When Separation Anxiety Goes Overboard

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog, “Free-Range Kids” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement.

This Wall Street Journal piece of mine about sending kids off to the first day of school applies to sending kids off to camp as well. Our hand-wringing, expert-consulting culture has managed to make saying goodbye into a much bigger and more traumatic event than it has to be, thanks to all sorts of over-the-top advice on how to help our kids adjust.

Maybe they’ll adjust as soon as we leave?

When Separation Anxiety Goes Overboard

As yellow buses start heading back to school, you might notice some of them being trailed by a little line of cars. Predators? Pervs?

Nope. Parents.

“I was talking to a bunch of parents and found out they all follow the bus for the first week or so,” one mother told me the other day. “I sat there thinking that I was a really bad mom because that thought had never even occurred to me!”

Although I am officially the World’s Worst Mom—I even have a TV show with that name—the thought had never occurred to me, either. But apparently it’s becoming par for the course as the line gradually blurs between shipping a child off to school and shipping a child off to ‘Nam.

“They can’t seem to let go,” says Natascha Santos, a school psychologist in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island—and she’s not talking about the kids. This could be because everywhere parents turn, the advice-o-sphere keeps harping on how incredibly hard they must work to ease their child’s incredibly harrowing adjustment to school.

“Practice how you will say goodbye,” urges one of the zillion or so websites featuring first-day-of-school tips.

“Goodbye!” Hmm. That just doesn’t seem very difficult to me. Maybe I’m heartless. In fact, I know I’m heartless, because I never bought a “Nesting Heart.” That’s a toy made by a company called Kimochis that is meant to “help ease the separation” when you drop your kid off at school.

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How does it work? “Your child can take the inner Heart to school and you can keep the outer heart at home,” says a Kimochis news release. “Create a playful ritual for separating the hearts at drop-off and putting your hearts back together at pickup. Reassure your child (and yourself!) that the Nesting Heart keeps you connected even when you are apart.”

Oh yes, how incredibly reassuring it must be as junior watches you—playfully!—break your heart in two. But at least this psycho-toy lays it on the line: Mommy is incomplete whenever she’s not with you, and you are incomplete without mommy. Got that? Now go have a great first day!

But who am I kidding? If you have followed any of the other parenting tips out there, that first day of school won’t really be your child’s first, because that would be too overwhelming. “Change can be scary,” says the website Care.com. “When possible, help to familiarize your child with a new school and teachers. Drive the bus route, tour the building or classroom, locate lockers and cubbies.” Heck, why not just move in for a few weeks in July?

Another site suggests that you have your child practice eating a sack lunch to make sure there are no last-minute snags. Still another tells you to have a picnic on the school playground, lest the sheer unfamiliarity of this particular patch of asphalt throw your child for a loop. But my favorite advice-nugget says to ask your child’s teacher for photos of the kids who will be in the class. “Then cut out and laminate each picture so your child can learn names and become comfortable with each new friend while playing in the comfort of home.”

Ye gads. Day one arrives and your child has already bonded with imaginary versions of real people. “Oh, so you’re Olivia,” she greets a new playmate, adding under her breath, “I saw what you did with Gumby.”

So now, with your loving help, your child has practiced eating lunch, broken your heart and detached herself from reality. But can she detach from you?

Not yet; not so fast. First, “Give your child a picture of you to keep in her supply box,” says another parenting site. “Write love notes in her snack bags.”

Television producer Jane Charlton actually tried that one year, to cheer up her daughter. “The notes said things like ‘Don’t forget we love you!’ and ‘Have a good time!’ I was trying to be nice,” Ms. Charlton told me in a phone chat. Unfortunately, this brought little comfort to her daughter. “She said that every time, just as she started to feel happy and get involved with something, she’d find a note and it would knock her right back.” Pretty soon the girl was bawling.

What an almost-perfect mom and an absolutely perfect reminder: When it’s time for your kids to go, let them.

Posted on February 24, 2013

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