that kids dread it and mothers welcome it with open arms. Our experience is the exact opposite: Kids we know, while grumbling audibly, welcome the structure, while parents feel eerie in the stillness their children leave behind.

There probably isn't any way to guarantee a qualm-free first day of school, but there are a number of things parents can do to ease their children into that imposing brick structure. The first is to give them realistic expectations.

Says Sara Stein, author of A Child Goes to School (Doubleday), a book designed for first-time schoolers and their parents to read together: "Perhaps the best you can do is admit there may be good things, there may be bad ones, but he will go to school and that's that. And of course he can take his teddy bear along if he wants.

"Your firmness," says Stein, "tells your child that you yourself believe school to be the best place for him."

The night before, you can set a pattern to get you through the rest of the school year smoothly. Alice Shepard of Creative Organizing, Alexandria, suggests setting out a large container (laundry baskets work well) or assigning a spot near the door for each child to stash books, pencils, lunch money, coat, mittens, hat, cupcakes for the class or whatever else may be needed for the next day. Make up lunches--with the help of children--and store them in the fridge. Leave a bowl of cut-up vegetables in the refrigerator, and train children to take vegetables and fruit along with their sandwiches and drinks. Then talk about what they expect to wear the next day, and make sure you have enough clean socks, etc., to meet that expectation.

Advance preparation can make the morning virtually fuss-free. "Many people think that the day starts in the morning," says Shepard. "Actually, the day starts the night before."

If at all possible, try to take your child to school that first day. Even though today's day-care veterans may seem beyond needing their mommies at moments like this, everyone needs assurance, claims Stein, whether they show it or not.

You might tuck some sort of message into children's lunch boxes or notebooks, so they know you're thinking of them during the day. Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" suggests that parents of pre-readers put a photo of the family in the lunch box. Or you could write a little note on the napkin--something simple like "I love you" or, for older kids, "Hope your best friend is in at least one of your classes."

If children are coming home alone, suggests Tom Long, co-author of The Handbook for Latchkey Children and Their Parents (Arbor House), tape an emergency kit inside the lunch box, such as phone numbers and change for a phone call.

"Whether you're there or not when the kids get home, make sure you have the ground rules set up on homework done before they're allowed to play," says Larry Grove, principal of Walter Reed Elementary in Arlington and father of two teens. "But I think the kids need a break when they get home from school. In our house, they have to hit the books as soon as dinner's done, and if they finish before bed, they can watch a little TV."

Grove considers it important that children have a spot conducive to study set aside for them. "A desk, or the kitchen table is fine, as long as it has a good light and is away from the TV and radio." A good dictionary and thesaurus on hand also help.

Finally, here are some ideas for questions parents can ask besides that conversation stopper, "How's school?":

How long was recess? What did the kids play? Does your teacher smile? Is she strict? Is he silly? What were the other girls wearing? Who sits beside you (in front of you, behind you)? Do you know him (her)? Did you trade anything in your lunch box? What kinds of things can you trade the easiest? (The barter system, alive and well in the lunchroom, is a great socializer.)

Which activity did you like the best today? Which did you like the least? Which would you like to do again? Did you see anyone you'd like to invite over?