacrilegious as it sounds, there should be no television after dinner on school nights, except perhaps to watch the news or a new program so he won't feel so different when it's discussed at school.
When you deny television, you're encouraging books and homework. It's easy for a child to forget how much he has to do. It helps if you ask him what it is, look it over when it's done and are thoughtful and complimentary about it.
You'll want to ask him about permission slips and cards and lunch money needed. There is always a dribble of papers to fill out and money needed for this and for that. Practiced parents keep a secret cache of change for these unexpected needs.
You should have your child assemble his homework, his permissions, his books and his money the night before, always in the same place and never in his room. This might tempt him to look at something after he has gone to bed and then it might not be found until the Fourth of July. Instead, assign a place near the front door and see that his boots are there the night before and perhaps even his shoes. Surely more tears have been shed over a missing shoe than any other school-morning calamity.
You also help your child get up in the morning on his own, by giving him his own alarm clock. A first grader is too young to have a wrist watch -- the concept of telling time is still too hard -- but he can set his own clock if you show him how. The more responsibility he assumes, the less he will be frightened by school; he'll know he's in control.
That's why he also should decide on his clothes and lay them out the night before. So long as they're clean, mended and reasonably appropriate, his choice should be accepted, although you may have him call the weather so he will agree to take a sweater.
A posted list of foods he likes for breakfast and lunch, agreed upon by both of you, will prevent other scenes in the morning, and if none of it is junk food, the whole day will go much better. It's important that these meals each last him about three hours so his mind will be clear enough to learn well. Ask any teacher or day-care worker: The child who is given a sugary, high-carbohydrate breakfast or lunch is the one who gets hungry, cranky and jumpy in an hour or so.
For some reason, a child under 8 may beg for a treat, but he almost never says he is hungry, cold or that his shoes pinch his feet. Instead, he accepts any of these chronic problems, and then is fussy on the playground or says he doesn't want to go to the dumb old supermarket when he could watch cartoons. That's why you still have to press the front of his shoes to make sure there's room for his toes and check his jacket to see if it's warm enough.
The fears of first grade fade within a month or two, only to surface again with each new grade, and especially each new school. Nothing, however, matches the cataclysmic effects of junior high.
This newcomer is barely able to hold it together -- a situation that may last the entire three years. For some baffling reason, educators have taken a child's three hardest, hormone-ridden years -- 13, 14 and 15 -- and lumped them together, almost daring them to make it without the example and guidance of older, more stable teen-agers.
For those of you with children going into junior high, be prepared to listen to their gripes more than you ever have before; to praise a great deal and to protect them from themselves. This is the hardest time for most children to say no -- to cigarettes, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex -- since this is the age when the good opinions of good friends matters almost more to them than anything else.
The kindest thing their parents can do is to let circumstances say no when their children cannot.
This is why their time needs to be well-structured, with jobs and chores and teams and classes after school and with meals prepared as they are meant to be eaten -- by parents and children together. The television is still off on school nights and there is no company, or visiting or hanging around malls on school nights, whether there is any homework or not. The child who has stiff rules to live by will have to find friends who have them, too.
Homework still must be monitored, particularly the long-term projects and book reports. In junior high a child finds it as hard to judge his time as his values. You monitor his homework better if you talk to him as you would to your other friends, showing an interest in his work and asking him how it's coming along, rather than giving him orders.
The switch to high school is much more orderly, but the change to college can be so overwhelming many young people postpone it, or quit shortly after. Others stagger through the year, living on letters and tears.
First grade, you'll find, is only the first of many leave-takings, and in many ways it's the easiest for both parents and child.