Plenty of parents break out the happy dance on the first day of school.
It's a respite from the long, hot days of dealing with children who have been bored for weeks and eating snacks from the pantry faster than you can restock them. It's also a moment of optimism -- starting an academic year still ripe with potential and getting to meet new teachers who may spark a passion for learning in your child.
That's far more exciting for parents than new school supplies.
Of course, a new school year also marks that bittersweet passage of time. First day of school pictures document a childhood slipping away as each grade gets closer to graduation.
Most years, the first day is a salad toss of these emotions for many parents. I've been that mom who gets a little misty-eyed at the morning bus stop, yet also relishes the return of peace and quiet during the day.
But certain years can be even more emotionally complicated for parents. These are the major transition years when a child starts at a new school -- kindergarten, middle school or high school. And the first year of college is the biggest transitional year of all. These four milestone years can be just as nerve-wracking for parents as they are for students.
Transitions are inherently unsettling. It's a change in setting, in routines and expectations, and in peer relationships. A child understandably has a fear of the unknown, but a parent has to deal with a fear of the known.
A child's first day of school is also a walk down memory lane for parents. They remember the challenges they faced themselves during those transition years, and the scars they accumulated along the way. Adults may remember all too well the pain of being left out in elementary school, bullied in middle school or isolated in high school, and want to spare their child the same fate. They may recall the loneliness or sense of being overwhelmed during the first year away from home. Or if they experienced a significant loss as a child, such as a divorce or death in the family, it may also color their memory of that time in school.
Even if your own transition years were relatively smooth, as an adult you can see all the potential pitfalls on this new part of the journey. Children graduate to a new school, while parents graduate to a whole new set of worries.
It's hard to know how to help your child navigate a year that touches back to a time when you carried feelings of low self-esteem or shame.
I remember feeling a slight sense of panic when my eldest child was about to start middle school. That had been a rough transition year for me socially, and I assumed the start of junior high was horrible for most people.
Those who have suffered at the hands of peers or teachers may assume it's a normal part of growing up to be miserable in sixth grade or terribly insecure in ninth. Yes, some awkwardness and angst is developmentally appropriate in adolescence. But smooth transitions help alleviate the bumps and bruises that are part of the learning curve.
Just recognizing that your own experiences may be influencing how you feel about a particular transition year can help calm latent anxieties.
Once I took stock of all the ways my daughter's experience was different than my own -- she had more self-confidence and a supportive social circle -- I was able to worry less and appreciate the chance to help her grow through these years. She survived the transition and is looking forward to her last year before tackling high school.
As my son starts sixth grade this year, my old fears have been laid to rest. The experience of watching an older child emerge happy and successful from the year that was hardest for me healed my own past hurts.
I can go back home from the bus stop this year and do that happy dance.