There’s no one quite like a five year old to showcase the potential of escalation. Take the following case:
Five year old K has started kindergarten. She likes her class; the head teacher is a “boy teacher” who is “cool and rides a motorcycle” and K has already made friends. With three years of preschool under her tiny belt, she is adept at saying goodby to Mom and Dad (already long gone are the days of Mommy and Daddy) and functioning in a social milieu on her own. But the after school program poses more of a problem. It is no longer the coddling environment of four and five year olds with a 1:3 adult to child ratio, where clear and rehearsed rules govern every form of interaction and activity. The after school program, for all the compliments about it that I heard from other parents, is more of a free for all. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade spend the afternoon from school dismissal, at 2:25, until their parent/sitter/guardian can pick them up. There are some structured activities, there are some adults, and there are two rooms—one for grades K through 2, and one for the older kids—but there’s also an atmosphere of rough and tumble, a long recess at the playground with all the children at once, and indoor “free play” which causes the decibel level to rise far beyond what is comfortable to the normal human ear. A pack of 6-7 year old boys and a bin of Transformers; need I say more?
K does not do rough and tumble. To my chagrin and concern, she’s the kid who gets knocked down by a bigger kid, usually a boy, usually unintentionally, and sits there and cries. And so on the third day of school, during outdoor play in the afternoon, she tripped/was knocked down (the reports are varied) while running and fell flat on her head, nose, hands and knees. And she howled. And howled. And howled. At 3:00 pm I receive the dreaded call from after school: please come pick up your child. When I get there, three minutes later because we live around the corner and I had been working from home, she is a complete mess. Wailing, covered in bandaids, inconsolable.
“I can’t walk” she cries hysterically when I take her by the hand to get her to stand up.
“Of course you can,” I say calmly. “Your legs are still there. You just got some scrapes.”
“Noooooo! I can’t!”
And so begins a litany of “I can’ts” and “I’m scareds.” I can’t bend my leg, I can’t go up the stairs, I’m afraid it will hurt, I’m afraid the bandaids will come off in the bath, I wish this had happened to someone else, I should have been wearing knee pads (seriously, she said this), I can’t get onto my bed, the blanket will hurt my knee, I can’t lie down, I won’t be able to sleep, I don’t like after school, I need to stay home, I don’t want to be five, and on and on. And I feel bad for her, but a large part of me wants to shake her by the shoulders and say Kid, take a breath, take control, be strong, dare to bend your leg and you’ll see it’s not that bad. I want to tell her, Be The People! Because that’s what it is. Don’t let the bigger kid who happened to tumble into you and knock you down get to decide, even unbeknownst to him, whether you like school or not. Don’t let a relatively minor booboo determine whether you are going to have a good day or not. She is so independent in other ways, so resilient to change and new things, and yet so easily knocked off balance by little things that hurt. Is this something I can teach her? Is this something that can be taught at all? I hope so.