To Tag Along or Let Go? Parents' First-Day Dilemma

"I'm your typical overprotective mom," admits 40-year-old Melissa St. Aude, a reporter for the Casa Grande Dispatch in Casa Grande, Ariz.

She further confesses that when her two daughters were small, she made it a point to follow them into their classrooms and introduce herself to their teachers -- before retiring to the hallway and hovering outside of the classroom doors beside other nervous parents for a few minutes after class had started.

Though some school-age children may cringe at the thought of such parental oversight, others may rely on it. And according to child psychologists, St. Aude's approach was probably a completely healthy one -- both for her children and for herself.

"The first day of school was harder for me than for them," St. Aude said. "As a parent, you always think there's danger lurking around every corner."

But as a new school year begins, many parents remain unsure as to whether they're doing more good than harm when tagging along with their kid for the first day of class.

Still, the practice is a widely accepted one. Indeed, many companies have polices that allow parents to take a day off to accompany their child on their first day of school. It is a policy that Jan Harp Domene, the national president of the Parent Teacher Association, applauds.

"The first day of school can be so scary -- especially the first day of kindergarten or preschool," she said. "It can be such a traumatic situation for a child if they are not ready for it."

However, child development experts say that while parental accompaniment can be important in making a child feel secure at school, parents must be very careful to strike a balance between support and suffocation.

"Going to school by yourself is an important developmental step for children," said Dr. David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington. "Hanging on too tightly can send a message that you don't think the child can do it on his or her own."

And William Garrison, director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says parents should be careful to draw a line where the hand-holding stops -- particularly when it comes to attending class with the child.

"This is not a good thing unless the school asks all parents to do so on the first day," he said. But, he added, "Taking the child to school the first day and walking them to the classroom or front door can be fine since many parents and kids do this."

Working Out the First-Day Jitters

But while concerned parents may say that they tag along for the sake of their kids, they may be doing it to quell their own separation anxiety.

"The take-away message is that the decision is based on where the child is -- not the parent," said Jay Reeve, associate professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Parents, too, may have some adjustments to make with the new school year, but whether to accompany your child or not should be based on what the child needs -- not whether the parent is having trouble letting go or, alternatively, eager to have their freedom."

One solution that could help put parents' minds at ease is to make a pre-first-day visit to the school. Most schools -- particularly primary schools -- coordinate such programs, which often present parents with the perfect opportunity to get a sense of the experience that their child will have on his or her first day.

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