I clenched my jaw and took a deep breath, trying to stay calm with my 5 year old as he pushed all my buttons. We had just come back from a wonderful holiday connecting to nature and each other, it was the perfect beginning to 2023 - he was calm, joyful and looking forward to a new school year. Then, just a few weeks into January there was a burst of defiance - dragging feet to get ready in the morning, pushing bed times with every excuse in the book, challenging us at every step….everything felt like a fight.
Was he having trouble adjusting to his new school? Did someone say anything? Was it hard to make friends? Was he just tired from a new routine? Was he just growing up? Was it all of the above?
And most importantly, how could we help?
We had made it a point to have all the ‘new school’ conversations - introduced him to his teachers, organised play dates, read books about the topic, made the transition as easy as we could. We really did think he was settling wonderfully into his new environment, his teachers seem to think so as well. So what was bothering him?
One night as we read our favourite book before bedtime, to my surprise, he articulately explained that he was not having a tough time at school, in fact, he loved it. But there were a few things he didn’t know how to process and it was nagging away at him….
“It is heavy on my mind” he said.
“Tell me when you’re ready, I am here to help” I said.
And out of that came these 5 conversations I want to spend more time on with him when there is any sort of change - Be it a new school, new grade, new playdates, new neighbourhood etc.
1. The identity & introduction conversation:
Saying your name and introducing yourself proactively can be difficult for kids (it’s difficult for us adults as well, right?) So, we practiced saying…"Hi, My name is….”
And we did a little role playing, pretending to be in a playground talking about “Where me and my parents are from…”
In my son’s case he has learnt to say he is Indian and South African but grew up in Singapore, so that makes him part of all three countries. He also states where his parents grew up. All of this is part of his identity and when you don’t look like every other kid in school - this helps tremendously.
For cross cultural kids, interracial kids, adoptive kids, immigrant kids or kids being raised with hyphenated identities - this question of ‘where you’re from’ comes up often. Having this conversation early and helping with words and phrases to answer boosts there confidence serving them well in new environments.
We also practiced pronunciation of different names (both his own and others) and correcting it if it is wrong. “ I say it this way, let me help you by saying it slower”
Keen to explore some culture and identity building tools? Click here
2. The fitting in conversation:
I was taken aback at how early kids feel the need to fit in and how early they pick up differences. As they observe, they might make comments innocently or on purpose that can significantly hurt another child. The impact on their self esteem lingers on for years. Be it skin colour, hair, an accent, the kind of food you bring to school, your height, a freckle, size of ears - you name it, kids are always pointing out ‘same and different’. To continuously have the conversations about diversity helps them not just to be kind but also to be confident in their own selves. We started with objects around us - pointing out same and different with pets, trees, cars and progressed to celebrating similarities and differences amongst peers.
3. The food we love conversation:
Lunchboxes are a source of comfort, the one familiar thing from home in a busy school environment. When someone makes a snarky comment about their food - making fun of the smell, texture or even the way it is consumed - your kids can feel embarrassed and reject the food that they love. This is especially true for ‘diverse culture rich’ environments which many of our kids are growing up in. Heritage culture food can look and smell different to the norm.
We learnt to say,
“Don’t say yuck, it is actually yum. Would you like to try some?
If you say no, it’s ok too. Food is different for me and you!”
For more ways to talk to your kid about food click here.
4. The asking for help conversation:
Creating safe spaces in your little ones mind for when you’re not around is important for their peace of mind (and yours). Sometimes my kid was too shy to ask for help and suffered in silence. Be it asking for a spoon for lunch or to find the bathroom helping them practice asking for help, introducing them to the new teacher or helpers in their classrooms goes a long way.
5. The change conversation
We spoke about how seasons change, our dresses change, our bodies change, sometimes we shuffle and change things around in the house to create more light and positive energy flow. Change can be good. When something feels new and there are butterflies in your tummy, it means you are learning and growing. Repeating this conversation in different ways can help them recognise that something new can be great for them.
And to sign off, kids are growing up in a very different world from when we grew up. It is more multicultural, there is more access to information, it is more fast paced. Even so, narrating experiences from my own childhood, drawing parallels to how I felt when something similar happened to me at the same age, opens up my little ones heart and creates a bridge for connection. Taking time to strengthen that connection is essential - not just in January but every month. January just happens to be a significant month of change for everyone.