We trust our kids, and our kids trust us. We work hard to deserve that trust. Perhaps the hardest we have worked has been in our 2 year old’s child care orientation. When our oldest child, Chloe, started child care, we followed the standard advice. After one half an hour play there together, we left her for an hour. She was 10 months old. That first time she was fine. But things deteriorated fast after that. She would scream when I left her, and I dreaded those drop offs. It took months before the drop offs improved, and even then there was still quite a lot of screaming.
It wasn’t until Chloe was 3 that we finally realised that by continuing the traumatic separation, we were making things worse. Instead, we tried waiting until she was happy for us to leave. If she was crying, we stayed. If she was settling happily and gave us the ok, we’d leave. Her kinder teacher was vehemently against this. “If you come back when she cries, she will use it against you. She’ll cry to make you come back.” We heard this mantra so often, from so many different people, that it is clearly a popular belief.
But there are two ways you can see it. You can see the crying as calculated manipulation, or as a genuine expression of need. The kinder teacher’s perspective was that, given such a potent weapon to use against us, Chloe would use it every time. Our belief was that Chloe would only use it when she felt she needed to – and that handing her a way of getting us to stay when she needed us would help her to feel more secure.
Put yourself in Chloe’s shoes for a moment. You are 3. You are able to talk, even quite articulate for your age, but still only 3. You are being dropped off at child care, and you don’t feel safe or secure – have you got any way of making your parents stay with you? Of saying “No, this is too much for me, I can’t do this.” If we dismiss children’s tears as pure manipulation, what would it take for us to pay attention, to see a real expression of need? How distressed must a child become in order for us to take it seriously?
The dominant theory seems to be that as long as the parents are happy with the situation, whether it is a child care centre, babysitter, kinder or school, the children will be ok, and will adjust. There isn’t a lot of attention paid to getting kids settled in and secure before the parents leave. The theory seems to be that the carers will handle that. The kids don’t need to feel happy before you leave. They’ll be fine. Indeed, when discussing the first day of prep, one school told us “it’s ok, we’re used to dealing with upset kids.” They were appalled at the idea that we might want to stay until Chloe was ready for us to leave. That wasn’t our job. The idea that perhaps the kids need not be upset in the first place, if it’s handled well, just didn’t seem to register with them.
In the end, our school of choice was delighted for us to stay as long as we needed to, and Chloe sent us on our way before the first bell went. She didn’t even want us to stay. But in the lead up to her first day of school, and the inevitable nervous planning, she took great comfort from the idea that we would stay if she needed us to. When people asked her about starting school she would always say “I’m going to be fine, but Mummy or Daddy will stay if I need them to.” Having that trust, that we would stand by her until she felt secure, seemed to make her feel more secure straight away.
So when Jane started child care, at 2, we had some experience with this trust thing. We were determined to make sure that Jane felt secure and happy at the centre, and with the staff, before we left her there. This inevitably made for a long orientation. I spent a lot of time in the room.
It was a lot of work getting Jane used to childcare this way. It was difficult for the staff. Although they were incredibly good about it, it was clear that it wasn’t what they were used to, and they didn’t expect it to work. It took a lot of time, and a lot of self-doubt and questions. We were told over and over again that there would have to be tears. Kids are bound to get distressed at first. They’ll get over it. But we weren’t sure that was true. I have to admit that we weren’t totally sure it wasn’t true, either – we were definitely running blind. But we were sure there had to be a better way. One of the key features was that we had no timetable. We wanted to wait until we felt she was ready. Fortunately, as I was working freelance from home, we had that luxury.
So I stayed with Jane, for full mornings, two days per week. Jane got used to the routine in the room, and began to get to know the staff. I played with her, but also encouraged her to interact with the staff. I came and went from the room for short periods, to get Jane used to the idea that I would always come back.
One morning she was playing so happily and ignoring me so much, I felt it was worth a try, so I left the room for half an hour. She wasn’t happy about me leaving – yes, there were tears. But I wanted to see if she would calm down with the carers’ help, rather than calming her down myself when I came back. And within five minutes she was accepting cuddles, within 10 she was playing in the sandpit. She did give me the cold shoulder when I got back – I got a very stern look that said “What did you do???? How could you???” but I also got nods when I said that the carers had looked after her, hadn’t they? “And I did come back, didn’t I?” More nods. “I always come back, don’t I?” Vigorous nodding this time. And she even agreed that she had had fun in the sandpit.
The next visit I left for 1.5 hours. This time I gave her a definite return time (after one of her favourite activities). There were separation tears again, but this time they had stopped in 2 minutes, and she quickly began to have fun. I didn’t leave the building – I stayed in hiding, out the back, so that I could peek. She wasn’t just ok – she was having a great time! This time when I came back she was excited to see me – no more cold shoulder.
The next time I left the building for the whole morning – and when I left, there were no tears at all!
Jane is now happily settled in at child care. She doesn’t cry when I leave, she talks excitedly about everything she has done there, and she gives her carers big kisses and cuddles when we leave. Jane attends for 2 days per week, and it took 3 weeks to get to the point of leaving her there. That’s 6 sessions. It felt like forever at the time, but it is such a small price to pay for ongoing trauma free drop offs, and a very happy Jane who loves child care, and still knows that she can trust me.
So perhaps the staff were right – there were tears. But because we had taken the time to be sure that Jane knew the staff and the room, we could be confident that they were “I don’t want you to leave” tears, not “I can’t cope with this” tears. I don’t know how else we could have had that confidence.
While I was in the room with Jane I saw many, many children separated from their parents by force – pulled off mum or dad, screaming and reaching out to them, while mum or dad raced out the door, often looking just as upset as their kids.
I sometimes saw these same children crying all morning. Some cried until they threw up. Others cried themselves to sleep. Some just looked miserable and didn’t get involved in the activities going on in the room. Some parents were relaxed about it “He’ll adjust. Those are ok tears.” Some were crying themselves as they headed out the door. I felt for them, because that was me, once. Before I realised that there was a better way for us.
I’m sure our approach wouldn’t work for everyone. But the key for us was learning to trust our own instincts, over “expert” advice. To do what we felt comfortable with. I hope that never again will I follow expert advice when it feels so wrong. Chloe and Jane know that if they tell us they need us, we’ll be there. Knowing that we will come if they call actually seems to mean that they call less, not more. They are not fundamentally manipulative, they just need to feel secure. I can relate to that.