September 10, 2015 8:40 am The Long Goodbye (republished from Jan. 2013 by popular demand)
With the very best intentions, mothers often take too long to say goodbye. Hoping to give a child that extra bit of tenderness, they instead inadvertently make things harder for their child and themselves. Trying to leave and actually leaving are very different.
Here is a classic case. A mother walks her son Johnny into his school. Johnny is about to do something he wants to do, something he is very capable of doing. What can go wrong?
Holding hands, they walk to his room. She kisses him and says goodbye as she starts to leave. He clings a little, hugging her legs, hiding under her coat, or hanging on to her hand. “Johnny, I will stay for five minutes but then I have to go.” He keeps holding her hand.
When five minutes have passed, she tries again. “Okay, Johnny. I’m going now. See you after lunch.” Now, he clings even more and begins to whimper. Two developments are emerging. One, he is thinking he may be able to keep her. Two, he is becoming more attached. Giving him extra time will only make the final farewell more drawn out and painful for both.
Five more minutes go by. His mother has drawn a car for him to color and now he asks her to draw a truck. She is becoming annoyed. She has a million things to do. He senses her impatience. One last hug, and he is really crying. Johnny’s teacher takes him onto her lap, thinking, “If she’d just leave, he would be playing in two minutes.” The mother goes out the door, and then comes back and calls from the hallway “I love you!” Johnny bolts off the teacher’s lap and flies to the door, sobbing. “Oh Johnny, what’s wrong?” You know you always have fun. Mommy will be back soon. Be a big boy. Do you feel okay?”
Johnny is not sick. Chances are if he had not heard his mother’s voice again, he would be happily beginning his day. The endless goodbye changed things for everyone involved. We now have a less confident little being. His teacher will have a harder time calming him down. It won’t be easy for Johnny to join his classmates who are playing so easily. His mother will worry all morning that she wasn’t nice enough.
In trying to make life easier for their children, mothers experience so many deep feelings. Sometimes just having the feeling has to be enough. Johnny knows he is loved. He knows he is fine in school. The lingering and returning, the many hugs, declarations of love, and the Mama-worry only had the effect of making him more dependent on her and anxious. Worse, a habit may have been created that will be repeated at drop off from now on. Tomorrow, Johnny might start whimpering and clinging to her at the front door.
Written by: Anne Martine Cook, Managing Partner & Mom, with 35+ years experience teaching nursery school children.
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