Dear Rachel,

My oldest daughter just began first grade and is having a really hard time. She cries all the way to school and when I drop her off. It is heartbreaking. On top of that, my kindergartner has begun to act out on the way to school also, partially because she wants to be like her big sister, and also, I think, in an attempt to garner some more attention for herself. My oldest has always been very attached to me, while my second is more the type to run and not look back. I feel like my oldest needs more attention now – as it seems to be a harder adjustment for her. I just feel so confused and sad that my oldest is having a rough time, and I am having a hard time figuring how to make both of my daughters feel important. Any advice on the matter would be well received. Thank you.

Confused in Colorado

Dear Confused,

The transition from pre-school/kindergarten to first grade is a big one. There is a popular Jewish expression that says, “All beginnings are hard.” It can be really difficult to watch your child go through a tough beginning. And it may be tempting to try to ‘fix it’ for her, or try to take away the hard part. But we as adults come to life with a unique vantage point that children aren’t yet privy to. We have the ability to see the “big picture.” We understand that what may be painful and difficult for her now is an essential step in her maturity and independence. Our job as parents is to first ensure that our children are in a safe environment that fosters physical and spiritual growth and second, to let go and give our children the opportunity to discover their own inner resources and strengths. In other words, we need to allow them to grow up.

It sounds like your first grader does need some special attention. But keep in mind that every child (and adult for that matter) needs “special attention.” Your second daughter sounds like she needs some too. And instead of out right asking for it, she is seeking ‘negative attention.” Four/five year olds (even six year old first graders) typically don’t have the emotional maturity to put words to their feelings. So instead, they do whatever they know how to do to grab our attention. Every child will seek attention in their own style. Some kids are stoic and tough while others cry and throw tantrums.

Just because a child has strong coping mechanisms, doesn’t mean that she needs less reassurance and encouragement from her parents.

So how does a parent figure what a kid really needs? Let’s discuss your first grader … For starters, it is important that you are very clear about your feelings about her going to school. If you are feeling unsure about this big leap into big-school, then, she is probably absorbing that on some level. If you are clear and confident that she is in a good, safe, loving environment, and you understand that independence is a natural effect of growing up – then, she will likely absorb that message.

There are many ways to encourage and assist your daughter in her new role as an independent young woman. There is a beautiful Torah quote that says, “Make for me an opening the size of a pin hole, and I will make for you expanses that caravans can pass through.” This imagery may be helpful for your daughter… when we make a tiny bit of effort, G‑d helps us the rest of the way, and we find strength to go the rest of the distance. As your daughter will soon discover, her efforts towards being in a new environment and opening herself up to learn new things will pay off – she’ll discover new and wonderful friends, and grow in her understanding about the world she lives in. It’s just about taking that first step, once she does that, the rest will unfold before her. It is okay to address the fact that beginning new things can be really hard, and it is okay to cry if we feel sad, but going to school is something that we all have to have to do – even if it’s hard.

So too with your younger daughter. She understands perfectly well, and has since her entry to your family, that Mommy’s attention is often divided. You can address the fact that your eldest daughter needs special Mommy-before-school-time, and next it will be her time, to have special Mommy time. One idea is to verbalize to your daughter that you understand that it is difficult to not have Mommy all to herself whenever she wants her, but that’s not the way Moms are built. We can only focus on one thing at a time. She needs to understand that even though your immediate focus may be on her older sister, she is still important and valued and worthy of your attention. This can be conveyed by holding her hand as you escort your older daughter, or giving your kindergartener a ‘job’ to do while you're busy with her sister, i.e., holding your purse or your keys, or drawing a picture for her sister to make her feel better. Perhaps as the school year progresses you can arrange special alone – “mommy time” with each of your girls – separately.

In general though, drop off time should be a relatively swift experience. Sometimes when we drag it out and spend a lot of time with a child having difficulties acclimating, it makes the separation all the more difficult. You can try to spend that good, focused time over breakfast and in the car on the way to school. And drop off time can be loving but quick.

It’s not easy to watch our children struggle with new things, but if we are able to transmit a sense of confidence and faith in their budding abilities to succeed in new arenas, they will be the ultimate winners. When children are able to overcome a hurdle by themselves, that is a true lesson in life that they will carry with them forever. Giving our children the message that they can succeed in whatever they strive to accomplish is the greatest gift a parent could give. I wish you all much success in your new journeys.