This summer, N is attending a real summer camp for the first time. I’ve been surprised by what a learning experience it has been for both of us.
The camp is located on the beautiful grounds of a local private school, complete with grassy hills, shady trees and even a pond with geese (yes, in Brooklyn!!). When we first drove onto the campus for an open house, N was clearly impressed and remarked, “Wow, this is my kind of place!”
Her day is filled with normal summer camp activities — swimming, tennis, games and arts and crafts. She’s making friends and likes her counselors. When she gets home, we relax and enjoy a homework-free summer evening.
All of this is normal. What’s not “normal,” however, is our difficulty with the morning drop-off. N is the only 5-year-old Kindergarten graduate (among dozens) who still cries and clings to my leg, begging me not to leave. Granted, I’m sure there were several on the first day or two who did that. But several weeks into camp, my daughter is now the only kid making an emotional, embarrassing scene.
At first my reaction was simply to cut and run. I’d pry her little arms from my leg, make sure she was being held by one of her counselors, and jog back to the car before she had time to follow me. I knew she was okay once I left — her counselors said she always got over it quickly. But still, I felt terrible that I had to leave her when she was so upset.
After a couple of weeks, G and I got wise. We rearranged our morning dropoff schedule so that S and I could stay for a few minutes and hang out with N until her group went inside. Actually, this was N’s suggestion, and it has been working much better. Now, about half the time, she transitions into her group without too much trouble, playing with her friend while S and I wait with her. She’s still very sensitive and can get thrown off easily into crying mode, but now we‘re only experiencing emotional, embarrassing scenes about half the time. I guess that’s an improvement.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to make some decisions about how to handle N’s behavior at dropoff. Clearly, it’s a stressful moment of her day. Was I going to scold her for crying and making a scene? For not acting like a big girl? For not behaving like the other kids? Truthfully, as I admitted to G one day after dropoff, I was disappointed in N. I felt discouraged that she didn’t handle her emotions at dropoff nearly as well as the other kids. All those other 5-year-olds said goodbye to their parents, then sat quietly with each other and talked until time to go in.
My daughter is different. On a good day, when I stay with her, she gets excited and wants to run around on the grass instead of sitting down with the other kids. On a bad day, when she’s feeling sensitive and upset and a friend approaches her to say hello, she withdraws further, clinging to my leg — and is usually grumpy towards her friend. She’ll say something like, “I’m trying to be in private, I’m not ready to play,” but it comes across as grumpy and rude.
When I heard myself expressing my disappointment in her, I realized — this sensitivity is part of the temperament that she was born with. It’s a trait that both her parents also have, as do other members of her family. Instead of criticizing her for it, I need to help her figure out how to handle her sensitivity in such a way that it doesn’t ruin her day (or anyone else’s).
Growing up, I was a sensitive kid too. My dad, who seemed to be made of steel and was resolved to control everything and everyone around him, took it upon himself to “toughen me up.” This involved a lot of criticizing, which only made me feel bad about myself and led to self-esteem issues that I’ve battled all my life.
G and I have decided on a different tack. We’re going to accept N for who she is, and we will demonstrate our acceptance. I’ve been consciously putting this into practice lately, just a general attitude of acceptance, and it is absolutely freeing. I’m not talking about an attitude of permissiveness when it comes to discipline or behavior, but truly accepting the person she is — even when she’s grumpy, or upset, or silly, or annoying, or weird. It actually feels really, really good to accept my child and love her for exactly who she is, and let go of the stress and agita of wishing she was someone she is not.
To help her manage her sensitive nature — which can be a negative or a positive trait, depending on the situation — we’re going to try to help her interpret social situations more accurately. It’s a hard thing for kids, who don’t have the benefit of years of experience and a fully-developed brain, to correctly interpret other people’s behavior. So we’ll try to help her understand that just because your friend is playing with someone else, it doesn’t mean she’s not your friend anymore. And just because your favorite counselor tells you to stop doing something, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you anymore.
And when she’s feeling sensitive and easily upset, we’ll reassure her of our love. When appropriate, we’ll keep repeating our family’s mantra to her: “Let it roll off your back.” She has started to internalize this mantra (and to repeat it back to me when I have a hard time letting something go!).
For me, this summer camp experience has taught me a great deal about N. About how she reacts in certain situations, and perhaps how we can help her overcome her specific challenges and become the best version of herself.
(Oh geez, I wonder what we’ll learn in first grade!!)