With the start of a new school season, I am faced with the prospect of all four children finally attending elementary school. In the rush to make sure I had purchased four backpacks, four lunch bags, four pencil cases, eight pairs of shoes and so on and so on, I had not taken any time to sit and think about this momentous occasion. For the last four years, my eldest has been in school; two years ago, my second born started, and now, after four years of constantly having them with me, the twins are joining their older brother and sister in going to school. And for the last few months, many people have asked me what I am going to do with myself on that first day, when all four children climb the steps into the yellow bus and head off towards higher education and the rest of their lives.
Well, let's take a step back; because here in Ottawa, starting school is a long, drawn-out process. First, the kids and I have to go in for a little meet-and-greet with the kindergarten teachers, then the following week, they will go in for one morning, and not until the third week of the school year, will all four of my children begin going to school every day. Apparently, the point of this long introduction is so that the children can become accustomed to the idea of spending a morning at school. So that years from now, they are not tragically traumatized from kindergarten, and will not need massive amounts of therapy to cope with every day life because they were forced to start school on the same day as every other child in the school. The fact that more than half of all children now attend daycare facilities from the time they are able to walk and have therefore already been separated from Mum and Dad for years seems to have escaped the common sense of the Ministry of Education.
Ottawa is hardly alone in staggering the start of the school year for its youngest students. The practice is now commonplace across Canada, in Britain, the United States and Australia. While the practice may confound the start of the school year, many teachers seem to love it. On one website in particular, a teacher posted a note to her fellow educators, asking about staggered entry and from the responses she received, her colleagues in the classroom are overwhelmingly in favour of this process. Most of their answers however, all seem to have to do with making things easier for them; where to sit which child, claiming fewer discipline problems, and that staggered entry helps shy children adjust better.
The question is, though, is all of this really necessary? I, and every other adult I have ever met, started school on day one, just like every other child. Thirty-five years after I first went to kindergarten, I have zero memories of my time there. I could not say whether I was a discipline problem for my teacher or if I was too shy to talk to any of the other children. But I do not spend my days whining and complaining about how my life would be so much different today if only I had been able to start kindergarten over a three week period. The claim by educators is that all these changes to school systems have been made to ensure the best start in life for our children.
But wait just one minute here; I would argue that we are doing our children a disservice by bubble wrapping them to keep their feelings intact. In our haste to ensure that everyone is accepted and enjoys their time at school, what about developing our children's characters? Michael Phelps, America's newest hero, is an eight time Olympic gold medal champion and a world record holder. He is also taller than average and physically capable of performing feats in a swimming pool that most of us can only dream about, and he was bullied as a child. He has talked openly about how hard it was for him, but he sums up his experience in one simple sentence, “It made me stronger.”
If bullying helped Michael Phelps develop into the man he is today, surely starting school at the same time as everyone else should not be detrimental to one's self worth? Bullying may not be the best way to develop a strong sense of self, but we are told regularly that children are resilient; that they can handle change easily. This statement generally comes from people trying to argue that divorce does not affect a child; well, if something like the breakup of a marriage does not affect a child's ability to “bounce back”, why should starting school?
The staggered entry policy seems to be up there with the long lists of school supplies that comes home every year; everything is about making things easier for the teachers. My children were not sent to daycare and so, in theory, should have had a harder time than most in adjusting to school. I am about to send my youngest two off to kindergarten and I fully expect that they will have the same experience as their older siblings; they will be thrilled that they are finally “big kids” and will come home full of stories about singing, doing crafts, learning to read and playing with new friends.
As for me, I will enjoy the extra time I have with my children, until that day when I do have to put all four on the bus and wipe away my tears while smiling encouragingly at them as they set off. Even if I still think that the only staggering they should be doing is into bed at the end of a long busy day.
Barbara Lilley is a writer and mother of four living in Ottawa, Canada.