Friday, March 03, 2023

The Courage Of A Child And Her Mother

"You're going to be okay," her mother cooed, but the girl wasn't so sure. She clung to mommy's knees, watching the room uncertainly.

This wasn't her first time at school. This three-year-old had been coming for a couple months, but today was the day her mother wasn't staying with her. In a cooperative preschool, parents are welcome, even encouraged, to attend alongside their children whenever and for as long as they, as a family, choose. This was the day that mom had an appointment she couldn't miss. They had been discussing it for weeks, including me, the teacher, in their preparations.

Perhaps all the preparation had heightened the anxiety. Of course it did, I suppose, because isn't that what anxiety is: fear of the future, specific or generalized? Some parents opt to "yank off the bandage" in the hope of skipping past the anxiety right to the fear of being alone in an uncertain circumstance. Others do it over time, stepping out of the room briefly to "use the bathroom" or "get something from the car," staying away longer and longer until their child is comfortable enough to stop noticing. I attended cooperative preschool alongside my own daughter every day until, one morning, near the end of her two-year-old school year, she insisted that I run an errand for her (specifically, she wanted me to buy her some chewing gum) while she went to school by herself.

As the teacher, I tried not to judge any family's approach to separation, although I would offer my advice if asked. Some families took my advice. Sometimes it worked for them. Sometimes it didn't. Many, however, rejected my ideas altogether. 

We tend to think of this sort of separation in terms of anxiety, but we could equally frame it in terms of courage because, ultimately, this is what every person involved was doing: summoning courage. Courage is not the state of being fearless. Courage is acting in the face of fear. Some children would arrive at school, release their parent's hand and never look back. For whatever reason -- temperament, experience, foolhardiness -- they were prone to trust the world, at least in this case. But most experienced some level heart flutters and sweaty palms, as did their parents. This girl and her mother had great fear to overcome: the girl because she didn't know whether or not she could manage without her mother at her side and her mother because she didn't know whether or not her daughter could manage on her own.

Courage is what allows us to face the unknown. We can never be fully or even adequately prepared. The metaphor most commonly used is a leap, a leap of faith. It's apt because there is the moment of standing right on the edge with our fear. There is the shining moment when one has landed, the fear left behind. But in between is the transformative leap, the decision to act even in the face of the unknown. 

The girl and her mother hugged at the doorway. I could see tears brimming in both of their eyes. They both stood, in that moment, contemplating the leap they were taking, summoning their courage. Then, as they had planned, mommy dug into her purse and pulled out a lipstick, applying it to her lips. She then kissed her daughter's cheek and left me holding the child's hand.

After listening to her mother's footsteps recede down the hallway, the girl asked me to take her to the classroom mirror where she studied the lip marks on her cheeks. "It's a little bit of mommy," she explained, then she turned to the room, released my hand and courageously went about her day.


It takes a village to raise a child. As preschool educators, we don't just educate children, but their families as well. For the past 20 years, I've been working in a place that puts the tri-cornered relationship of child-parent-educator at the center, and over that time I've learned a great deal about how to work with families to create the kind of village every child needs and deserves. I'm proud to announce that I've assembled what I've learned into a 6-part e-course called Partnering With Parents in which I share my best thinking on how educators can and should make allies of the parents of the children we teach. (Click this link to register and to learn more.) Discounts are available for groups. The cohort starts this week, so act now!

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