The most wonderful times

A few years ago, there was a TV commercial that began with an empty department store aisle and a holiday song: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." A shopping cart rolls onscreen, followed by a man skipping gleefully behind it, pulling notebooks and pencil holders from the shelves and tossing them into the cart. Finally, his dejected children trudge into view.

"Our Back-to-School Special," says the narrator, "now through Labor Day."

By the time September rolls around, most of us are happy to bring back some daily structure to our kids' lives. On the first day of school, we walk them to their new classrooms, then turn around and head for the door with a little sigh of relief.

But on the way out, we pass a classroom where there's no relief in sight. There are tears, and tantrums, and blank, confused stares. And that's just the parents. We hurry by and think: "Thank God this isn't our first day of kindergarten."

The build-up to that scene started about a year ago, when those parents first considered their kindergarten options in earnest. That's when the madness began.

When we care deeply about something, but there's not much we can do about it, we obsess over the tiny part that we can control. Say, for instance, that you want your kid to have a happy life. You want them to be successful, and well-adjusted, and loved. You want them to have a beautiful family, amazing friends, and a deeply fulfilling career. As a matter of fact, you'd cut off your right arm with a spoon if it would guarantee them those things.

The trouble is, it won't. Neither will stalking the Harvard Dean of Admissions, or selecting a future son-in-law on That's because your kid is five years old.

So you throw yourself completely into the one thing you can change right now: kindergarten.

You used to assume your kid would go to the neighborhood school. It's so convenient, and it seems like such a nice place. But then you sign up for the school's prospective parent tour, and that's where you meet them: The Uber-Parents.

They force their way to the front of the group, parting the crowd with their bulging clipboards. Before anyone else can speak, they launch into a barrage of questions.

"How many students get subsidized lunch?"

"How many go on to advanced placement programs?"

"What are your lock-down procedures?"

"Do you have an earthquake preparedness plan?"

Clearly, they are much better parents than you are. You chase them down after the tour and find out they've visited 23 different kindergartens and ranked them all using a complicated five-star system.

"How does this school rate?" you ask, trying to sound nonchalant.

They shake their heads dismissively. "Two, maybe two and a half stars. Mediocre test scores, and no language immersion. Not an option."

Just like that, your kindergarten juggernaut starts to roll. A year later, after visiting every school within a thirty-mile radius, you've finally made your tortured, conflicted choice, and worked yourself into a frenzy of anxiety and buyer's remorse. Time to leave your kid in an unfamiliar building with a bunch of complete strangers.

What could possibly go wrong?

Let me try to help. Here are your mantras for the day. Repeat as needed.

  1. "It's only kindergarten." The stakes just aren't that high. They'll sit on tiny chairs and trace maple leaves on orange construction paper. They'll learn to line up single file, and use their indoor voices. They'll jump rope, and play tether ball, and climb the jungle gym. The Ivy League it's not.
  2. "Leave it to the pros." Kindergarten teachers are amazing. Mrs. Kato, who taught both my kids at Beacon Hill Elementary, is known as "St. Nina" in our household. These are skilled, loving, experienced professionals who are good at what they do. Let them do it.
  3. "Fake it ‘til you make it." In new situations, your child looks to you for cues. If you seem anxious and upset, what does that tell them about this strange new place? Try to be calm, curious and unafraid. And if you can't feel that way, at least act that way.

We parents have to learn this dance again and again: prepare, and worry—and then let go. It happens over and over: at sleepovers, high school dances, first year of college, and right up to their wedding day. These moments are what we fear and cherish the most: our children's freedom. And in the end, they really are wonderful—but terrifying—times.

A year from now, you'll be dancing down the school supply aisle with the rest of us. But for now, just say your mantras. And breathe.