When my daughter first started school I missed her so much. For five years we’d spent each and every day together. After a couple of hours at playgroup and nursery we’d sit down and chat about our mornings over lunch. Then we’d head out to have lovely adventures together in the afternoon.
When she started school suddenly the house seemed so very quiet. I ate my sandwiches alone, missing her chatter and laughter. I missed having her by my side and I would set off early looking forward to sweeping her up in my arms. As the school bell rang I imagined she would race across the playground to greet me.
But so very often that big cheery hug didn’t happen. Instead the child I picked up from school was sullen and sulky. She answered my questions with grunts, sharing nothing about the tales of her day. She’d moan and grump over every little thing that went wrong and every tiny thing I’d ask of her would be a battle. Quite frankly she was a little monster after school. She was like a different person. I began to worry how her teacher coped with this little bundle of crossness in her classroom day after day.
Our first parent’s evening
A few weeks into term we had a parent’s evening and I braced myself to talk about why my previously angelic little girl was acting out so badly. Was she utterly miserable at school? Did all the tears and tantrums mean she was struggling to settle? Was she forever getting told off for breaking rules and becoming the naughty child of the class?
I was floored when my child’s teacher told me that she was an absolute angel at school: so well behaved, so kind and helpful to others, so focused on her work. She was describing an entirely different child to the little bundle of crossness I picked up in the playground each day. What on earth was going on?
Dr Google gave me some insight
Bewildered by my little Jekyll and Hyde I did what any self respecting parent does and hit Dr Google for reassurance and answers. And what I discovered did make me understand things a little more.
It turns out that little kids save up all the worst behaviour for the ones they love the most. Because they know they’ll love them unconditionally. The more I read the more I began to get a better picture of what was going on. My little girl was trying so hard to behave and follow the school rules all day. Being an angel at school took up all her energy.
When she finally got home she had nothing left to give. My kid was all ruled out. She’d spent so much energy being quiet and good and hard working that she needed to let rip when she came home.
I was reassured to read that an expert into child behaviour, Sara Bean, from Empowering Parents said:
(Home is) a place where kids typically feel secure showing their ugliest behavior to adults. They know that you’ll still love them and they’ll still get their needs met if they act out. While it’s good for kids to feel loved and secure, that sense of safety also makes tantrums at home more likely.
I should have been flattered to be her safe person but it was still tough
Reading up on this common angel at school/devil at home transformation made me feel a little less panicked but it still wasn’t an easy pill to swallow.
Day after day I missed her and looked forward to seeing her after school. Day after day I felt dismayed that our afternoons and evenings were spoiled by her acting like a complete monster. It felt like school was ruining the close and easy bond we’d built.
I began to feel sad and a little jealous that I missed out on all the good bits during the school day and was left to mop up the tears and tantrums afterwards.
A tired body and a tired mind
I think I underestimated quite how tiring it could be to spend a whole day at school.
To listen and think and follow the complicated rules.
To worry about where to put your gym bag and what to do when you need to go to the toilet.
To be anxious about play times and worry about whether nobody wants to play with you.
To get worried about whether you’re doing your work right.
I know now, that it was inevitable that she would crumble when she got home and could relax.
Resetting the balance
After a few weeks I stopped moping about, put on my big girl pants and tried to think of ways to make the transition from school to home a little easier.
I made sure I was always armed with yummy snacks and a drink in the playground. And instead of launching into asking her about her day, we’d find a quiet corner to sit and let her refuel.
Then we’d plan really calm and quiet times for after school. We put playdates and after school activities on hold and just made after school time really low key and gentle. Sometimes we just snuggled together with a book or in front of a movie, sometimes she played with toys in her room, sometimes we just did nothing very much at all. Side by side and together. And we’d always ALWAYS end each night with a gentle bedtime routine and big squeezy sleepy cuddles.
As the weeks went by and the school term marched on she began to settle and get used to the demands of a busy school day. As she began to relax into the school routine she began slowly to have a little bit more energy left over afterwards too. And the tears and tantrums lessened.
At the next parent’s evening my heart swelled at the pictures she had drawn, the letters she had written and the paintings that were displayed on the classroom wall. And as her teacher told us how hard she worked, how well she behaved and what a pleasure she was to teach my heart burst with pride.
She had come so far and done so well settling into Big School and all its business and demands. And, in a way, so had I.
See our other mum story, A letter to my daughter on her first day of school.
- “Angel Child or Devil Child? When Kids Save Their Bad Behavior for You”, by Sara Bean