First Day Jitters

Posted by: , June 27, 2010 in 5:20 pm

momologie First Day Jitters

I was talking to my friend the other day and she told me that she had already received three playdate solicitations for her son who is entering kindergarten in the fall.  The school had just held an orientation for the incoming students and already the parents were jockeying for position, clearly trying to secure friendships for their children and allowing four months for those friendships to marinate and take hold before the first day of school come September. 

“I was looking forward to having the summer off from the constant stream of playdates,” my friend confided.  Which made me wonder: has the “first day of school” rite of passage, in which a child enters knowing no one and has to—gulp—make their own friends, gone by the wayside?

I remember many a first-day-of-school scenarios from my own childhood.  The one in particular that stands out in my mind the most is when I started a new school in the fourth grade.  It was a traumatic first day for many reasons: a) I was one of only a few new students to a class that had been together since kindergarten; b) it was an Orthodox Jewish school and I knew no Hebrew, no prayers and very little about being Jewish in general, aside from the fact that each December we lit candles, recited some mumbo jumbo and then got presents for eight nights; and c) I was wearing the brand-spanking-new, super uncool back brace I had been sentenced to for 22 hours a day to treat the curvature in my spine I had just recently learned I was blessed with (talk about the cards being stacked against you, huh?).  My mom didn’t bother to arrange any playdates for me prior to school starting—probably because moms back then didn’t arrange playdates period.  (If you wanted to play with another kid, you stood outside your house and waited for another kid to wander by.  Then you played with said kid.  Very low-tech stuff.)

Anyway, my mom did manage to find out that a friend of a friend of hers had a daughter entering the same school and that she would be in my class.  I’ll call this girl “Robyn,” because, well, that’s her name.  The information I was given about Robyn was that she had blonde hair and had been told to be on the lookout for me.  (Wonder how that conversation went: “Just look for the girl wrapped in metal.”)  The first day of school came and I looked around the classroom for Robyn.  There was only one blonde girl there and she obviously wasn’t Robyn, as she was clearly hipped out to the lay of the land.  I was stumped and not a little bit disappointed until suddenly, the classroom door swung open and a woman entered, followed by a slightly frightened looking blonde girl.  In my exuberance to see this kid I had heard about all summer, I yelled out, “Hi, Robyn!” (I know, so tragically dorky, but this was well before I knew about playing it cool.) Robyn turned and looked at me and gave me a huge smile; evidently I made her day as well by being her own personal welcome wagon.  And that was all it took.  From there we became best friends, which we remain to this day.

What I remember most about that day was the trepidation I felt in starting a new school that was quickly replaced by the pride I felt in making a friend that very same day.  The gratification I felt in discovering I had the ability to go into a scary new place and then leave that same day better off than when I’d arrived.  Each new daunting start, be it a brand new school or a new camp or summer school gave me added confidence that I could go into a new situation and come out with new friends.  All of this set me up for college, where I needed to find not just new friends but a surrogate family, and within 24 hours of being dropped off at Tioga Hall, I became tight friends with half a dozen girls, several of whom have remained close friends.

I wonder though—where would I have been if my mother had stepped in and arranged all my friendships for me?  Would I have been able to navigate the shark-infested friendship waters of junior high and high school without her there to get the ball rolling? (Or worse—would she have accompanied me to the first few days of 7th grade to help me acclimate and meet people?!)  Would I have locked myself in my dorm room with my social recluse roommate and stayed there playing Tetris for the remainder of the year, leaving only to go to class and fetch take-out food?  (To be fair, I played an awful lot of Tetris anyway and was—not to brag—the reigning Tetris queen in my dorm, but only to the detriment of my Calculus grade and not to the detriment of my social life thankfully.)

But when did arranging our children’s social lives become part of the already long list of parental duties?  Because quite honestly, I love my kids and hope they have lots of friends, however I don’t really want to be their social director.  Sure, I’ll arrange playdates for them with the kids they ask to play with, but I’m not going to sit with the class roster and strategize about which friendships make the most sense for them and then hound the parents of the coveted children for playdates.  I have enough on my plate trying to manage and maintain my own friendships (not to mention my Facebook friendships which are of course vital, natch).  And call me old-fashioned, but quite frankly, I want my kids to experience what it feels like to make a friend on their own.  And okay, maybe they’ll choose social suicide by opting to befriend the one really weird kid in the class; or maybe they’ll choose to elevate their social status by befriending the popular “bad” kid who I won’t approve of.  But that’s really for them to decide, isn’t it?  For if Robyn’s mom had stepped in and arranged other playdates for her so she wouldn’t be known as “the friend of the weird chick with the brace,” or if my parents had actively tried to find me other friends when, in later years, they started disapproving of our friendship, we would have been robbed of what has turned out to be an amazing thirty year friendship.  (And incidentally, because my brace was never an issue for Robyn, it ended up being a non-issue for all of the other kids as well.)

In an age where we do so much for our children and they have so much less freedom than we had when we were kids, can’t we let our children’s friendships be something that they navigate and control on their own?  Let’s not rob them of learning and honing an invaluable skill that they will have—and need—for life.  I say let’s let that first day of school be the scary, intimidating, exhilarating and independent experience it was always meant to be.*

*And yes, that means no lurking in bushes and peeking in the classroom window for you either (you know you were going to).

Kim Karp Lappen writes for Momologie, which delivers must-read info for living family life to the fullest.  Sign up for the daily newsletter to get the latest scoop on style, food, decorating, organizing, entertaining and travel.


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