Dear Dr. Comer:
I am the mother of a 5-year-old who will be attending school for the first time this year. I know that entering school should be a happy landmark in the life of my child and our family.
I am concerned because I feel sadness and fear as much, maybe more, than I feel joy. We are black and the neighborhood and school are mostly white, but we have had no serious racial problems.
I don't think race is the problem. But if it isn't, then why am I so scared? What can I do? I know that my feelings can affect my child's adjustment to school. Worried Mother Dear Worried Mother:
Your feelings are not unusual. Most students of child development and family life agree that starting school, particularly for the first child in a family, is one of the most important yet potentially troublesome events in the life of a child and family. The way parents handle the situation can affect a child's school adjustment. Successful school adjustment increases the chances of successful life adjustment. Parents who want to do a good job raising their children are most likely to have the kind of feelings you have.
Many parents often feel, usually without being aware of it, that school exposes their childrearing work to the scrutiny of the outside world. Up until school, only kin, neighbors and other close social contacts have had intimate association with your child. You knew and trusted most of them, and they were not evaluating your child's ability or thinking about his or her potential. Their only expectation was that he or she be reasonably easy to get along with.
In her excellent book, "Worlds Apart: Relationship Between Families and Schools," Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, a Harvard sociologist, points out that parents often fear that the teacher will do a better job childrearing than they have. They sometimes feel that they are losing the child to the teacher, and worry about losing their influence in the life of their child. Perhaps the greatest concern is expressed in the question "Will my child be understood, fully appreciated, judged and treated fairly?" All of these concerns can cause the kind of feelings you describe.
The problem can be more intense where there is family stress of one kind or another. A poor relationship with a husband or wife can cause a parent to cling to the relationship with a child beyond what is good for both. Too little money, too few supportive friends, outright rejection in the neighborhood and other problems can create stress in a family and cause the kind of concerns you have. I suspect, as you indicated, that race is not the cause of your anxiety.
I would examine all of the other possible problem areas and do what you can about them. But the best way to deal with the kind of problem you describe is to go to the school, meet the teacher, the principal, other staff and parents. The reality -- in an average community -- is never as dangerous and difficult as we can imagine it to be beforehand from a distance. It helps to get involved in school activities. By doing so, you have a chance to get to know and trust the school people as you do your friends and neighbors.
By the time you read this column, school probably will have started. But if not, it sometimes helps just to take your child by the hand and walk through the building, look at his or her future classroom and meet the staff a day or so before school starts. You can still take a tour around the school, even if school has started. Too often parents wait until open house or parents' day. By that time, the worries they have could have already created adjustment problems for the child.
If you are still not relieved after such efforts, why not tell the teacher about your concern? You will find that most teachers are as uncertain about you as you are about them. Your frank acknowledgement of your concern can lead to an open and honest relationship between you, the teacher and the child. That will benefit all of you.