Riding the Wave of Our Children’s Transitions
You would think it gets easier each year—sending off children to summer camp and the new school year, especially when they are returning to familiar settings. I am struck by how hard transitions are for all of us and yet how often we ask children to make them in the course of a day, a week, a year. And, particularly with boys, I sometimes think that we forget how vulnerable they can be as they jump into new situations and how often they hold themselves up to standards of toughness that deep in our hearts we know are quite difficult for them to uphold as they take on new challenges. It’s hard not to want our sons to be the guy who jumps out of the car curbside ready to leave us behind on the first day of camp or school, trotting jauntily to join the other boys with a smile and confidence, engaging in boy banter, moving along easily in a group as they start a pick-up game or walk along rough-housing or teasing each other with familiar and funny antics and talk. So few boys are readily confident when trying new things, no matter what public face they put on. And then there are the boys who by nature are introverted or who enjoy spending hours on end by themselves, perhaps building with Legos, inventing something, or reading. What must it feel like for them to move back into the crowd at school or camp, even when their preference would be mostly to learn on their own? And even when a boy appears to be easing nicely into school or camp in public, we might know that behind the scenes at home there were tears that morning over the shorts they had to wear, a bathing suit they hated, shoes that were “stupid-looking,” a lost back pack, some wrongly perceived idea that a camp counselor or teacher would get upset if you, Mom or Dad, ask a question he is convinced sets you apart from other parents.
We’ve all been there, and I’d like to think that raising three sons and being an educator of almost forty-five years, I pretty much “know the ropes of transitions with children” and could anticipate and handle patiently any transition of any child or teenager in most circumstances. Not so. This summer, my grandson James (almost eight) tested my sense of adequacy as a grandmother as he adjusted to various camps here in Concord. His parents and I deliberately chose familiar camp experiences and routines for him, so I was surprised by the level of his nervousness, his fears about not knowing anyone, his anxiety that other kids would be older and better athletes than he, by the idea that I might forget to pick him up at the end of a camp day. This is a kid who loves school and sports and swimming, rule-bound, eager to please, a good friend, an easy conversationalist with adults and kids. Yet, it often felt like the smallest change in his schedule set him off in a spiral of anxious, unresolvable worry.
Each start of a new camp week, he’d ask (sometimes in tears) why he couldn’t just stay home with me all day, or he’d complain that his stomach hurt—that he thought he might be sick, that he was afraid that I might forget to pick him up, and if I did remember, would I get myself to the right place and the right time to get him. After exhausting all the rational explanations for why he had to go to camp—to meet new kids, to learn new skills, to learn to be independent, I’d find myself worn down by his raw emotion and find my raw emotion rising in response, until I’d say far too unsympathetically and impatiently, “You have to go because you have to go. That’s it! I don’t want to hear anything else.” Somewhere in my heart I have to admit I guiltily wished he could have had a 1950’s childhood like mine, where you opened the door on a summer’s morning to join your siblings, cousins, and neighborhood friends for hours of outdoor play, going back home only for lunch and dinner. (Most of the time your mother and aunts and grandmother had no idea where you were.) And, if you were tired of the crowd of kids who filled your day, you sneaked down to the basement to listen to music and read. As I drove home after dropping James off on those difficult mornings, I’d torture myself by asking, “Well, what’s wrong really with staying home and doing whatever you want with your free time?”
Of course, James would get to camp and bravely go off despite the upheaval at home, while I would ride home near tears chiding myself for not being a better and more patient grandmother—to this child I love beyond all measure—recognizing that the emotional scenes being played out before we reached camp were a response to feeling not in control of his life and an exact reenactment of scenes with his father 28 years before. “Have you learned nothing from all these years of parenting and teaching?” I’d ask myself? Well, of course I have, but when it’s your child or grandchild looking as if he’s the world’s worst adjuster to new experiences, all of your anxieties about your parenting and grand-parenting burst to consciousness. Not to mention your memories of your own rough adjustments and transitions as a child. Even after thirty-five years of parenting, those feelings don’t go away.
Starting anew at anything is bound to cause anxiety and fear, even for the most social, extroverted boy. Who wants to spend whole days with strangers in a strange place trying to listen and learn new things while navigating new spaces ? Few of us. Boys are no exception, despite their sometimes outward bravado.
So here’s what I relearned from this summer. Those of us who parent, teach, and mentor boys need to remind ourselves that even for the most robust boy it is hard work to get adjusted to a new schedule, a new experience, a new camp counselor, a new teacher, a new set of classmates. We need to remind ourselves that we’re not always good at being kind when we are being worn down by our children’s anxieties and by our own resultant fears and anxieties. We need to encourage daily interactions with new teachers and classmates and remind them reassuringly that friendships take a while to build and that it will all end up okay. We need to ask what went well and what could be better without mining for the negative every day. We need to remind ourselves and them that new experiences are not easy but mostly get better and that often the routines of family life are what gird boys to face new challenges. Home is the place where all the acting out of insecurities and fears take place and Mom is usually the one who gets hit full throttle in that acting out. And whenever possible we need to make sure old friends stay in the picture even as they make new ones.
A case in point from the summer: James spent his final camp week at Summer Fenn (which he has attended now for three years) with his friend Timmy, whom he has known since preschool in Concord. They are two guys who can spend hours together without a single disagreement as they shift from Legos to books to sports to running around in costumes. Cerebral, kind, funny, loving, adaptable, Tim is James’s dream of a friend. For the first time all summer, James did not anticipate camp with anxiety. Timmy would be there.
Imagine my relief to walk James over to Summer Fenn the first day and not have him clinging to me at the house before we left, but, yes, asking several times whether Tim would be there when he arrived at camp. (I said I thought so and prayed he would be.) When we got to the Summer Fenn registration table, I looked over to the group that James would be in for the week to see if Tim had indeed arrived. Imagine my humbled reaction to see Tim standing quietly and somewhat apart from his group scanning the area around the registration table, clearly looking for James. The minute he saw James, the look of quiet alertness left his face and he smiled broadly—relief flooded his face. James caught a glimpse of Tim right then, and yelled out with delight, “Timmy!” He ran over to his friend and his group leaving me where I was.
What struck me in that moment is that, of course, no child is bereft of anxiety or worry when he is starting anew—whether it is a new grade, a new sport, a new carpool, a new week at camp. Every child wants to belong and to be known by someone from the start, even if that person is an older student or an adult. Most camp counselors and teachers know that. But let’s not forget as parents, grandparents, and teachers that even the boy who appears most confident needs a pat on the back, a reassuring word, a message that belonging will happen with time. I know we are not always our best selves when the children we love are tugging on our heart strings with their fears and insecurities. (I certainly am not.) But I take from the summer that James did survive and so did I, no worse for the wear and more resilient than he wanted me or himself to believe he could be.
Welcome to the new school year at Fenn!
Choose groups to clone to: