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

Experts debate the merits of helping your child through a first day of school.

ByDAN CHILDS and RADHA CHITALE<br/>ABC News Medical Unit

Aug. 22, 2008&#151; -- "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."

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.

"If you can make a connection with the teacher before the first day of school, that's wonderful," Domene said. "Then you don't have a stranger educating your child."

Domene adds that parents should also meet with the principal and the school secretary -- two other figures who will likely play a large role in a student's school experience.

"This is just like building a relationship with anyone you do business with; you need to build a relationship with that school," she said.

But when it comes to standing by your child, how much is too much? It turns out that for parents, gauging exactly how far their presence should extend into school walls is a delicate balancing act.

"You don't want what's called 'helicopter parents,'" Domene said. "Helicopter parents are those parents who hover over everything. It becomes a nuisance in a way; that is not a help."

Worse, Domene says, such nurturing can also backfire. "Other students will have a tendency to think, 'This is a little momma's baby.'"

For young children, parents may do well to institute a five-minute limit on the first day, staying only long enough to ensure that their child is settled in.

"It is really helpful for the child when a parent walks them into a classroom, maybe introduces them to another child, gives them a kiss and a hug and says, 'Have a great day. Tell me about it when you get home,'" said Danielle Kassow, associate of research and evaluation at Thrive by Five Washington.

Sarah Smith, senior editor of New York-based Parenting Magazine, agrees.

"The key is to not linger too long," she said. "Set up the situation ahead of time with kid. Walk in, kiss goodbye and leave.

"Lots of parents make the mistake of staying longer if their kids cry when they leave. That doesn't do anybody any good."

But Kassow adds that parents must also make sure to let their kids know when they are on the way out the door.

"It is not good to drop a child off and then sneak out," she said. "That can be really damaging. In that situation, the child says, 'Oh no, where did my parent go?' ... It creates a situation of mistrust."

But while many parents may feel as if they are walking a tightrope with their child's development, the good news is that kids can give cues of their own -- something St. Aude quickly learned.

"My older daughter was always really blunt about it; she would roll her eyes and say, 'I'm OK,'" St. Aude said. "She got to the point where she begged to ride the school bus."

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