Lessons From Preschool, My Second Time Through

At the completion of my preschool graduation ceremony, I rushed to my mom and threw my arms around her knee, burying my face into her thigh. Sweet relief for an introverted 5-year-old from an eternity (maybe 20 minutes) of singing catchy tunes complete with hand motions to an emotive, proud-looking crowd. When I loosened my grip and looked up, my eyes met the amused, quizzical gaze of—gasp!—someone else’s mommy.

Pretty sure the butterfly I just halfheartedly crooned about becoming crawled right back into its chrysalis.

No doubt I learned a lot in preschool, but the one lesson that I unequivocally took with me—along with that vivid memory—was quite literally to look up.

Here I am in preschool again—my second time around. I spent the year watching my oldest child and the other adorably peculiar mini-humans in her class transition from mostly oblivious 3-year-olds to engaging, semi-composed (emphasis on semi) 4-year-olds.

They’ve learned so much this year. But I’ve learned more.

There’s an easy way to choose friends. My coffee and/or wine habits would be funded for the year if I had a dime for every time my daughter experienced a playdate injustice. So-and-so didn’t want to hold hands. Someone else refused to share the glitzy Elsa costume. My response would’ve included familiar words (Let. It. Go.)—but not so in preschool. My daughter’s teacher calmly shared some of the world’s best advice with her: “Find friends who make your heart happy.” Those simple, spot-on words—meant for preschoolers—have echoed in my own ears countless times this year.

The breakup recovery rule has other applications. Remember that ridiculous formula that calculated it took half the time of the actual relationship to get over a bad breakup? Maybe there was some validity to it. When my daughter missed three weeks of school due to a poorly timed illness that happened to strike right before a school break, reentry into the classroom was horrendous for all involved. Drop-off was torturous, and she ceased participating in once giggle-inducing activities. A week and a half. That’s precisely how long it took for her to return to smiling sweetly at the inviting classroom door. (This rule also held true when I returned to work after maternity leave this year: almost 4 months off, nearly 2 to really get back into the swing of things.)

Speak up—with both words and actions. My daughter isn’t the most outspoken child. More honestly put: she’s shy. Nothing too extreme (I hope), but more your garden variety, won’t-talk-to-you-until-she’s-105%-sure-about-you type of timidity. Somehow, she manages to get what she needs. She’ll walk up to her teacher with her coat opened and pause, her eyes doing the asking for help with that pesky zipper. I’ve been working with her on using her voice when she needs something—as have her teachers—but in the process, I’ve picked up some useful nonverbal communication techniques. It’s amazing what happens when instead of asking her 18 times to eat her lunch while I go about other tasks, I calmly hand her a fork, sit next to her, and pick mine up too.

Extreme kindness can be contagious. We’re all taught from the youngest possible age to be nice, courteous, polite, giving. The list of nuanced synonyms may be the length of a short story. During those few weeks when my daughter was having a particularly rough time (see section on the breakup rule), her teacher asked her what she likes to play at home, looking for a strategy to engage her at school. This inquiry was met with silence and a blank stare (see section on talking without actual speech—but this time there was no communication). What her thoughtful teacher did next blew me away: she asked if she could come over for a playdate. And do you know what? She actually meant it. This degree of caring—to genuinely offer to play with my child at our home, in an effort to better help her in the classroom—was the blow that burst the colorful, unicorn piñata, showering my family with a confetti explosion of kindness. The playdate didn’t actually happen, but that sincere display of kindheartedness and compassion stays with me (and undoubtedly with my daughter), inspiring me to pay it forward and release my own go-out-of-my-way type energy into the world.

On an afternoon walk on this last week of the preschool year, my daughter looked up at the sky and said, “Mommy, I see the moon already! Where does it go when the sun is up? And where does the sun go at nighttime?”

Apparently, she has already learned my momentous preschool lesson about looking up. Here’s hoping she has also internalized some of the other things I’ve picked up throughout her preschool experience. Lucky for both of us, we have one more year.