Put Your Hands Up and Step Away From the 5-Year-Old

painpalmSo it’s almost two weeks into Kindergarten and I was getting kind of frustrated.

Every day I meet her at the doors where the teachers release them, expectant smile on my face as she rushes into my arms. She pops her thumb into her mouth and as we walk home, I start in with the questions. “How was your day? What did you do? Who did you play with? How was lunch? Did you write/do math/go to the library? Who did you talk to? Do you like it?”

Looking at it like that, all written out, I realize I might seem a bit pushy. Fine … desperate. But she tells me nothing. Well, hardly anything. The first day I heard that she made a friend, Arianna, which she was really excited about. I heard about Arianna’s hamster. The second day, Friend Count was up to 2 — she added Savannah and was proud of making the first move. Third day, Friend Count hit 3 — Calla. Great! I enthused. And then, she clammed up. Every afternoon, I ask about her day, and all I get is the vigorous suction sound of her little lips becoming re-acquainted with their long-lost partner, her thumb. I plead for info (“Just tell me if you’re comfortable yet,” I caught myself saying today) and all she gives me is a little cock of the head, a thumb slurp, and turns up her nose.

The thing is, I need to know. What was it like in the Kindergarten bathroom — can she reach the sink by herself? Did she play ball at gym? How are her new Mary Janes performing on the playground? What were her thoughts on the Pledge of Allegiance? Did she liked her dried peas? What tone does the teacher use when they act up — serious but loving, or edgy and frantic? Because no one should get edgy and frantic when you’re talking about Kindergarten …

Then, tonight while I was searching for a book I misplaced, I came across some notes I took about a year ago at a parenting talk given by Dr. Wendy Mogel, who wrote “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” a parenting guidebook. Basically Mogel argues that as our children have become more sophisticated and needy, we as parents have become overprotective and indulgent. Or vice-versa, chicken-or-egg thing, whatever. “Kids today = bubble-wrapped vs. wind-in-the-hair,” I wrote in my notebook.

As I skimmed through these notes, something jumped out at me, something I underlined and penned a thick star next to: “We are teaching our children that what we are most interested in is suffering,” Mogel said. “DON’T interview for pain.”

Oh my god! I’m interviewing for pain! Subconsciously I’m worried about her making friends and liking school and finding her place, so I’m trying to allay those fears by giving her the psycho-mom shake-down every afternoon. If this were a bad cartoon strip, now is when I would hit myself on the forehead with a frying pan.

Thankfully, according to Mogel, there’s an easy answer to this helicopterish behavior. Instead of “interviewing your children for pain” at the end of their day, she says, tell them about an interesting part of your day. Tell them what you saw, what you did, what you heard, she says, and hopefully, your kids will do the same.

I love getting a parenting tip I can actually use, one that isn’t hypothetically or ideologically good but actually, truly, doable. I can do this. I can swallow my panicky curiosity about the details of her mysterious day and instead recount the highlights, and lowlights, of my own. While she sucks her thumb and studiously jumps over the sidewalk cracks, I will talk to her about my trip to the grocery store, my especially foamy latte, the plans for our Thanksgiving trip to San Francisco, my productive writing time, my sore knee, the nice note her dad sent me.

I’ll just make sure not to mention the many times each day I wondered about how her neoprene lunchbox is holding up, whether her classroom water bottle needs a cleaning, if she got knocked off the monkey bars at recess or got lost on her way to the school assembly, whether she’s wearing her sweater so as not to get chilled, if we should go ahead and register for extracurricular Spanish, if the boys teased her about that little wart on her knee …

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