Tough love

This morning I stood at the school gates chatting to a small number of parents. We had just dropped our kids off for P1 and were consoling each other as usual. Comparing the damage.

We were approached by a beautiful little dark-haired girl in uniform. Her eyes were bleared with tears, she was obviously distressed and afraid. She had come to us even though we were all strange to her.

‘I’m sorry,’ she timidly blurted out between tears, ‘but I don’t know where to go’.

My wife took the child’s hand gently and asked her what class she was in before leading her off to the care of a teacher.

And that was it. Sorted. Except, the incident never quite left me all day. When I see an upset child it tends to stick in my mind. I know I’m overly sensitive but I prefer that to being indifferent to juvenile tears.

I’m always asking myself why it had to happen that way? How could it have been avoided? And, in this case, why was a situation deliberately created that led to the unfortunate encounter?

My little boy started P1 less than two weeks ago. Like many other parents in the same situation our tiny boat has sailed on a rough sea of emotions ever since. There’s been plenty of tears from all of us, moments of encouragement and progress punctuated by tantrums and worries.

Being at the school every morning has allowed me to witness how all the children are at different stages. Some run into class without even hesitating to say goodbye to their parent. Some need a little bit more time and encouragement. Some just find it a little bit harder to leave mummy and daddy behind. Our boy is one of these.

But we felt we were getting on top of it. A good routine had been created. We took him to the door of the classroom each morning. We didn’t go inside. We kissed him goodbye in the corridor and handed him into the care of his teacher.

And he was getting it. He felt the comfort of the responsibility being handed on. He understood the process and was accepting it. To be honest it was all going much better than we had expected. I assumed this was the way it would continue.

But then on Friday a letter arrived home in his schoolbag. I almost didn’t see it in the midst of all the advertising leaflets.

Apparently the P1 teachers had decided that it would be more beneficial for the children to say goodbye to their parents at the school gate and for them then come into the playground either by themselves, or with a friend.

My stomach heaved when I read it. Less than two weeks to get my boy used to the new regime and it was already being changed. Instinctively mummy and I knew it would be a backwards step for him. Just another problem to be solved.

The letter said this was beneficial for the children but didn’t elaborate.

I can totally understand the logic of trying to foster their burgeoning sense of independence, to weaken the dependence on their parents.

But did it have to be done after just two weeks? It was hard to avoid the feeling that there was a simple preference that the parents not be on the school grounds.

I always try to be sympathetic of professions and practices I don’t understand. I don’t like to give teachers a hard time because I know they already deal with an abundance of stress and worry.

So we explained the new arrangements to our boy. Predictably he retreated back into himself. When he is afraid he tends to bury his problems, become non-communicative.

We tried to talk him round. Eventually he opened up a little. He asked us to promise that we would not leave him on his own at the gates but would come into the playground with him. We readily went along with this although it was counter to what the letter had requested.

Were we too soft? Should we have been firmer in insisting that he go in on his own? Decisions like this tend never to be as clean and simple as they appear when committed to prose later.

And so this morning mummy led him into the school grounds while I hung back. I knew he was likely to react badly and thought two parents might make it even worse.

There was a further complication. The school has an exterior set of gates. Then there is a short walk to the fenced P1 playground where there is another gate.

Mummy took our son down to the P1 gate. But several other parents had interpreted the instructions differently and left their children at the exterior gate.

Minutes later my wife returned. It was as bad as I had feared. He had bawled. He had refused to go into the playground by himself.

In the end a member of staff had to take him by the arm and lead him in. She told my wife that what was needed was some ‘tough love’.

It was at this point, as we were discussing the trauma, that we were confronted with the teary little girl.

Her mother must have interpreted the instructions that she was to leave her child at the outside gate. Presumably she did this and left. But the little girl just didn’t know where to go next and came back outside to talk to us. Desperately afraid and seeking guidance.

It was a poor way to start a Monday morning. It didn’t get a lot better until we picked our son up after class. The teacher told us he’d settled down really well and had had a good day. He usually does.

The sun was shining so we went to the play park for a couple of hours. He was like a different boy from the scared child from the morning.

So what’s been learnt? Were we not firm enough with him? Should be just embrace the new routine and get on with it? Do we make it worse by indulging him?


But the truth is I don’t know. All I’m certain of is that each of these little energetic wonders we are raising is completely different. They all react in their own way. There are no universal rules that work with children.

You have to go with your gut because sometimes that’s all you’ve got. The people who speak with the most certainty, the ones who keep telling me they’ve seen it all before, are often the ones I’m least inclined to listen to.

The kids are all unique and unpredictable like shards of broken glass.

Yes there’s a time for some tough love. But there’s also a time when it’s better to take a frightened little child by the hand and lead them where they need to go.

4 thoughts on “Tough love

  1. It’s hard to know which approach to take as a parent. The main priority is the child. And the school doesn’t always get it right, BUT .. as with playgroup , once we leave our tearful little ones they are easily distracted and it’s us that have a nervous stomach till we lift them.
    Children quite like boundaries and rules and know where they stand. Try to be honest with them . We were and they can accept changes . Xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic and thought provoking as always Jonny. I must admit, I do agree with you that imposing those changes after only a fortnight in is too much. 2 weeks is not long enough for a child to be reliably settled into p1 and everything hangs in such a delicate equilibrium at this stage; the slightest little imbalance or change can send all progress back to square one. My son is very much like yours – he has been cautious and there have been tears but he too settles well and he seems to be enjoying school now. But what kind of a world is this where we feel we have to practice ‘tough love’ on a 4-year-old starting school?! I’m firmly in the soft approach camp. A lot of adults seem to overlook how daunting it would be for them to be made to go somewhere totally new, where they knew no one and had very little comprehension of what was going on; how utterly terrifying! Yet some people expect a 4-year-old just to get on with it. And you are so right Jonny when you say that you would rather have reacted sensitively to that little girl crying that have no reaction! Sounds like your son is v.lucky – he clearly has kind compassionate parents. He’ll turn out better in the long run for having parents who left him to the second gate.

    Liked by 1 person

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