Dear Kavya, You…

Dear Kavya,

You started pre-school on July 1st, a few days ago, and it's not going well.

The night before, I couldn't sleep. Kevin and I were both worried about how you would adapt. You've been at home for three years, mostly either with us or with your nanny Jarmila, who really has been like part of the family. You're happy with all three of us; when one of us is watching you, you laugh and sing and dance and demand we build cities with you or draw or go to the park. You talk constantly, and you make up weird, delightful stories.

You didn't take so well to some of the other babysitters we've tried recently, Adriana and Alma, even though they're both really sweet and are great with your brother. Partly I think it's just that you've had a lot of change lately -- since the end of last July, we've moved to Daniel and Anne's for two months, moved to a rental house in Oak Park, moved to another rental house. As Jarmila got busier finishing up her degree, we had to bring in the other babysitters. And for two months, your parents were so busy with the move and the end of school that we actually had to have seven days a week of childcare in order to make it through. We were still around, but most of the daytime, someone else was actively taking care of you. You didn't always love that.

We had gotten you a little tent, a PeaPod, because we knew that between the two family trips this summer and the move, we'd likely need a place for you to sleep for a few nights. As it turned out, you fell madly in love with it, and have refused to sleep in your bed ever since we opened it up. Which is fine -- your bed will wait for you. If you're happier sleeping in your little green tent, if you feel more secure in its confines, that's just fine. But especially the week before and after the move, when we were at our most harried, you took to just going and hiding in your tent in the middle of the day. Sometimes a couple of times a day. Which was a little worrisome.

And then the first day of school arrived. Your dad and I packed you both up and took you in. Anand went to his caregiver, no problem, as expected. Your dad played with you on the playground there while I talked to teachers and learned what they needed from us. And then it was time for us to go. You weren't thrilled about going with a teacher, but there were two little boys playing nearby. They said they were making food for the ants. And you said you wanted to make food for the ants. And the teacher said okay, let's get you a shovel. And off you went, seemingly content.

We came to pick you up after a half day; they'd recommended not starting with a full day, since it could be a bit of a shock for little people. You were all having lunch, and at first, you didn't want to go. We weren't sure what to do, and made the mistake of asking if you'd rather stay with the others for the afternoon, or go home to see Jarmila. That was apparently too hard a decision, because you started crying. So we scooped you up and took you home. You calmed down almost immediately, so it seemed reasonably okay.

But the next morning was awful.

I was going to New York, and had to leave at 9:30 to head to the airport for my flight. It was my parents' fortieth wedding anniversary, and my sisters and I had planned to take them to a nice lunch in the city as part of their gift from us. So I couldn't linger at pre-school that morning. You didn't want to go. You cried at the house, and I had to carry you out to the car. Which was tricky, because I had to carry your brother too. You calmed down a little driving over, but then started crying again after I dropped Anand off in his room. I tried to play with you a little on the playground, with a few other kids, and that went okay. We dug in the dirt -- I would dig a triangle, or a line, and the other kids would erase it with more dirt, and you thought that was very funny. You laughed. I thought maybe this would be okay after all. But time was passing, and I had to get going to the airport. When I stood up, you started just wailing. One of the teachers came over and picked you up and carried you away. When I walked out of the playground, you were howling, holding your arms out to me and calling. That shredded me.

It gets worse.

I called your dad from New York, to find out how the rest of the day had gone. He'd had to drop off some supplies for Anand, and afterwards he'd stayed and worked at the cafe next door. It has a big sunroom with windows that overlook the playground, so that working there, he could watch you, but you weren't likely to see him. It's one of the things we liked best about this particular preschool (along with the fact that Catherine and Robert, Daniel and Anne's kids, go there). He said that he saw you on the playground. You spent the entire time sitting on a bench, quietly. And when he came to pick you up, you were sitting on that same bench, and you had had a little accident and your pants were wet. You've been doing so well on toilet training, but I guess you didn't want to go tell the teachers that you needed the restroom. You hate being wet, or dirty. How miserable you must have been, sitting all alone, wet and uncomfortable, waiting. Did you even believe that we would come back?

Whenever I leave, I say, "I have to go to work, but I'll come back. I'll always come back." After the first time I said that, you latched on to it, and sometimes, you finish it for me, before I can. I say, "I have to go to work." And you say, "But you always come back." And I say, "That's right."

When your dad told me about you sitting on that bench, I wanted to pull you right out of the school. You're so little. You're too little to be so sad.

But we'd planned to give it at least a week, to give you time to adjust. After a week, you've adjusted to the new house -- you don't go hide in your tent anymore during the day. You laugh and run and tell stories, just like you used to. My sister, Mirna, thinks we should give you at least two weeks in the school, to see how it goes. She's probably right, even though it feels like we're torturing you.

All the other kids seem happy there. They laugh and run and play. We could take you home, do a combination of us watching you with a babysitter three days a week. We could afford that, though we'd fall further behind on our work. But most of the point of starting you in pre-school is that it seemed like it was time. You're great with adults, especially cheerful, outgoing adults. But you're not good at playing with other kids. You get overwhelmed easily if there's more than one or two of them. In not too long, you'll have to be in school with lots of kids, five days a week. So maybe it's worth trying to help you adapt to it now, in a smaller group.

I always kind of laughed at parents of 'sensitive' kids. I thought those parents were overly protective, and if they just relaxed and let the kid go, they'd do fine. But you really are sensitive in some ways. You can't take a harsh word or a raised voice -- if, at the end of a long day, I start to snap even a little, you immediately crumple. Maybe it's that we've been so gentle with you, or maybe it's just who you are. My dad says that he was a sensitive kid too, so maybe it's genetic.

We'll give it another week, maybe even two. Although if you keep crying the way you did on Friday, it is going to break my heart. I was riding the train back from New York yesterday, and there were these teenagers sitting across from me. And they were so young, and beautiful, and perfect. Since we had you, all children look that way to me. Even my college students do. And I know that the world is full of hard things, and I even believe that sometimes, the hard things are good for us, and make us stronger. But still. This isn't easy.

I was talking to your dad about this, and he said, "You know, this is just the beginning. Someday, she's going to be dating some boy you don't like." This is part of the parental job, I know. Letting you do things, even things that might cause you pain. It's part of helping you grow, and I can suck it up and do it. I can. But I don't have to like it.

So much love and so many apologies,
Amma

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19 thoughts on “Dear Kavya, You…”

  1. Small children need what they need. It is not true that toddlers need to “practice” being independent or they fail to become independent later. In fact, the opposite is true. If you meet their needs well at this age, they will blossom on their own schedule and you will not find yourself dealing with a teenager with abandoment issues. What does your mother think you should do? I do not trust mainstream American parenting wisdom. I think American kids are messed up. I’ll bet your mother and grandmother did a better job.

    My son was sensitive, too. At the age of three, he was in cooperative preschool for two hours at a time, three days a week. This was tough for him. He would cry a lot when he got dropped off. Sometimes for 45 minutes at a time. We felt this was enough stress for him. The crying didn’t really stop until second or third grade. Yes, he’s sensitive, and he finally did mature out of his clinginess and is a happy, normal, well-adjusted tweener who is very close to his parents, is academically successful, has many friends, and does not have any “issues” or problems at all.

  2. I was a sensitive kid. And I’ve read through this post about ten times and I can’t, for the life of me, figuring out what you’re “letting” her do. Making her, yes.

    I wish my parents had done a lot less of “letting” me be independent and had given me a lot more time and attention that was honestly about building a relationship with me. They were damn good at placating, then forcing me to do stuff, then placating me, then forcing me some more… is it any wonder I avoid them now? And I wasn’t even foisted off on nannies!

    Look, I’m almost done with a doctorate and I live independently in a large city. I have a great partner and good friends. And it’s okay that I didn’t get there in junior high or high school, much less preschool. It’s perfectly okay to be a sensitive kid. You just become a sensitive adult. And the world needs more of this, not less. Don’t fuss about how your daughter fits into social institutions like school and dating–fuss about the ways institutions don’t fit her needs. She very likely had an accident because she was scared you weren’t coming back. That fear is rooted so deep, it may never go away.

    So don’t squash the sensitivity out of her. I know it’s a hard parenting job, believe me (my mother will never let me forget). Just… be a little more understanding, please. You’re setting your child up for greater hurts, and it pains me so very deeply to see it.

    Elaine Aron’s book on the Highly Sensitive Child might be good reading for you.

  3. (Note: I almost didn’t respond to the second comment, because I was so upset by the ‘foisted off on nannies’ line. Did you want to come across as that critical, given that you know Kavi has had a nanny most of her life? If you’re looking for actual dialogue on a complex topic, rather than just being mean and judgemental, you might want to reconsider your language.)

    In any case, at this age, almost everything you do with them is as much ‘making’ as ‘letting’, whether it’s encouraging them to use the potty or eat new foods or turn off the tv and play with blocks, etc and so on. An awful lot of what they’d like to do (what they even beg to do) is also clearly bad for them and will make them miserable (staying up very late, eating lots of sugar, etc.), so you quickly realize that you need to be very clear about what their parents expect of them. It makes you happier, and it makes them a *lot* happier.

    And just to clarify, my mother has been telling us to put Kavi in pre-school for at least a year now. She was a Montessori teacher in Sri Lanka, and is a big advocate of its benefits for small children.

    And she also tells me that when I was a baby in Sri Lanka, I had my own nanny. Middle-class families are much more likely to have hired help in Sri Lanka than they are in America. The family also had at least one cook, and I think an outside chores guy. And of course the caste system meant that they never did their own laundry or toilet cleaning. It was a different world, so it’s a little hard to compare our lives to theirs.

    As for the rest — we’re going to wait and see. Kavi hated the move, but is now very happy in the new house. If she doesn’t adjust happily to the new school within a few weeks, we’ll try something else, but we *think* she’ll actually be happier with this very quickly. She was getting very bored at home with us, and was always asking to play with other kids.

    But the adjustment period is hard.

    Several other parents have told us that within a week or two, when she’s been through a few days of us dropping her off and picking her up on a regular schedule and really understands that we’ll be back for her after naptime, she’ll be much more secure about it all. I hope they’re right. We’ll see.

  4. I agree with Catherine and the second poster. The book recommendation is a good one.

    Please treat your daughter with compassion and patience. She’s so little. What she understands — at an emotional level, not a logical one — is that mommy and daddy are very, very busy, even when they are at home with her, and that a lot of their attention goes to the baby and work and other things. She’s gone from having a lot of parental attention to having very little of it. What with the additional upheaval due to housing shifts and changing nannies, etc., it’s no wonder that she’s having some trouble adjusting.

  5. My middle one is my sensitive child. At 11 she still prefers groups of only one or two others and we moved her into private schools for more structure and smaller class sizes than the public school could offer at the recommendation of our doctor.

    That said, giving Kavi a little more time is wise. It is also listening to her as to the “why” she doesn’t want to be there. At 4 my eldest could tell me she didn’t like preschool because there was no “me time”. They play together, learn together, eat together, even nap together. She needed time for her own thoughts. If that is the reason for the time alone on the bench, it is who she is and it is ok. If Kavi can articulate in her child way, why things are not ok in her world a good preschool staff will work with you to help make things ok.

    Let Kavi know that when accidents (whether wetting or any other kind of accident) happen she can tell her teacher who can help her solve the problem without being angry or judging. Sometimes it is just not understanding that this person with me is the person who I should ask for help.

    I love the tent as a housing transition and safe place for Kavi. As we have been moving ourselves, it was interesting… we had to complete my sensitive child’s room first before anything other than toiletries and minimal cookware were unpacked because the chaos was too much. It’s ok, it is just who she is.

    Your young family will get through this. She’ll give the clues to figure out what she needs and your love will help you solve them.

    I’m cheering for you. We’re all in this together.

  6. chel, that was incredibly helpful. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Kavi might be choosing to sit on the bench by herself as a break from all the together-time of pre-school. That makes so much sense, and fits in so well with her personality. (And Kevin’s, now that I think about it.) I can’t know for certain that that’s what’s going on yet, but I’ll ask her and see what she says.

    I think in part because I’m so outgoing (and my family is too), that it’s been worrying me a lot that Kavi seems so quickly overwhelmed in large groups and noisy places. I think I’ve been thinking that this is a consequence of how she’s been raised, that she’s been too much alone with just us. But maybe that’s just who she is, and perhaps will always be. That’s fine, if so, and we can work to accommodate that, to make quiet spaces in her life — it just isn’t something I’d even thought of.

    They actually start a new teacher on Tuesday, (no school tomorrow, 4th of July observed), so we’re planning to take some extra time to talk to her about what happened last week and make sure that she knows Kavi is new to the school and could use some extra watching and attention. I’ll also try to make extra sure that Kavi knows that she should go to that teacher if she has an accident or any other problem. (She still has accidents occasionally with us sometimes, when she gets particularly distracted by a game or some such, so it’s not just the school freaking her out.) That was a helpful idea. It’s something we can talk to Kavi about in advance too, at home.

    Thanks *so* much for the kind advice.

  7. Having children around the same age as you, I am surprised that your children have been able to handle the many transitions in your lives. Just going out for the day requires so much planning and wow I can’t imagine handling all the things you guys have been going through lately. I think as things calm down she will do better. She is just overwhelmed at present. BTW, you may have had a nanny in SL but there is no way your mother let her do the things your nanny does in America. In SL, most of the times the nanny keeps diapers changed, does baby laundry washing etc and is always under her watchful eye. The baby is also not left alone with the nanny when the mother goes out, the child goes with the mother.

  8. Hey MaryAnne,
    I just wanted to say I hear you. It’s tough those first weeks of day care but when Zoe was 2, it was no big deal. When she was three, she cried every day for two weeks. But then she was fine. Most days, she is bummed that it’s Saturday and there’s no school.
    We went through a highly “sensitive” weekend so this post made me cry because it’s so hard–watching them make themselves more independent. But they do it. Usually with more grace and style than we who watch them do.

  9. Akshia, you’re probably right about her settling as things calm down. We don’t have anything else planned until my sister’s wedding at the end of July — and then essentially no more big changes for at least six months after that. So that’s something.

    That’s interesting what you say about Sri Lanka — I’ll have to ask my mom about that. She certainly hasn’t seemed concerned about our leaving Kavi with our nanny, and in fact encouraged me to get someone sooner than I did.

    Of course, families were much bigger back there too, so again, it’s such a different dynamic that it’s very hard to compare. The house was never empty; there were always so many people around to help keep a watchful eye on the little ones. And also so many willing arms to hold them. One of the serious advantages of the big / joint family.

    My mom is the oldest of nine — my grandmother was pregnant or breastfeeding for 15-20 years, I think, pretty constantly. It’s hard for me to even imagine that, given how miserably sick and exhausted pregnancy made me, like being ill with a bad flu for nine months. I hope she had easier pregnancies. She certainly started much younger (almost 20 years younger).

    Nik, thanks. Hearing other stories helps, even if it’s purely anecdotal. The academic in me is frustrated that there isn’t better data on the whole outside-the-home-care thing, but all the books I’ve read seem to indicate that it just varies too much from individual child to individual child. Frustrating.

  10. My daughter never had the chance to do Montessori for a lot of reasons and I wish she had. As a parent who has sent both kids to full time daycare (which I don’t necessarily think is great for all kids though it worked fine for my family), I would also talk to the teachers. They have seen a zillion kids and know what is normal and what is not. You may think “well the teachers don’t know my kid” which is of course true, but they do know a lot about kids in general and have seen it all. I find that school works well when you see teachers as partners. Its hard sometimes, but they appreciate it as well. I will also say that your daughter is not a baby anymore. Its perfectly normal for her to spend some time around other kids and she may have some issues, but definitely give it a few weeks. I don’t know anyone who didn’t send their kid to at least part time preschool when they were three, even the homeschoolers I know didn’t start it until their kids were older and it wasn’t because they had a bad experience in preschool.

    The first day is usually fine, but obviously she knew you were leaving, so of course the 2nd day was horrible. It may even be hard next week. Talk to the teachers.

  11. Wow, Mary Anne — I’m so sad you and Kavya have had to go through this. There are no easy answers. Kids are different — some go right in, others, like Kavya and my Topaz, have a harder time. I think I cried just as hard as Topaz did during his first week at his Montessori pre-school, and he was also very used to having a part-time babysitter. One thing that might help — can you gradually transition her in? Spend an hour or so volunteering (reading to the kids, etc.) in the classroom one day, then gradually decrease the amount of time you’re there over a week? That helped us with Indigo, although it didn’t so much with Topaz. Good luck. Blah. BTW, Topaz now won’t leave when we pick him up. “One more minute,” he says.

  12. (Great comment, chel!)

    Speaking as a non-parent (and therefore possibly entirely irrelevantly):

    Even as an adult, I think I would find the amount of Big Change y’all have been going through really stressful. I love the tent idea, and I’m really glad Kavi has learned to use it to satisfy her needs. And if it were me (again, even as an adult), I would totally go sit on the bench away from the other kids, especially on the first or second day in such a new environment.

    And I think it would take me more than one or two days to fully adjust to the new situation. For that matter, I would expect that most kids would be upset the first couple of times that their parents left them with semi-strangers. To me, your plan to give her at least a week to adjust sounds like a really good idea.

    I think another way of saying some of what you said about making kids do things is that there’s always a balance to be struck (and often a difficult one) between listening to the kid’s expressed needs and deciding what you (the responsible adult) think is best for the kid. Fwiw, I think you folks do a good job with that.

  13. How wonderful that your mother is such an expert! She also knows Kavi well (I assume) so she can give you good advice, and I think you should listen to her. One thing I will say is that it took my son a full TWO MONTHS to acclimate to any new teacher or caregiver. Every. Single. Time. Two months. It wasn’t until he was in fourth grade that he was able to transition to a new teacher with ease. And it was so frustrating because parent-teacher conferences always happened during this transition period, so we were constantly getting feedback that he was not talking or participating enough in class discussions, and had to explain that he was still working on bonding with the teacher. So depending on her specific personality, it may be a while before you see improvement. If it is only two weeks, then you are golden. Volunteering in the classroom may be good for you, but will probably not help her that much. In the cooperative nursery, I had to volunteer regularly, and that just made it harder on the days when I wasn’t going to be there. I can tell you that the potty accidents are very common and normal and nothing to worry about alone. It could be a sign she was stressed. It could also be a sign she was playing and distracted or not used to the routine and environment yet. If she needs prompting and help to use the bathroom, the caregiver may need to be told that. They may be expecting the kids to be totally independent in using the potty. I know that in my son’s 3 year old class, there was a child-friendly, accessible bathroom that the kids used when needed. They did not say anything to an adult or ask for help. A lot of them also wore pull ups for the two hours “just in case.”

    As a mother of two young children, you are doing the equivalent of at least two full time jobs–the demands on you are great. If there is any way you or Kevin could reduce your hours or work load, I think you would find it is worth it. I hope you don’t have any more weeks where you need seven days of full time care–that can’t be a peaceful or nuturing schedule for any of you! When you get moved into your permanent home, that will help, too. Hang in there!

    (I also think some of the phrasing in the second comment is needlessly harsh, but it is also an interesting comment. I would wish that no sensitive child would grow to feel that he/she had been a burden to their parents, and it’s unfair because as older children and teenagers, the “sensitive” child is a delight.)

  14. Hi, Mary Anne
    Just wanted to chime in here as I also have a somewhat sensitive child who has just completed two years of Montessori. She started at just about the same age as Kavya. My girl actually did great in the first week of day care and then starting Montessori preschool. It was the next three weeks (with each experience of starting a new care-giving situation) that were difficult with much crying and clinging. After a full month, she turned a corner and was excited about going to day care/school. The timing was exactly the same for 3 different new experiences. Kavya will have her own adjustment timing, but I do think it wise to stick with it for a bit.

    Re: the bench-sitting – when my daughter first started preschool, one of the Montessori teachers mentioned that Katie seemed to prefer sitting on a bench and chatting with teachers to playing with the other children on the playground. Like Kavya, she was just more accustom to interacting with adults at that stage. She did move on from the teachers and developed close friendships with the other kids.

    Montessori schools may share a philosophy and some practices, but implementation differs among schools making them difficult to compare. That said, I do credit Katie’s Montessori experience with fostering her confidence and self-esteem among peers. When you see the other children at the school being happy, respectful, and confident in their play, that is a good sign. At least some of them must have been like Kavya when they first started.

    Most importantly, trust yourself and your parenting and tune out those who are judgmental and critical. We all must do what we think is best for ourselves, our child, our family. You are the expert on your child. Parenting is the toughest thing I have ever done, and I screw up way more than I ever have in my professional career!

    Deb

  15. I think it would be odd if Kavi did not get upset when first starting preschool.My boys started preschool with a class of 2-3 year olds who were all starting together. There were many tears, screaming and clinging for the first few days from almost all of them. Some of them did not settle in for a couple of weeks. The teachers were great though and really helped with the transition to school. In the end, it was a great experience. At almost 7 years old, my twin boys are still friends with many of those same kids. I think Kavi will be adjust and be happy there.

  16. So many of the ways you think maybe you’ve made Kavi sensitive are familiar–as ways I often think I’ve let Violet be aggressive and intense and demanding! Kids are themselves, more than I would ever have guessed five years ago. I would let go of your worries about whether you caused the problem (where by problem I mean “she’s not happy at preschool yet”) and start from where you are.

    Violet is an intensely social kid but she had awful drop-offs for a long time. Awful. Like, “The teacher holds her back while I walk out the door” drop-offs. But oh how she loves it now.

  17. Sounds like Kevin is an introvert and Kavi may be too. I highly recommend The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney. I realize the little accident may well have been a factor, but watching the action for a while before joining in is classic introvert behaviour, and not unhealthy, just different from extrovert enthusiasm. There are so many things in this book I wish I’d known (and my parents had known!) when I was a kid.

  18. I am so sorry I didn’t read this before! I hope things are getting better. Well, actually I guaranty you they will be. Kavi is the smartest kid I have the pleasure to babysit in my entire nanny carrier, and she already needed more friends and new things to learn.
    It is very difficult at the beginning, but then they get used to school. Every kid cries for the parents the first 2 or even 3 weeks of class. Remember you are not dropping Kavi to school because you don’t have time for her, you are doing it for her, she wants to learn and do much more things than just staying at home, even with the 3 of us there.
    It is true that many changes came in place this past year, but that is not going to destroy Kavi’s spirit, she is much stronger than we sometimes think. Besides, the only most important thing kids need is their parents’ love. The world could be falling over but if Kavi and Anand have you and Kevin, they’ll feel reassured and happy.
    I was a sensitive kid too, only child, without a father, growing up in daycares, and moving every 2 years since I was born, until my 14s. And, well I think I’m a pretty normal person. My point is, YOU ARE DOING JUST FINE.
    Aw, Aksia. If you are reading this. I’m so sad for you. I’m sure you had probably a really bad experience with nannies in America. But, you ought to know that not all of them are like you think. I considered myself a pretty good one. Doing in Mary Anne’s house much more than what you mentioned, Kavi and Anand are my joy and part of my family and heart. I ask you please to do not give an opinion of my work with them without being informed. Thank you.

  19. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I just wanted to say that they were all really helpful. I think part of the stress is also my own confusion about how much to interact with the kids / teachers when we go there. I think I was anxious about being the ‘pushy’ parent, and the one who throws off the school routine by sticking around too long, and makes it difficult for everyone.

    But I did talk to her morning and afternoon teachers some, and I think they’re more actively keeping an eye on her now, and interacting with her, which seems to help. They say she isn’t crying at all at school, at any rate, and when I watched her from the cafe on Thursday, she seemed calm. Not joyfully playing yet, but not weeping either. Just wandering around, poking at the various toys.

    Jarmila, about once a day she says that she “misses Jarmila and Michael”. We do too. Well, mostly Jarmila. 🙂

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