We all want our children to grow up to be resilient, independent individuals, able to confront challenging situations and difficult people. But where do we draw the line between leaving a child to fend for him or herself, albeit occasionally with some guidance, and sheltering the child under a parental wing?
Recently Esther, a close friend of mine, made a fundamental decision regarding her daughter’s education — one that addressed this conflict and gave me insight about where I stand as a parent.
Esther’s daughter had been going to a local Jewish nursery school since she turned two. The teachers and staff were kind and supportive and the classmates were, for the most part, friendly and inclusive.
The changes started to occur during her daughter’s pre-K year. The year began uneventfully. Her husband for the most part gave her positive reports of the morning drop-offs. The only notable change from previous years was that her daughter never seemed to attach herself to any child upon arrival into the classroom. No one reached out to include her; the teacher left her daughter to make her own way.
Esther would tell me of accounts that her daughter began to come home with of upsetting incidents that occurred at school. “I did not have a good day,” her daughter would say. “Yaacov pushed me and he didn’t say I’m sorry.”
Then the classmate criticisms extended to her daughter’s lunches. “Mommy, don’t pack me bread and butter anymore. Michaela and Rivka say that it’s gross and they tell others not to sit at my table.”
Esther and I chalked it up to a childhood growing experience. After all, we reasoned, her daughter needed to learn how to advocate for herself and tell the teacher if something was bothersome. Also, Esther noted, it did not seem to bother her daughter fundamentally. Her daughter went to bed well and never refused to go to school in the morning. She was even called for play dates.
But the reports of the biting comments continued. During what was supposed to be a soothing nighttime bath, her daughter revealed that, “Sarah said that if I eat my dessert first she won’t invite me to her birthday party.”
Esther would have endless talks with her daughter trying to bolster her self-confidence and practice effective responses in such situations. She expressed a nagging worry that her daughter was continually being exposed to criticism by her peers—at the ripe age of four. But she still rationalized these experiences saying, “My daughter has to learn that children will not always be nice. She has to develop the skills to respond to the challenges.”
Esther made the teachers aware of the situation, to no avail. Her daughter was beginning to withdraw in her interactions with other children. .
One night, she called me, triumphant. “I did it. I pulled her out of the school.”
I was shocked. Shouldn’t her daughter stay, if only to grow from these occurrences?
I was shocked. Yes her daughter did seem to be having a difficult time, but I did not know if it warranted such a drastic decision. Shouldn’t her daughter stay, if only to grow from these occurrences?
Then Esther told me what had been the final straw. She was listening in on a conversation that her daughter was having with a little boy around her age. The boy was talking excitedly about a neat truck he had seen. Her daughter responded with what was presumably most on her mind:
“Pinny at school said that I’m not his friend.”
“At my daughter’s age, her thoughts and conversations should be about how high her Abba pushed her on a swing or her favorite doll, not about her latest social ostracism. I didn’t realize how much these assaults were affecting her until then.”
I started to see her point.
“I realized I did not have to send her into a potentially caustic environment,” Esther concluded. “It was doing her more harm than good.”
As a parent, I have received varying perspectives from family, friends, and society on how one should expose one’s child to reality. Most of these messages involve how I must help my young children learn to cope through adversity to get them ready for the harsh challenges of the “outside world.” Sheltering one’s child or providing something akin to a “band aid” is considered a parental error at best and a damaging transgression at worst.
Childhood is life, not merely the preparation for life.
I think this perspective reflects a fundamental error in our raising our children. We forget that childhood is life, not merely the preparation for life. The personal integrity of all beings, even the very smallest, demands that they be spared pain and hardship to the greatest possible extent.
Yes, it is important to allow one’s child to experience and handle difficult situations to learn important life lessons. But when does lesson learning turn into excessive hurt and suffering?
The answer is a function of the extent of the hardship, and the individual child’s ability to process the circumstances.
I remember being teased in nursery school by two little girls who wore all the latest pink, frilly styles. I was mortified by my blue, boyish Osh Kosh B’Gosh pants, and the girls’ continued cliquishness and unfriendly behavior did not help my self-esteem. The adults surrounding me assured me that I was adorable with what I was already wearing, and that I did not need the approval of those girls to feel good about myself. But at the age of four, all I understood was that my blue jeans were ugly and that I was profoundly unhappy. I could not yet assimilate my prolonged uncomfortable experiences as being something other than a consequence of something that was wrong with me. These painful memories contributed to lowered self-esteem during my school years.
As parents we cannot assume that every challenge will be beneficial in strengthening our children’s abilities to cope. For many children, a blow will simply hurt.
Esther’s daughter left that nursery school and is currently thriving in a smaller environment which allows the teachers to be aware of every student at any given part of the day. The school also has a strong focus on helping children learn how to have healthy social interactions.
In a child’s turbulent and unpredictable life, sometimes a safe shelter is just what he or she needs to weather the storm.
*Names and minor details have been changed to protect the parties involved.