SINGAPORE: It's only the third week of school and already I have mixed feelings about my child starting Primary 1.
On the one hand, I feel a sense of pride as I witness my son growing in independence and developing new skills.
On the other, I wish time would slow down so I can linger with my son a little more.
After the first week of school, parents are no longer allowed to walk in with their child. The first morning I had to bid my child farewell at the school gate, I stood watching as his small figure diminished into the distance.
I realised then that I was also witnessing the emergence of his autonomy.
SOWING THE SEEDS OF INDEPENDENCE
As a family, we have tried to encourage independence in our kids from an early age. We took baby steps like allowing them to self-feed, dress themselves, and do simple chores like setting the table and packing up their toys.
Now, at the age of 6, my son has to make his own decisions in school – from what to eat at recess, to whom to befriend. Though I teach him the importance of eating healthy food, I have zero control over his daily choices.
I just have to trust him and give him the information he needs to make better decisions.
Over the course of just three weeks, I have seen evidence of his budding independence and responsibility.
He is starting to check his handbook to ensure he has the necessary items for school the next day, and will take the initiative to hand me letters from his teacher. There were also times when he could tell me that he needed me to buy extra files or ask for money for a magazine subscription.
The road ahead of him may be long, but I am heartened to see the first fruits of our labour. Yet I find myself still constantly worrying about him.
FEAR OF BEING LEFT BEHIND
The anxieties that parents face in helping their children adjust to school and gain independence are real, from dealing with bullying issues to their child being called out for not paying attention in class.
But what we don't often discuss is how do we learn to let go graciously, in this season of formal education, so that our child can take over?
This is arguably the most difficult thing a parent must do when their child enters school.
Evelyn Tan-Rogers, a mother of two whose second-born started school this year, reflects:
What helps me to let go is knowing that the space is good for us both, to grow. It's a chance for him to gain independence – we realised in the first week that there were so many things we'd been helping him with, such as putting on his seat belt or dressing him.
At home, we can give our children space to demonstrate that they can tackle their homework with minimal adult intervention.
A friend of mine actually prompts her child to update her regarding all administrative matters or homework, even though she may already have the information from the teacher. This helps to place the responsibility firmly in the hands of her child.
I have mixed feelings towards class WhatsApp group informally set up among parents. While such chat groups may prove useful at times, I wonder if they take up more of our mental loads than we realise. No surprise that my child’s principal explicitly discourages parents from setting up such groups, explaining that it can be a source of anxiety and misinformation.
Another area is in allowing kids to make mistakes and take action to solve their own problems.
Just the other day, my child left his wallet at the canteen during recess. I gave him instructions to look at the lost and found cupboard in the canteen, and if it’s not there, to then enquire at the general office.
Yet, the next day, I gritted my teeth and tried to keep my fingers from dialing the general office’s number to find out if my child’s wallet was there.
Imagine my surprise to hear him reporting that he went to the office and managed to reclaim his wallet, with the money intact. It was a learning moment for the both of us.
Independence is a skill we all desire for our children and yet we hesitate to see the day when we are totally unneeded or even unwanted. This journey of letting go and handing over the keys to life is bittersweet.
LETTING GO AND RECONNECTING
To help myself in this process, I’ve decided to channel my inner Elsa, the heroine in the Disney movie Frozen.
Instead of worrying about the thousand and one things that may go wrong, and trying to take control of all the elements, I’m choosing to let it go, and trust that I have prepared my child enough.
I’m choosing to see the newfound freedom we have both gained in a new light.
Apart from parent volunteer duties in my son’s school, I have been diligently fixing up more breakfast dates with friends. I’m also devoting more time to growing my career this year.
At the same time, I look forward to reconnecting with him. I plan special things to do together, whether it’s a romp at the playground or a play date with an old friend, and have dedicated one day of the week to do that.
When I pick him from school, I have to control the string of questions in my head and ask him in small bites. “Who did you eat recess with?” “What did you buy?” “What was your favourite part of your day?”
Being able to reconnect and spend some time together helps parents like me tune in to my kids' emotions and mental state.
A mother of a child with different learning needs once confided:
Knowing what is happening and being able to help him deal with his difficulty one thing at a time helps me to reduce my own anxiety.
EMPOWERING RATHER THAN PROTECTING
Letting go is a bit like a dance. As our children show a desire to take on more responsibility, we need to step back and let them take the lead.
By subscribing to the maxim of never doing for a child what he is capable of doing for himself, I believe this will help our children learn confidence, independence and other life skills, which will help them navigate their later years.
Like a butterfly needs to break out of its own cocoon in order to develop strength in its wings to fly, our children are also coming into their own and developing their personhood when they enter school.
We can empower them by being there when they need help or a listening ear, rather than being overly protective or intrusive. We must give them the space to make mistakes, and learn from these.
Though I may still ask the question, “Where did my little boy go?” I am choosing to focus on the answer I know I already have - my child is growing up and learning how to be a responsible young man, and this is definitely something worth being proud of.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.