Day 1…of 3,000

By Bennett Nemser

Lunch made, backpack packed, adorable outfit on, and we’re out the door for my daughter’s first day of 1st grade. She has about 2,999 more days to go (give or take) before she reaches college, but this first day seems monumental. And it’s not just any first day—it’s the first day in a new school in a new town. We just moved to the area, so she doesn’t really know anyone. Her kindergarten class was a half-day Montessori with about 20 kids in the whole school. So, now finding her way in a 650-kid public school seems daunting.

Or is it just me? Am I more nervous than she is? Will she make new friends? Will she get bullied? Will she get lost? Will she breakdown and cry? Will she eat her lunch…or trade away all the healthy stuff I packed? I remember the first day of kindergarten last year.  Parents were allowed to stay for the first 60 minutes of school to ease the first-day transition. During that time, the teacher told the students, “Grab a book and sit over on the rug.” My daughter looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “But, I don’t know how to read,” she said, assuming all the other kids already could. She felt behind the curve in less than an hour of school.

As a parent you want to protect your kids, so you can’t help but think back to your own upbringing for clues. I remember liking school. (I think.) It seemed straight forward: reading, writing, math and recess. But, do I really remember the details of first grade? Did I feel confused, anxious, or frustrated? Am I blocking out the painful memories? Would my 1st grade teacher agree with my rosy assessment?

As kids reach this age, they need less physical support, but more emotional and psychological help. They are more physically independent; they can get themselves water, brush their own teeth, dress themselves (and re-dress themselves over and over again if you’re my daughter). But, does she know how to make a new friend, ask for help from a teacher, protect herself if someone is angry (or even violent), mingle in large crowds, or comfort someone if they are crying or hurt? How and when will she learn all these lessons? Should I be predicting these problems and trying to impart skills in preparation for them?

Obviously, I have A LOT of questions. Either I’m a uniquely ignorant parent (which seems highly likely) or every parent starts out equally unskilled and learns on the job. I’m hoping it’s the latter and my daughter will just have to manage the ebbs and flows of my naivety. She’s an only-child, so the pool of parental wisdom is remarkably shallow…it’s more of a seasonal puddle of wisdom.

During the first week of school, each day we waited for that after-school conversation. How did it go? What did you do? Did you play with anyone on the playground? “No, I just played by myself.” Then, it turned into “I don’t like school. It’s more fun to stay home with you and mommy.” Yeah, no kidding, kid. Life is full of weekly obligations. Then you get the weekend off (if you’re lucky). Welcome to “the system.”

When she’s home, my daughter loves nature shows. We watched one about Himalayan monkeys over and over. It follows two young half-brothers: one with a loving, comforting mother and one with an incompetent, absent mother. The comforted monkey is safe and secure but is totally dependent and has few life skills. The abandoned brother goes through the toughest tests on his own but becomes strong. The show’s narrator calls this “stress inoculated resilience,” where exposure to moderate stress enables an animal to successfully handle future stressors with ease. I keep this idea at the forefront of my mind, because even as an incompetent parent, my daughter has a chance to be better for it. Even smart scientists think my persistent parental ineptitude has benefits.

After a couple of days of playing alone at recess, I told my daughter, “Why don’t you ask one of the other kids if you can play with them? Ask to play one of their games.” I’m thinking she might be a little too shy to ask, so she needed a push. And then I thought to myself, is that good advice? Did I just set her up for failure? Will the kids say no and she’ll be heartbroken? She came back the next day and told me, “Daddy, I asked one of the other girls to play and she said ‘yes.’ We played the whole recess.” That’s right…Father of the Year right here! I think I’m gonna bask in this win until about…puberty (Day 1,379). My wife can handle the day-to-day until then.