6 weeks ago, my 2-year-old had a rough start at the daycare. After 3 weeks of trying, we dropped out. What went wrong? Today I'm telling you the entire story.
This week I also wrote an extensive article on "understanding the roots of daycare stress" by digging out the attachment research. So if you're interested in the science of it, skip to the Read section.
In there you'll also find a new piece about "raising confident kids." This is super-important as we see what confidence is NOT and how to build it up. (Spoiler: pushing kids too hard is not the way the go.)
Finally, I published a new video about "why you should let your kids get bored." I tried out a new editing style, let me know what you think.
A hefty issue this week! Enjoy.
Quitting daycare: A personal story
The first day was textbook-perfect. Starting from 3 days in advance, we had taken walks to the school. We had practiced our goodbyes. We had assured him that "we'd be back once he felt sleepy,'' that is, right before nap time.
He walked in confidently, addressing his teacher with her name, and fully engaged with the new environment.
His father and I, we gave him a brief, proper goodbye, and left.
Of course, we hadn't actually left. We were basically killing time in the neighborhood. 2 hours later we got a call from the teacher.
"He's doing great!" she said.
Good, great. When should we come to pick him up?
"It's better to wait until 1 PM so that he has the 'full experience,'" she said.
That would make more than 4 hours on his first day. A bit too much?
There's a huge stigma in society about being an "anxious" parent.
As a parent who hadn't parted from her child for 2 entire years, I did have a bit of anxiety about the upcoming daycare adventure.
But I had chosen to let it go. And take the institution's lead.
When we got back at 1 PM sharp, our son looked desperate. All of the other kids had been picked up. Ours was weeping in his teacher's arms. My heart hurt.
The moment he saw us, he let out a sob and immediately said, "Wanna go home!" while pointing at the exit door.
Now, this is not how you want your first day to end.
On the days that followed, even though we only went there 2 mornings a week, our son's toleration for that place got depleted.
He started showing signs of separation anxiety, a first in his entire infancy and toddlerhood. Each day we were called in a bit earlier than the other.
On our third visit, I had already taken the matter into my hands. I had a plan. I would bring him in for 20 minutes only, let him have his morning fruit as I wait outside, then pick him up and go home. I would promise him that I'd be in the garden waiting for him.
On what turned out to be our last day there, we couldn't even convince him to leave our side. He had no interest in his teacher (who initially was his safe haven but who eventually lost this status) or play, or fruit, or anything else. All he wanted was to be next to us.
He had visible anxiety. Even those 20 minutes were unbearable. He wasn't enjoying his time. He was battling a deeper battle.
(Hint: This week's daycare stress article explains the science behind his behavior.)
On our last day, he was unable to physically separate from us. The deputy manager pulled us aside. We chatted for an hour or so, during which time we were reminded:
"All kids cry at first but after 10-15 minutes of crying, they stop."
It just isn't that simple. Kids aren't pets. This statement is as absurd as, "Adults grieve the loss of a loved one only for 3 days and after that, they shrug and go on with their lives."
Crying is not a form of manipulation. It's an attempt at communication. And if your communication attempts are left unattended, you stop attempting.
We live in the Netherlands where daycares are shockingly strict with their intake procedures.
They don't warm kids up.
They don't allow a soft transition.
Parents can't be a part of the process. You just bring your kid in, leave, and hope for the best.
This is not okay.
After the management asked us to "not wait in the garden and go grocery shopping instead," we decided to drop out. Because this meant we had zero common understanding.
They told us that kids learn to trust a place only if their parents leave them there.
This is only wrong. Trust doesn't work that way.
Trust slowly builds up as kids adapt to a new setting, a new experience, and new people. It doesn't happen overnight. And it certainly doesn't happen when they are left alone with their despair.
(The daycare article down below explains why.)
In many European countries, especially a few Northern European countries, a soft transition is a norm. On the first few days, parents are encouraged to step inside the playrooms. Separation is encouraged, but gradually.
I saw firsthand how harmful an abrupt separation can be. After the 3-week long daycare journey, my previously free-spirited son:
- became clingier to me than ever
- wouldn't even tolerate me going to the bathroom
- started having night terrors and 30-min long screaming sessions
And I'm grateful for these. Had we kept on forcing him, he would eventually stop crying, but it would also mean that he would stop asking for help.
It's been 3 weeks since we dropped out and our son has been recovering. His clinginess is decreasing. He started enjoying individual play again. And we are working on his nighttime anxiety.
We sometimes go to random walk-in playgroups together where he enthusiastically enjoys the toys and activities as I sip my tea at a distance. I'm in the room. He can come to me for reassurance. I give him a hug and he goes back to play. That's how it should have been right from the beginning.
Daycare is a great first step to a toddler's sovereignty. But how it starts matters.
Hindsight is 20/20. So here are my tips for you.
- Start with small amounts of time, even 15-20 minutes a day is okay.
- This is important: Even if your kid seems to be enjoying their time, cut it short. 1 hour is a good time for the initial days—even if they explicitly say they want to stay.
- Aim for them to leave with pleasant memories and enthusiasm to come back the next day.
- Gradually increase the time. Don't rush the process.
Trust your kid. They always tell a story. A cry, aggression, or an attitude—like clinginess—is their language.
Separation, when age-appropriate, is healthy. But it doesn't have to be traumatic. Avoid the black and white. When it comes to separation, the gray zone is your friend.
What's your experience with daycare? Hit reply and let me know.
P.S. We are looking for a better daycare now, but we are not in a rush. We'll take at least a few months off as we relax together. We are happy to continue co-parenting and working from home.
Moderate, predictable, and controllable activation of our stress-response systems leads to a more flexible, stronger stress-response capability that lets a person demonstrate resilience in the face of more extreme stressors.
It’s kind of like weight lifting for our stress-response systems; we exercise the system to make it stronger.
The more we face moderate challenges and succeed, the more capable we are of facing bigger challenges.
Excerpt from: "What Happened to You?" by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. & Oprah Winfrey
Before 3 years old, starting daycare can be a tough experience. Attachment research shows you how to manage the transition without damage.
Find out what confidence is, why it matters, and how to build up your child's confidence.
Consider becoming a premium member to support Apparent, learn emotional coaching, become calmer, and lead your child's brain and emotional development to its full potential. » Become a member
That's it for today! ❤️
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See you next week!