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INSIDE VOICES?!: The Many Emotions of Back-to-School Time for Parents

posted by:

Karen Cyphers, PhD

17 August

As a mom of two elementary school students, I’ve heard friends asking my girls how they feel about the start of another school year. But we wanted to find out how PARENTS feel about the start of the school year – so we asked them.

Our survey of Florida voters in early August found that six in 10 parents are excited about the return of the school year. But half feel stressed about it. One in 10 feel relief, while 8% feel sadness. Yes, this adds up to more than 100%, and that’s because the start of the school year delivers a mixed set of emotions. Not too many parents feel indifferent (just 6% of moms and 18% of dads).

back to school infographic

My kids just started 2nd and 3rd grades. I walked through all of these emotions at least once as orientation, supply shopping, and the first day of classes approached.

Excitement because the kids are excited and elementary school can be wondrous. Relief for myself, for a return to routine and a break from figuring out weekly camp logistics. Sadness because the clichés about babies growing up so fast are understatements; learning is awesome, but so is childlike innocence, and the two aren’t always BFFs.

Stress, because – *I* FINISHED SCHOOL ALREADY, DARN IT, AND NOW I’VE GOTTA GET IN LINE AGAIN!? That’s just one version of the voice in my head that protests the onslaught of forms to sign, deadlines to remember, absences to excuse (or not) … Things I wasn’t great about as a student myself.

There’s a tension between KIDS GOTTA REMEMBER THEIR OWN DEADLINES OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES! and recognizing that they’re little and I’m still responsible for guiding them in learning such responsibilities. The feeling of stress stems from competing pressures to stay on top of things for and with them while being careful not to do so much that I start to “helicopter.”

Parents today have a lot more to keep track of than our folks did when we were back-to-schooling two or more decades ago. Kids brought home report cards at the end of semesters, but in between those, parents weren’t really looped in unless you were spelling trouble (or consistently spelling it ‘trubble’ or such). But now parents can get updates every day, or even more frequently than that, depending on how often they choose to log into the various school apps and portals.

I LIKE seeing that my girls are behaving well in the cafeteria, or staying focused on their work, even if half of my reaction is to wonder, WHY NOT AT HOME, TOO?! And even if half of my reaction to THAT reaction is to guess, BECAUSE THEY DON’T EARN POINTS HERE, AS WELL THEY SHOULDN’T!

But the bigger, and truer, joy comes from watching them learn about themselves in the world: new friendships, handling hurt feelings in a way that may foster empathy, the ability to self-advocate without me by their side. Those are the things that the return to school super-duper matters for.

I may (WILL?!) curse under my breath the eighth time I fill out the same emergency contact info and home addresses and dates of birth on forms that could be digitized and saved. But in truth I’d happily fill out those details 20 times a month if it meant my kids would continue their academic and social educations at school, surrounded by all the awesome teachers, challenges, expectations, surprises, and moving parts that schools include.

I’m guessing that’s why so many Florida parents feel in a combination of excitement and relief about back-to-school, too.