Cars poured in; parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles emerged carrying various-sized balloons, and colorful flowers, and wearing huge smiles on their faces. As they assembled, twenty small children lined up, hip to hip, preparing to sing songs and receive their preschool graduation certificates.
The banner read, “Welcome to the 2023 Preschool Graduation!”
It was a celebration parents waited years to be able to attend in person again. It signaled a collective sigh of relief, a return to normalcy for these families who struggled through the pandemic in survival mode for years on end.
But for the three and four-year-olds, it was a totally different experience. The music started, and some kids were uber-silly, exaggerating the words and motions; some just stood there silent but smiling, and others enjoyed themselves as they performed for their families.
And then, there she was; one little girl starting to shut down.
With an average of five adults to every student, she looked out at a sea of a hundred tall adults, looking down at what must have felt like only her. Teachers encouraging her to smile while doing the hand motions for the song. Her family encouraging her to participate. Combined with the music and her friends next to her, it was just too much.
Complete and total sensory overload.
She took three steps back, but it wasn't enough.
She took ten steps back, but it still wasn't enough.
She continued steadily moving backward until she found a safe-enough place to stop, wait and watch her classmates perform.
While everyone else was holding back bittersweet tears, I focused on her, observing her body language.
Every step she took, she got physically smaller, and more contained. Her muscles clenched, trying to create her own sense of emotional and physical safety inside a situation that felt out of control to her. Her face scrunched in a silent ‘no’ as her parents waved and tried to get her back.
Here’s what she did. She stayed put until it was over.
Here's what she didn't do: She didn't melt down. She didn't cry. She just stood there, literally holding her ground.
I was so impressed, amazed by this little girl who, a month or two before, would have melted down, followed by a waterfall of tears. But on that day, she showed off her newly learned emotional regulation skills by listening to her body, by choosing to move it to a place that felt ‘okay enough’ to survive the moment.
The kids’ songs concluded, and the sea of grown-ups clapped and cheered but, honestly, I was celebrating her for how far she'd come.
The event ended, pictures were taken, and hugs were exchanged. I said my goodbyes to the staff and headed towards my car. It was then I heard someone yelling. I turned instinctively and saw this little girl’s mom putting her in her car seat. Her angry voice carried, “I am so mad at you. You let us down. Why didn't you do what the rest of the kids did?”
Every sentence was a jab to the heart, and I struggled for the rest of the day.
I wrestled with my own emotions because I’m an energy absorber still learning how to let go of what isn’t mine to carry.
I forced myself not to judge somebody else's words, voice, and tone, knowing that she was struggling too and that parenting in public is hard.
But mostly, I grieved for this little girl, knowing that kids believe everything their parents tell them to be true, even if it’s not. Hearing one of your most trusted adults say those things to you is traumatic and leaves a mark that she’ll have to work hard to unlearn—someday.
The effects of living through the COVID-19 pandemic are just now starting to show themselves in our humanness, in our distress, in our psycho-social relationships, and in our struggle to deeply and healthily connect with other people.
This little girl struggled that day because of her experience, or more accurately, her lack of experience, navigating the world during her first few years of life. She had limited practice in navigating small or large group settings. Of course, it was scary and overwhelming. Of course, she wasn’t ready for what it would be like to stand in front of a crowd and perform.
I cannot assume or pass judgment on anything because I don't know what the little girl's mother's childhood was like; however, like many of us, she likely allowed her childhood experiences to shape the blueprint for how she believed she should parent.
This mother probably felt the weight of the world thrown at her during the lockdown, and she lived in ‘survival mode’ for years as the Pandemic wore on.
For her, this ceremony and her child's active participation symbolized a return to normal. Unfortunately, she failed to understand that her child wasn't ready for this.
As we step into post-pandemic parenting, we cannot hold our children accountable for pre-pandemic expectations.
The world has changed, but their developmental programming has not. The COVID Generation has missed out on years of organically occurring opportunities to practice behavioral social norms, understand and regulate their emotions, and talk with others inside conversations that go back and forth.
To practice what they do under stress, employ creative problem-solving, and how to control their body when they feel unsafe or scared, or overwhelmed.
Our children need guidance and cheerleaders. They need a supportive village filled with their parents, teachers, family members, and coaches.
This is what the COVID generation needs from us.
We need to focus less on ABCs, 123’s, colors, and numbers and more on social, emotional, and interpersonal skill development.
They need us to take a deep, understanding breath as we strap them into their car seat after a challenging and scary situation and calmly say,
“Wow, I saw how scared you were standing there with your friends. That was a lot of people looking at you, wasn't it? I noticed you had to move your body to feel safe.
And you know what? That's okay. We still cheered for you. We will always cheer for you. Whenever you're ready to stand with your friends –maybe next year, maybe not – we will celebrate you then too! Good for you for listening to your body. I love you.”
When we communicate in this way, we are raising our children to understand that it's okay to be who they are in any situation and that they can make their own choices.
This is collaborative parenting.
This is how we raise world-ready kids who will change the world.