Why school isn’t just a big party

013Yesterday, we went to a birthday party.  The birthday boy is turning three, and Benjamin was in heaven at this party.  The majority of the party was in the backyard — Benjamin rode bikes, a scooter and a train, he played in the sandbox, with toy cars and trucks, he ate pizza, cake and cookies — all on plates with Lightning McQueen on them.  There were about half a dozen kids there of roughly the same age, plus a complement of little brothers, all Liam’s age or younger.  He had an awesome time.  From about 5 minutes after we got there, he played on his own, or with the other kids, almost entirely without our help (except for a couple of times when we were asked to extricate a ball from the hedge, or a toy from a shelf).  The boys all played together and shared very well with little intervention on the part of any of the parents.  We checked in with him, from time to time, and had to convince him to leave the toys for a few minutes in order to scarf down some dinner.  He asked for my help to ride the scooter (which he’d never ridden before) but, although we kept a close eye on him, he spent large spans of time playing on his own.

On the way home, I was pleased with how well he had played, and how much he had enjoyed himself, but I was a little perplexed:  why was it so fun and easy for him to play with these boys (who were mostly strangers to him) yet so traumatic to go to school?  Isn’t it pretty much the same?  So, I asked him.  I thanked him for playing so well and being so polite at the party, and asked him if he had a good time.  He said, enthusiastically, that he had.  So, I asked, “Isn’t that pretty much what school is like?”  And he looked at me, and asked (completely sincerely) “Did you leave the party, Mommy?”

He was actually asking, not making a point.  I believe that he was having so much fun, that he thought he might actually have missed it, and maybe I had left.  I assured him that I had been there the entire time.

But now I get it.  From my perspective, as an adult, things at school are pretty much like a party (except no Lightning McQueen plates):  there’s inside play time, outside play time, singing time and snack time — what’s not to love?  To my little, sweet, three year old boy, the two things have very little in common — for one, Mommy is there, and a good time is had by all, for the other, I’m not, and that’s devastating.  It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t actually interact with me very much — it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t need me.  My presence makes the difference between him having fun and not, him feeling secure and not.  All the kids and fun games and toys in the world don’t make up for my absence.

Of course, that makes perfect sense, and this isn’t the first time I’m realizing this.  But, I forget.  I truly, honestly, forget.  I get wrapped up in how nice the place is, how kind the teachers are, how sweet the other kids seem to be, and I fail to understand why he’s so upset about going to school.  The truth is, it doesn’t matter where he is, if I leave, it’s a problem.  There’s a part of me that’s thrilled that he feels that way (the alternative, although easier to deal with from a practical perspective, would hurt a little).  But, I want my little boy to enjoy going to school, and to enjoy himself without my constant presence.  I know that the upheaval of moving to a foreign continent isn’t helping, and neither is the fact that my kids have only been away from Dan and I a few short times since we’ve arrived here (they used to do it all the time, but they are out of practice).

I don’t know how the next few weeks will unfold, in terms of school, but I’d love to figure out a way for him to have half the fun at school as he did at this party.  I’m inspired by how much fun he had playing with the other boys yesterday, and knowing how much of that interaction he will get at school.  But I know that being away from me will be hard for him, and it remains to be seen if he’s really ready (and if I am).

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