If summer is drawing to a close (as it is in the Northern Hemisphere) you may be starting to think about the start of school. Or here in Australia, you might be preparing for your child to start school in the New Year. For some, it is a return to something known and understood. But for those of us beginning school for the first time, it’s a big deal. And I mean for the big people as well as the little ones.
Who’s Starting School?
Often, as we prepare our families for the start of school, our attention is on the children. Will they be upset when I have to leave? Will they make friends? Will they know what they need to know? Will they learn well?
However, I’d like to start with the focus on us parents. I have not met many parents whose children are starting school who feel entirely calm and relaxed about it. For many of us, school brings up a lot of feelings. After all, we spent a lot of years there. Some of it was good, but some of it was hard. Most of us have not had a chance to talk much about those experiences. And some of us would rather not.
It’s hard to predict when things will get hard.
You never can tell, as a parent, when you are going to bump into a hard bit: it could be very early parenting, or the “terrible twos”, or when their children are about 8-10 and things are changing, for you and for them, as they move out of early childhood.
The places where we struggle as parents have a lot to do with what happened to us at the same age as our children are now. If we had a hard birth and early life, these can be hard times for us in our parenting. If we had a hard time when our sibling was born, this might prove a more than usually difficult time in our parenting. Or if school was hard for us, this might be an area where we struggle to support our children well.
For me, it was hard when my daughter started school. I felt like I was the one doing the hard thing. When I got anywhere near the playground, I wanted to run away. The strength of these feelings seemed way out of proportion to what was actually going on. And I seemed to be much more worried about starting school than my daughter! Still, I did not think that I had had a hard time at school – I had been academically successful and had survived the experience quite well.
Before we become parents, there are some experiences we can just walk away from.
For myself, by the end of school, I could not get away quickly enough. I turned my back on those experiences as soon as I had the chance. As an adult, I had managed to avoid, without really being aware of it, going anywhere near a school.
As adults without children, we can make those choices. We can, in general, organise our lives so that we do not have to deal with the things which cause us difficulty. When we become parents, however, there are some things we have to do, no matter how we feel.
It’s what I love about parents – that we will look at the hard things, we will work hard to grow and change – because we love our kids so much. What a brave bunch we are.
What exactly am I remembering? – A story of high ceilings and off-pink walls
What I didn’t know when I first walked back into a school ground as an adult, looking for a school that would suit my daughter, was that there are ways of remembering the past that we do not experience as “remembering”. A feeling floods us and we can’t think, we start to feel uncomfortable, and maybe we don’t want to do something, but we don’t know why.
These are what scientists call “implicit memories”: memories which are encoded “in circuits of the brain which are responsible for generating emotions, behavioural responses, perceptions and probably encoding of bodily sensations” says child psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel, . He goes on to say that we are often unaware that the internal experience we are having is generated from something in the past.*1,2
Implicit memories cloud our judgement.
These memories, flooding our minds with feeling, can really impair our judgement. When we were looking for a school for our daughter, we found ourselves choosing between two . One school somehow felt “right” to me. The second did not. We went with the first school that felt “right” – which turned out to be a disaster. Within eight weeks we switched to the second. How did we get our initial decision so wrong?
As I talked through the experience in detail later, trying to understand why I had found it so stressful, I realised that one seemingly small factor had greatly influenced my decision making. The school we first chose did not look at all like the school I had started in, more than 40 years earlier (where, by the way, I had a hard time).
It had been built in the 1930’s. The buildings were quite different from my first school, which had been built in the 1880’s, and quite different from the school we did not choose. That school looked and felt like my old school – the same old fashioned high ceilings and long corridors off which the classrooms opened. Even the colour – a kind of institutional pink – felt the same. And I just did not feel comfortable in it.
In my experience that this kind of memory is all about small details, seemingly odd bits of information about the environment and experience, which are recorded quite literally. Details about the light in the room, the sounds, the tone of someone’s voice, what I was thinking at the time – and the height of the ceiling and the colour of the walls. These bits of information seem to be all bundled up – stuck together, so to speak – with how I was feeling at the time.
Is it my child’s difficulty, or is it mine?
The effect of implicit memory on my experience of “going back to school” was wider than just a reaction to the buildings. My daughter starting school was, for me, an unexpected emotional crisis. I felt oddly panic-stricken every time I went into the playground. I felt extremely agitated when it looked like things were not going well (i.e. perfectly) for my daughter. I could not tell if the difficulties were hers or mine. (In fact, they turned out to be both – my own story was making me feel agitated, and there were things about the school which were not good.)
Telling the story helps.
So I began to tell the story of my schooling. Thankfully, I regularly exchange listening time with other adults. In this Listening Time, one person talks for an agreed amount of time, and then we swap, and the “talker” becomes the “listener”.
In this kind of listening, we have some agreements which make the process extremely effective. We don’t offer advice or opinions, and we agree to keep the story completely confidential. In this way, we guard against the effect of possible feelings of competition or comparison that might make us reluctant to tell our story. And we are protected from the worry (real or imagined) that our embarrassing struggles might become gossip for others. In Parenting by Connection, we call these listening agreements between adults Listening Partnerships.
I told my listeners everything that came to mind as “my earliest memory of school”. The story unfolded: I had in fact been to 13 schools, and I had begun my schooling in Switzerland, where my family was living for a year. My memories of starting school had got entwined with my experience of being in a foreign country where I did not speak the language, had no friends, and my family was very isolated. It explained why I felt so bad when I “went to school” with my daughter. I wouldn’t say I had not known these facts about myself, but I really had not understood their significance. I had not had to face them, because I had not gone near a school since leaving when I was 17.
As I worked through the feelings that came up as I told those stories, it got easier to spend time at school. I found that I was better able to tell which issues I really needed to take up with the school, and which were better handled by listening to how my daughter felt about them. When I listened to her well, she would often resolve the difficulties for herself.
A regular chance to be listened to is invaluable
I’ve come to depend on this kind of listening time. As a parent, it’s a place to notice my efforts and successes, and how much I care, to sort through my experiences, and to notice what I would like to change. Sometimes the process is relatively simple. I’ve been amazed at what I can bring myself to do after I have had a “good complain” to my Listening Partner about how much I do not want to do it.
And sometimes the process is more obviously healing. When my emotions flare high, I have learned to ask myself “What does this remind me of?” The answer is often surprising and instructive.
As I have gotten to know my Listening Partners, and safety has built, I can sometimes get to the heart of the feelings which are flooding me. I can cry about the first day at school, or the loneliness of Switzerland, or shake and sweat about how it feels now to go and talk to the teacher about something I am not happy with at school. Yes – it turns out that shaking and sweating seem to be another way our bodies release emotion.
Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits has been what comes of listening to others. I am regularly reassured that I am not alone – that parents face many struggles in common, and the difficulties I face are not “my fault”, even if they are often things I am responsible to do something about. When I listen to others, also, I will often have insights into why something is bothering me. The act of taking my attention off my own story, and put it on someone else’s, often has the unexpected by-product that I learn more about myself.
The research about this is clear: Adults that make sense of their own stories are better able to connect with their children.*3 Certainly, the listening I have had about my daughter starting school has helped me to negotiate the challenges of standing up for her at school, getting to know her teachers, and getting involved at school. And they have helped me to listen to her better. Because often that is all she needs to work it out for herself.
So, what is your earliest memory to do with school? I’d love to hear!
And if you would like to learn more about listening in this way, I can highly recommend this self-paced, online course from Hand in Hand parenting: Building a Listening Partnership – Easing the Stress of Parenting. It will teach you the nuts and bolts of how to use this listening process for yourself, and how to listen well to others, and will put you in touch with a group of other parents who are looking for Listening Partnerships. And, of course, you can also contact me: book a free 20 minute on-on-one consultation which will help you get an idea of the Parenting by Connection approach and what your next steps might be. Book here.
*1 Daniel J Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzel, M.Ed “Parenting From The Inside Out” 2004, Penguin Group, NY, pp22-23
*2 Much of what our minds record as memories before we are two are recorded as implicit memory. The parts of the brain that allow for other kinds of memory – called explicit, or autobiographical, develop later. You can learn more about this in Dan Siegel’s book, mentioned above.
*3 See “The Adult Attachment Interview” Daniel J Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzel, M.Ed “Parenting From The Inside Out” 2004, Penguin Group, NY, p125, and 141-142.