Q)Our 6-year-old son has just entered first grade in a small, private school with a family-like atmosphere. And he's miserable.
He had gone to kindergarten at a public school, but we left it because we felt its policy and staff were more important to the principal than the welfare of the children.
He was thrilled with this new school but complained constantly after a few weeks. His teachers were mean; nobody liked him; he was bored, etc. I spoke with his teachers and learned that most of his complaints were unfounded.
He was extremely upset about going back to the school this year, even though his best buddies were going to be there, but he was excited when I picked him up the first afternoon.
Between that afternoon and the next morning, he had changed his mind. Now he puts up a fight every morning, complains bitterly each afternoon and evening, says he doesn't like anything about the private school and wants to return to public school. Our son learned to read last year, loves math and does well. The teacher said he has no problem in the classroom.
We think he enjoys school, but for some reason he wants us to believe he's miserable. We have tried reasoning, to no avail.
We had let him stay up later than his little sister and have special time with us, and he was so proud. He became so cranky, however, we began putting them to bed at the same time again, thinking he needed more sleep. But he's still cranky.
We've listened to his gripes without responding, hoping he'd get bored with himself. Now we're at a loss. He says nothing will make him happy except staying home with me and his little sister all day.
A)When a child says he is unhappy in school, check it out in person. Problems show up pretty quickly if you know what to look for and can observe for a full or even a half-day.
A good school has an air of harmony and most of the children look happy to be there. The first-grade room is cheery, with plants and maybe a live animal; a place for arts and crafts and one for science; a corner for reading and one for talking.
A good teacher puts the children first. She not only encourages them to take center stage, rather than herself, but lets them learn at their own pace, since children grow at different rates and have different strengths and learning styles.
Your child may be embarrassed to ask permission to go to the bathroom because the teacher doesn't have a simple check-out system or he may be too young for his classmates. Many 6-year-olds, especially boys, aren't ready for first grade.
In all probability, however, your son wants to go to school, but hates to leave home, because he doesn't want his little sister to get all your attention.
Sibling rivalry has many faces. One child may be open about it, saying or doing awful things to the other; another may tattle constantly; a third may be very good or very bad, clingy or wildly independent -- any behavior that gets him the notice he craves.
As much as your son loves his sister, he doesn't want to share you. That's understandable. Being 6, and thinking in concrete, measurable terms, he's sure you and his dad have only so much love to give.
It's far better to talk with your son about the jealousy he must feel and to tell him that it's all right to be mad at his sister and even hate her sometimes, as long as he doesn't hurt her.
He needs encouragement. This is more than hanging his art on the refrigerator. He needs to overhear you telling friends how you miss him when he's at school, how much he means to you.
And he needs extra attention from you and your husband, going with one of you to the hardware store or the ice cream parlor, for example, while his sister stays home with the other -- or with a sitter. And cranky or not, he needs to stay up 20 minutes later than she does (even if she's put to bed 20 minutes sooner than usual). A talk with him after he's in bed is also great, because the dark makes it easier to say what's in your hearts.
As your children grow up, you can guide them through their rivalry if you let them negotiate -- and argue -- to find their own solutions, but don't let them call each other bad names or fight, even if you have to send them to different rooms. This is the way families get strong and civilizations more civil.
You'll also have to listen to each child's litany of complaints about the other with sympathy but without taking sides. Once a child has talked out his anger, he can see the other's point of view.
Sibling Rivalry, by Seymour V. Reit (Ballantine; $5.95) explains the problem well and Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (Norton; $14.95), gives fine step-by-step instructions to solve it.
Even without the rivalry, separation is hard for many children. Learning to Say Goodbye, by Nancy Balaban, Ed.D (Plume; $7.95) will help you walk your son through goodbyes at every age, by giving your support.
Basically, children want to hear what seems so obvious to their parents: that they are loved and accepted, completely and forever. This gives them the courage to try anything -- including school. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.