Three Things I Learned When I Took My Daughter Out Of School

Even if you’re as macho as The Rock, the first day of a new school is stressful for everyone. Having gone through two previous rounds of new school enrollment, I thought I knew how to make the transition easier for the girls this time. (In case you missed the post about our move, catch up here.) We had little chats and stuff just like how Google told me to. We also visited the school and the girls spent time getting to know the teachers, other students and the grounds. The teachers were very taken by Tresa’s sociable nature but I knew she would be the one to cry when I left, not shy but self-sufficient Anne. And that is exactly what happened on their first official day at school by themselves but I was confident they’d be fine.

On the second day of school, I was a little confused when Anne began to wail at drop off, not Tresa. But I brushed aside my concerns. Every armchair psychologist will tell you that separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up, right? It happened again on the third day and this time all the alarm bells in my head were blaring. Even then, I sent her off to school with lots of reassurances but my heart was in a turmoil. I’d believed Anne when she said school was “Okay” when I’d asked but this kind of crying wasn’t normal for her. Something was wrong but what?

After I picked them up from school that day, I secured some one-on-one time with Anne by giving Tresa the iPad. I needed to get to the bottom of this. I did… and learned a few things in the process:

1. If you’re not getting the answers you need, change the question.

How was school today?

Okay.

What did you do?

Nothing.

Sound familiar? Don’t fret. I was stuck in the same rut until I recently discovered better ways to ask ‘how was your day?’. But even using the techniques that worked before, I was getting nowhere with Anne. Me: Why did you cry? Anne: <shrugs>. Me: Is anyone hurting you at school? Anne: No. It was like trying to pull weeds from hard ground – the answers were only from the surface without getting to the root problem.

Not knowing what else to do, I finally said, “Let’s play a game.”

Immediately her whole demeanor changed – a smile appeared and her eyes brightened. “What game?”

“Uhm,” I stalled, thinking fast on my feet. I asked her to pick a body part and I’d ask it a question.

I don’t know how or why, but it worked! Her eyes “told” me why they cried, her toes “explained” about her teachers and so we progressed, bit by bit until I got a clear picture of what was happening: her teachers were constantly telling her to be like her sister. I can’t even begin to tell you how upset the Mr and me were about it. It’s completely against everything we stand for in our family. I suspect it was difficult for her to express herself because being compared like that for the first time, she couldn’t process all the new feelings warring with love for her sister – shame, inadequacy, dislike, anger, etc. Talk about fueling sibling rivalry! Not to mention degrading and humiliating. No one likes to be compared to anyone. Period. Stupidly, too many people think it’s a form of motivation.

On a side note, I couldn’t help thinking – if I have to work this hard to get the story out of her when she’s 5, I can’t imagine what I’ll have to do when she’s 15!

2. Listen. Really, really listen

  • To your instincts
  • To what your child is saying and not saying
  • To what their caregivers are saying and not saying

My instincts gave me a little unpleasant nudge when on our first visit to the school, the teacher told Anne “Why are you so shy? Look at your sister, already playing with the toys.” But, of course, I ignored it.

When Anne, who never cried going to school in Japan (not even the first day) and for some classes during our last 6 months in KL, started bawling at this school – I tried to convince myself that it’s just a kid thing.

But I couldn’t understand how a child often described as “wanting to be involved in everything” by her previous teachers suddenly “doesn’t want to participate in anything” as complained by the new teachers. It was so out of character that I didn’t have any choice but to pay attention. If I had brushed it off with it’s okay lah, after a while will be okay-wan, Anne would have eventually stopped crying and started coping with her quiet strength. But I shudder to imagine the psychological damage inflicted on her.

3. Don’t be so hard on myself

I felt terrible about the whole thing. My mind kept going around in circles – how could I have prevented it, has her self-worth been damaged irreparably, was she going to despise her sister? But as usual, the Mr brought me to my senses. No one expected anything like this to happen – especially since Anne attended the school before without any issues!

And thank God for loving friends. One of them shared this incredibly powerful video with me and I think every parent should watch it. Never underestimate the power of the tongue.

Despite a child’s innate fragility, they have a kernel of toughness. Once Anne trusted that we were on her side, she bounced back from her dark place, validating that I didn’t screw up too badly after all.

 

As of today, Anne is settling wonderfully at her new school. She comes home each day with lots of little stories about her day and so far we haven’t had any tears. This whole experience has taught me that if a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower ¬ Alexander den Heijer.  

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