New Beginnings: Confessions of a First Time Grade 1 Parent

It’s butterfly season again.  Yes, it’s that time of year when butterflies seem to congregate especially in little tummies, and maybe most in those of grade 1 students on the eve of their first day at school.  And for this first time grade 1 parent, the butterflies seem to have found a home in me.

The Torah tells us:

.וְעַתָּה, אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת בְּרִיתִי וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי לִי כָּל הָאָרֶץ

(And now, if you will hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all the peoples, for Mine is the entire world! – Shemot 19:5)

And now”, Rashi comments, “If you will accept upon yourselves it will be sweet from here on. From here we learn that all beginnings are difficult.”  Meaning, if it’s sweet from “here on”, it means it was difficult to begin with.

How do we get out of that difficult beginning and get to the sweet?

The first step is to expect and to accept that beginnings are in fact difficult.  Grade 1 is an especially exciting time for students, it’s also an anxiety provoking time.  On the one hand, kids are filled with a sense of pride, donning fresh, new school uniforms and joining the ranks of older kids.  With this special feeling, though comes the sense of responsibility bearing down on their shoulders, not to mention more “serious” time and less “play” time on the horizon.  It’s a time of transition and of adjustment and the sense of the unknown brings out fears and anxieties.  Everything seems new: new teachers, new classroom, new desks, new routines, new friends.  Kids’ comfort zones are seriously challenged.  

These anxieties are natural and expected.  And while teachers assure us that they will be “just fine”, and they will, there are strategies that we can use to reduce and manage those anxieties.  I like to talk to my children about my first days at school, show them pictures of the first time I wore a school uniform.  Playdates, can reduce the fear of social unknowns.  Speaking out fears and anxieties, playing them out, or even having them draw them out can be helpful.

Many times, anxieties can manifest in physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches, or in acting out at home with siblings or parents.  Reassuring children that their feelings are normal is a critical first step.

If things don’t settle, speak to your child’s teachers, they’ll have a greater handle on the situation.  Teachers anticipate our children’s butterflies—and ours—and will consciously work to put everyone at ease.

[For more strategies on dealing with child anxieties I recommend ‘Freeing your child from anxiety’ by Tamar E. Chansky, or your school guidance counsellor]

So why am I anxious?  Why do I, sit here the week my daughter enters grade 1, with butterflies in MY stomach?

As parents, one of our primary goals is to ensure that our children are in healthy academic and social environments and that they are safe.  The transition to grade 1 may feel like a letting go, or an abdication of those responsibilities to others.  And those “others” are, sometimes unfamiliar to us.  What also makes us anxious is how uncomfortable we are with our children’s anxieties.

These feelings are also natural and expected, and this reality needs to be accepted.  That is the first step.  The second, is to take a deep breath and trust.  Trust that we are handing off our precious children to professionals, namely,  trained, experienced and caring teachers who are waiting on the other side of that door.

But, I believe there is something deeper going on here, that will help us get to the next stage of sweetness.

Symbols play an important role in our lives.  Especially this time of year, symbols like the shofar, apples and honey, pomegranates are but a few examples of symbols that help to focus us on Rosh Hashana.  Symbols capture meaning and evoke emotion.  But, there is a danger to symbols that can trap us into missing the entire point.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches: “Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig.” (Avot 4:5)

Our sages are teaching us that turning the Torah into a symbol, namely a crown, is fine.  Turning the Torah into a symbol in order to use it for personal, social or financial gain is an abuse of God’s greatest gift.

There is purpose to God’s greatest gift.  We were granted the Torah as a guide towards selflessness.  

Grade 1 can also be turned into a symbol.  A significant symbol.  If grade 1 turns into a symbol of ME letting go or of MY abdication of responsibilities, then the symbol takes a selfish turn and perhaps this is when anxieties persist.  However, if grade 1 is turned into a symbol of entrance through the gateway of Jewish education, and for us, parents, our obligation and duty to herd our children through those gates, we become filled with emotions of pride, joy and fulfillment.

Beginnings are difficult, that is a fact of life. When approaching our responsibilities selflessly, they may still be difficult at first, but with the right attitude, it will be sweet from here on.

L’chaim to new beginnings and blessings for a sweet new year!

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