Each year the transition back to school ushers in a set of unique challenges. After a summer of less interrupted family time where we are on a slower schedule, the abruptness of the school bell hits us in often hard ways. Of course parenting three boys ages 2, 4 and 7 carries with it a dose of chaos no matter the circumstances. But add in getting dressed, brushing teeth, making and eating breakfast, packing lunches and finding shoes all before 7:55 and you have a recipe for mayhem unlike any other. The trouble is this sort of rushing and time crunching goes against every fiber of my being. It violates the principles upon which I want to orchestrate my family life. It decimates slowness and simplicity. It adds pressure and stress. Mix in the nerves of new classrooms and friends and the inevitable tears along the way and it can all seem impossible.
Each August I have to work with my own resistance to what feels like additional balls to juggle and responsibilities to manage. There are the hundreds of emails from teachers, administrators and the school district. There is the new online student registration system. There is back to school night to add to the calendar, the paperwork for each child, physical exams, the carpooling schedule, the need for transportable lunch foods, and the extra sets of clothes for preschoolers. To stay on top of the logistics is one realm worthy of an award in itself. To stay on top of the emotional realm is an entirely different story.
Each year I go towards the first day of school with a measured optimism. I’m sad to see the summer go. I love the additional family time, the time spent outdoors, the visits with family and friends and the adventures undertaken with sunflowers and crickets as the backdrop. The kids and I get into a flow and settle into our own simple routine. Days are long but slow. There is time to attend to whatever arises as it arises. There is time to toss rocks in water or catch bugs along a trail. But when school begins it is a different story. The structure of it all can feel oppressive. The tight schedule, the classroom door locked at 8:20am on the dot. Does a seven year old really need to learn the lesson this sharply about punctuality? All of the sudden my second grader is gone seven hours a day and finding time to connect is at a premium. My seasoned preschooler can struggle with separation anxiety and each goodbye is tender, even two years in.
I’ve been reading The Wonder of Boys, a book by Michael Gurian about what parents, mentors and educators can do to shape boys into exceptional men. One of the striking things I’ve digested is that boys need so much more than the nuclear family to thrive. Gurian suggests that boys need three ‘families’ – the birth or adoptive family (including grandparents or other relatives who help raise the kids), the extended ‘family’ – which includes relatives or friends, day care providers, teachers, peers, and mentors, and the ‘culture or community family’ – the broader community which includes other institutions and community figures as well as the government, media, etc. He quotes Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Until recent times human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to. So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he or she was feeling tender again. Or if the kids got so fed up with their parents that they couldn’t stand it, they could march over to their uncle’s for a while. Now this is rarely possible. Each family is locked into its little box…When we ponder what’s happening to America – ‘Where have all the values gone?’ – the answer is perfectly simple. We don’t have enough friends or relatives any more. And we would if we lived in real communities.”
While each year I revisit whether school away from home is ‘right’ for my children, I do feel committed to this notion that an extended community of peers, teachers and mentors is at its core healthy. Even with concerns about separating too early, peer pressure or not enough recess time, I’ve looked for schools and educators I can trust to add to many voices teaching my children – so that they hear what Gurian calls “echos of values, wisdom, self-worth.” And, I am lucky to live in a place where schools share my values and where I have choices about where to send my children. It has been gnawing at me that so many don’t – and that we live in a system where too many children are growing up without intact and healthy first, second and third families. How did we get to this place of imbalance? How can we all contribute to a greater sense of community for our children?
Even with my children being in schools that meet my vision of community-based wisdom sharing, there is still so much to tend to as we greet a new range of complex feelings and issues. What to do about all the emotions that surface during the transition into each school year? Why is my oldest so full of unbridled energy at the end of the day? Why does he seem unreachable? Why is he messing with his brothers in a way I didn’t see all summer long? The struggles encountered surface my own fears of “doing something wrong”– or “not doing enough.” My own stress gets in the way. I feel, as Vonnegut captured so astutley, like a family “locked into its little box.” I’m rushing more and the all too familiar feeling of drowning in over-responsibility begins to engulf me. Instead of sitting on the couch with the kids I’m tinkering with dishes in the kitchen and trying to clean the bathroom. My patience runs thinner and I find myself less available to see more deeply into what is going on.
So today when my oldest son was spinning around, bouncing off of things and tripping his brother, I found myself yelling. There was a spiraling out of control and I couldn’t find a point of connection. Nothing was working. Ultimately, he was asking for help but I couldn’t see it until I cracked. It was one of those moments when I could have remained self-justified that he was in the wrong. I could have walked upstairs and started cooking dinner. I could have stayed focused on the logistics of surviving the day. But I was called back to connect, even in my exasperation. What did he need? Did something happen at school? I circled back to ask. Did he want a blanket and to sit on the couch with me? Did he know I was so sorry that I yelled? Was there something he wanted to tell us? Indeed, there was.
The lesson of this time is to remember to attend to the deep trove of emotions that run often wild as we hand over our children to the ‘second family’ of our schools and communities. Broken or intact, for better or for worse, this is where we can learn resilience. In a culture that too often neglects simplicity and slowness in favor of over-structure, over-scheduling and over-stimulation, we can prioritize creating moments of quiet in the midst of chaos. It is in this open space that our children can come to know what is bothering them or causing them confusion or pain. It is here where we can return to our ground and reconnect. It is here where we can serve as mentors and guides, not only in the boxes of our nuclear families, but also reaching beyond in order to be more available in creating ‘real’ community where needs are tended to and we can thrive and grow.
In this quiet space we can, even if just for a moment, remember the deep lessons of summer: to take time to smell the flowers, to enjoy the simple things, to bask in the moments of less structure and to practice the fading art of quietly listening to ourselves and one another – while also hearing the soft hum of crickets just outside the window – a reminder of our larger web of community indeed…