On His Own Terms: Celebrating a child’s individuality amongst his or her peers

By Sheila Brar

My son’s first year of preschool was filled with changes for him and me. We both learned a lot, but the greatest lesson for me was rather unexpected. Up until almost age three, he had been taken care of in our home, so both of us had a transition to make. While researching potential schools, I was drawn to parent participation so that we could both ease into the change. One of the best outcomes of working in my son’s school was the ability to see how he reacted to his new environment and interacted with his peers. I was so focused on how we would deal with the change that I forgot that he was sharing this experience with twenty other toddlers.

Similar to many first school experiences, we hit a few bumps in the road. He went through an intense period of separation anxiety that bound me to what we affectionately refer to as “the red couch” for close to a month. The red couch was an area for parents to stay and observe while their child could explore yet still know someone was close by. Weeks went by and I saw parents say goodbye to their children who would happily play without a care in the world. My experience was different. My son clung to me for dear life and would play for minutes before making sure I was still there. During this time, I got to know the personalities of his peers as well as their parents. I observed well-adjusted and joyful kids growing and thriving. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why isn’t my child feeling comfortable in this space?” and “What am I doing wrong?” Here is where comparing with peers reared its ugly head.

As parents we are bombarded with comparisons. First there are the developmental milestones, when our child should walk or talk. These are the useful ones. Then there are the others, the parent on the playground who has a child sleeping through the night at two months old or the caregiver who has a child that can read and write at two years old. These are the not-so-useful ones. Regardless, peer comparisons are hard to escape. Most often the insecurities we feel as parents stem from simply wanting the best for our children. If someone else has a positive experience that we value, we want it for our kids as well.

At the end of our first month at preschool, a miraculous thing happened. One night, as we were preparing our backpack for school the next day, my son turned to me and stated that I “didn’t have to sit on the red couch anymore.” I was floored. While I didn’t really believe he would actually let me leave without a large emotional outburst, I was shocked that he acknowledged going to school on his own. The next day I did leave and he was completely fine. When I saw him just 2-½ hours later we were both full of excitement. He was bursting at the seams to tell me about his day and I was overwhelmingly proud of him.

The months went by and I saw a range of toddler personalities, good days and bad days, tantrums and accomplishments, and through it all I actively tried to use others to appreciate my own child. Knowing these children on such an intimate level could have fed into the comparing game but it did the exact opposite. It helped me realize my son’s strengths and the areas we needed to work on. While I may not have been able to drop him off on Day 1, I was able to months after and we got to the same endpoint through a different process. Ultimately my son’s group of peers helped me understand and appreciate his individuality.

Sheila Brar is a mother to two residing in San Carlos. She is completing her doctoral work in public health while managing two rambunctious boys.