Parents often hear protests like “I won’t know anyone in my day camp” as their children express anxieties about adjusting to new summer activities. We think of fall as the time of new starts, but the lazy, summer vacation days when children try to create their own fun are no longer the norm for most families. This season often involves whirlwinds of new activity. Swimming lessons! Sports camps! Science classes! Drama camp! Children are likely to experience more enrichment during one summer than students in previous generations might have had during their entire preschool and elementary careers.
Parents today are also more savvy about preparing children for new situations. In the not too distant past, a common way to teach children to swim was throwing them into the water. Most parents don’t subscribe to the “sink or swim” approach today when it comes to water safety—or the variety of other activities they make available to their children.
Adults in the past didn’t always give credence to discussing a child’s worries about starting something new. I remember one man sharing memories of unhappy experiences at sleep-away camp. Though his parents knew he cried himself to sleep every night they still signed him up every year. Their motivation was probably to make him resilient. Talking about a child’s anxieties can feel counterintuitive. Wouldn’t saying “You’re worried about not having a friend at camp” reaffirm a child’s fears that camp may turn out to be a terrible experience? It’s tempting to dismiss a child’s anxiety about starting something new as unrealistic and silly. Think about your own responses to meeting a new challenge like giving a talk at a conference. Before giving a speech, I’ve sometimes imagined my lips freezing when I’m called on to talk. No matter how unlikely that reality, I prefer someone to validate my feelings—“Most people get nervous before giving a speech!”—to laughing at them.
It’s helpful to acknowledge the emotions behind anyone’s resistance to doing something new even while we maintain a positive view of the change. Today children’s books on coping with new experiences abound. For example, The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn tells a heartwarming story about a raccoon child learning to feel her mother’s love when she’s away from her at school for the first time. Books like these help children to understand that their feelings are normal and that it can help to talk about them. Young people may also have intensely negative reactions right before embarking on an adventure they’ve anticipated. After saving money all year for a graduation trip to Europe, my daughter announced on our trip to the airport, “I don’t know why I ever decided to make this trip. I know it’s a big mistake.” However, she boarded the plane with her friend and a day later she called full of exhilaration about her new adventure.
Of course, sometimes it’s appropriate for a child to change her mind about an experience. It’s up to adults to notice how children usually approach transitions so they have a barometer to tell when a situation isn’t working. Bestselling author Mary Jane Ryan has a new book called Adaptability full of tips and stories about handling change successfully. In the book, she helps adults to assess what personal strengths they use when responding to unexpected life turns. In her career as an educational coach, Mary Jane urges parents to remind children of the positive ways they’ve handled previous changes. When Mary Jane’s daughter Ana started at a new school, she reminded Ana how easily she has made a few close friends when starting school in the past.
We want children to believe in their own abilities to adapt. Let’s pay attention to the incredible flexibility even young children demonstrate today. They deserve positive feedback for all the adjustments they make and our understanding and support as they continue to learn from new situations.
Don’t be fooled by them.
Adults teach children how to adapt by consciously sharing the positive ways they handle situations. “I didn’t know I would have to work some hours this weekend. I’m disappointed but we’ll do something fun.” Talking about our feelings demonstrates our understanding of the power of disappointment and the challenge of readjustment. We want to encourage children to express their feelings rather than asking them to “just grin and bear it.”
Changes in our economy and social structure also give us opportunities to form “family mottos” for reacting to change in positive ways. “When any of us goes through change, we talk about it as a family.” Loss of a job doesn’t have to throw everyone into panic, but talking about new budgeting plans helps older children and adults to understand. Today we know talking about what’s happening in the family in simple positive terms helps children feel more secure.
In her new book, Adaptability, bestselling author Mary Jane Ryan, notes the importance of understanding the individual strengths that helps us react to the unexpected with resilience. Some people might write a detailed “To Do” list with columns for what actions need to take place now and which ones to approach down the road. Others start by talking to friends and sharing their feelings. Mary Jane says we can help children by noting how they use their strengths to make their way in new situations. When her daughter Ana was going to change schools, Mary Jane reminded her how quickly she’s gotten to know people in the past.
Children’s temperaments vary and not everyone has to jump into new situations with joy. Our abilities to notice the ways they cope and communicate about them builds their confidence. We also want to provide a listening ear. The student who discovers the first day that her friend isn’t coming to summer school needs empathy and an ongoing conversation about how she’s doing. Paying positive attention to the ways children cope builds their adaptability and their belief that they can face challenge and look for support.
Susan Isaacs Kohl, is director of the White Pony preschool in Lafayette. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do (Conari 2004) and four other books and numerous articles for parents.