There’s only one thing I actually remember learning in kindergarten: how to count out the exact change needed to buy a tray full of rectangular cafeteria pizza on Fridays. I can still recall the distinctive lunchroom aroma—a strangely comforting blend of ketchup mixed with fish sticks, marinated in dirty gym shoes. At least that’s how it smells in my memory.
I don’t remember much else about my foray into elementary school—but apparently everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten. You know that old list: share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, clean up your own mess.
My timid oldest child is a week shy of completing kindergarten. In today’s world, where that entry into elementary school resembles something more like 2nd grade, this old list of lessons feels more like preschool concepts.
Still, my daughter learned this year. A lot. Yet as a parent, the lessons also poured in. So could it be true that all I need to know (as a mom), I learned my first time parenting a kindergartner?
Shared joy is doubled. Shared sorrow is halved. Shared anxiety—yikes. All new school supplies? I felt the excitement. A new building without preschool besties? My heart shattered a bit too. But no one tells you that the first-day butterflies you feel as a kid transform into jitters on steroids as a parent. Watching my tiny girl pull away on a giant yellow bus for the first time was excruciating. I was certainly more nervous than my introverted daughter when I learned she’d have to give a presentation to her class this year. So yes, my anxiety level reacted exponentially to my daughter’s (which, all things considered, was fairly low). Yet I also learned that when I project a sense of calm, my children often mirror tranquility back at me.
My kids are not my clones. As a toddler, my first-born’s blue eyes and curly hair matched mine, she used her left hand to shovel food in her mouth (much like I still do), and she was always up for a game of indoor soccer with me in our kitchen. A blink later, at age 6, her eyes shine a striking hazel, her hair seems to have ditched the coils for good, she decidedly chose her right hand, and she detests sports in favor of all things pink and frilly. I decapitated the few dolls I owned; she tucks a row of Barbies in at night. At her age, I read books voraciously; she’d rather draw pictures all day. Somehow it took me a while to learn this Captain Obvious parenting lesson: she is not a small version of me. (Maybe we can revisit this topic in 35 years though—she may start turning into me then).
My child will find her people—and I’ll make some unusual friends. I was worried about my sometimes-reserved girl’s social well-being. For months, when I asked about who she played with at recess, she changed the subject. But slowly, as she grew comfortable, the names of her friends spilled out in casual conversation. She still seems to run with only a handful of girls—and that is all she needs. I’ve found a few new pals too. In limiting after-school activities in favor of downtime and play, boredom has become my buddy. Afternoons spent coloring with her brothers or organic bike rides with neighbors enabled me to value another ally—simplicity. I hope to make those into lasting friendships.
Parenting doesn’t matter. Wait, what? A recent growing body of evidence says exactly that—unless we do something totally nuts, we’re not going to screw up our kids. And we might not have much impact on them. At all. I pondered that throughout kindergarten, wondering if those pep talks about never being a mean girl were for nothing. I’m not sure I buy it. But the genes I’ve passed onto my children may mean more. Parents are important (phew), but the big things that will shape my daughter, aside from DNA, will involve experiences that I don’t have control over (also phew?). I’m not going to abandon my heart-to-hearts with her just yet—we had quite a few this year and I’d like to think they hold some value—but this news lets my own heart breathe a bit.
My kid and I should take turns setting the pace. At the starting line of many races (I’m a runner, bear with me), there are people holding signs with their anticipated finish times. Runners can align themselves with these so-called pacers to keep up a certain stride. My job, I’ve learned this year, is to run alongside my girl, whatever tempo she chooses. Still not that interested in reading? That’s up to her. But there are times when it’s okay for me to charge ahead, encouraging her when I know she has more steam than she realizes—like that day this spring, when with a lot of coaxing, she finally conquered the monkey bars.
There’s more. Lots more. I’ve learned that though her kindergarten teacher is one of the most patient women I’ve met (thank you, Ms. Gilbert, you’re amazing)—I’m still my daughter’s most important educator. I've learned that when it feels like your heart may burst from parental pride—it won't. I’ve come to know that there will always be questions about why so-and-so has such-and-such (and they usually involve a device with a screen). I discovered the hard way—involving a gash on her head—that I won’t always be able to protect her.
Did I learn everything I need to know in kindergarten like the old adage goes? Doubtful. This whole parenting gig is like a crazy game of emotional Tetris—and the older my little ones get, the faster those odd-shaped pieces seem to fly at me.
But for now, I’m taking solace in the most comforting lesson I picked up this year: the cafeteria smells exactly as I remembered.