Lily stood at the window, her tears mirroring the light rain. "You promised," she mumbled for at least the third time.
"I know I said we might have a picnic lunch today, Lily. But it wouldn't be fun in the rain. Come sit with us and we'll have an indoor picnic this time," I said. "Don't these sandwiches look delicious!"
But Lily wouldn't let go of her disappointment so easily. Ever since school started, a few days ago, she's been insistent about knowing what's going to happen next, later, even tomorrow. And she's just as insistent about sticking to every tentative plan.
When she arrives in the morning, she asks "What's for snack today?" "What are we going to do today?" Then it's "What's going to happen next?" When she leaves, she asks about tomorrow's plans.
Yesterday, we had expected one of the parents to come in and read to the class. But she had to cancel when her older child got sick. So I read the book, which was fine with everyone except Lily. "But you said Mrs. Johnson was going to read today," she protested. I tried explaining that she would come another day when her family is all healthy again, but that didn't seem to satisfy Lily.
I am puzzled by this 4-year-old's insistence on absolute predictability. Is it just her way of coping with starting school? Maybe I should talk to Lily's parents so they can help me understand this.
THE PARENT'S STORY
Lily has been acting grumpy ever since the school year started. She's lost interest in playing with our puppy, doesn't want to feed and walk her-doesn't even want to play catch with her Dad. When we ask about school, she tells us about plans that have been changed-perfectly understandably. But apparently, any unpredictability upsets her. Maybe that's because we have been so careful to keep promises and be predictable at home. We didn't even tell her we were getting a new puppy this past summer. And when we picked the dog up, we made sure that Lily knew we could keep her only if the vet said she was a healthy pup.
We don't say we're going to the zoo, or to the pool, or going to bake cookies, or pick up a pizza unless we are sure we can follow through. Both her dad and I remember disappointments in our own childhoods, so we've been scrupulous about not building expectations and letting our child down. Now I see that she needs our help in accepting the world outside of home, where minor disappointments can't always be avoided.
DR. BRODKIN'S ASSESSMENT
Happily, no one is casting blame for Lily's bumpy start of the school year. And she is fortunate to have a patient teacher who wants to help her adapt to change, as well as a reflective mom who shares that goal. If the teacher and parent put their heads together, the transition from home to school will soon become easier for Lily.
WHAT THE TEACHER CAN DO
The teacher should follow through with her thought about talking to Lily's parents. When she does, she'll have a better understanding of Lily's difficulty in adapting to occasional schedule changes. She can reassure Lily's folks that this is all part of the challenge of starting school, expressed in different ways by different children.
Lily's unusually predictable life at home can't be duplicated at school-so she's feeling the contrast. By continuing to react calmly, the teacher's low-key reassurance-along with a kind warning when some plans can't be definite-will help. Home and school are not exactly alike, but it is still possible to enjoy both-even with the differences. Time will prove this point.
WHAT THE PARENTS CAN DO
There is no reason for the parents to berate themselves for having meticulously kept their promises to Lily. Most young children thrive on predictability. And far too many children are missing the feeling of being in control that comes with knowing what to expect next. For some, in fact, the grown-ups in their lives are good at promising but poor at delivering. But in this case, Lily knows she can rely on her folks. And now it's time for her to tolerate necessary exceptions to their "love means always being predictable" motto. She's old enough to understand that everything may not always go as planned. With her parents' reassurance, Lily will soon trust the teacher more and take the little changes in stride.