“Can you pick us up after school?” my sixth grader asked. “I like to tell someone about my day right away.”
What parent would pass up that chance? It’s not really a hardship to drive ten minutes down Route 2 to pick them up. My middle child gets in the car and goes through his day period by period, telling me everything. My daughter, who just turned seven, often has me to herself when she gets off the bus, since her school releases earlier than her brothers’. My oldest has always been more reticent, but he, too, will share about his day, especially if he learned something he found interesting. We often critically analyze different ideas together. He’s been my main supermarket companion for several years now. He’s a really good helper, and it’s an opportunity to be together without any younger siblings around.
Parenting these children, not surprisingly, is no less involved than it was when they were babies, but instead of changing diapers and being attentive to signs of hunger or distress, I’m quietly monitoring the undercurrents and making sure I’m available when they need or want to talk. I’m making sure we’re not overscheduled, so we have space in our days for connecting. The boys participate in some after-school activities right at school. My daughter plays soccer and just began dance lessons. All of these are their choices. We still eat dinner together just about every night, because eating dinner together has always been a priority.
Last week my daughter complained of a headache and a stomachache. I looked closely and saw a tired-looking, overwrought child and decided she could stay home from school. We sat on the couch together, she reading, me knitting, the cat purring between us. Bit by bit, into the quiet space we’d created, she told me some of what was troubling her. Her new school is very different from her old school. Some of these differences are wonderful: a library, an art room, a room for PE and for eating lunch. But some things are harder to adjust to. The behavioral management charts—nonexistent in her old school—are causing anxiety. I learned details that concerned me. I spoke to guidance to get more information. I met with her teacher, which led to a meeting with the principal. Perhaps these concerns will spark change in the school. I believe in honoring children’s humanity, in believing they are doing the best they can, in helping them to feel invested in the success of the community, not shamed because their clip has moved backwards instead of forwards. I’m glad my daughter felt she could talk to me. I’m grateful we have the time and space to create the quiet necessary to talk about troubling things.
Meanwhile, my boys are getting letter grades for the first time. Our previous school didn’t use letter grades and, of course, my middle child has been homeschooled for the past three years. How does a homeschooler-at-heart adjust to grades, anyway? We’ve talked about them, how they’re not the be-all and end-all, that I don’t want them getting A’s but not engaging (which is certainly possible, as any smart student who’s figured out the game of school can attest). How I hope they’ll connect with their learning, go deeper, get involved. How if their best effort equals a C, that’s fine, but now that they’re in a system that uses grades, they can’t just ignore them, because they might need them for something. (My oldest, for instance, would like to apply to a high school magnet program, which requires minimum grades.) Honestly, A’s and B’s should be no problem for them, but I don’t want them in it just for the grades. The grades are a byproduct. We talk about this balance so they know: You are not your grades. Your grades are not your learning. But assess your goals, and be aware of what you need to do to reach them.
Which is all to say, being mother to these three children is a different sort of engagement than it was when they were small, strapped to my body or constantly by my side. It’s knowing when to step in and when to step back; when a stomachache is a stomachache and when it might be a symptom of something else. Being around and involved but not controlling. Being aware. I am so proud of these children, how they are adjusting, how they are conducting themselves. I am honored to hear their stories of school, to be allowed access, to hang with my boys at the bus stop when most middle school parents have been ordered away. I want each of them to feel they have me when they need me, with no distractions. It’s a sobering responsibility, to be present for these growing people, truly, wholly present. But what, really, is more important?