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Your Preschooler's First Ride On the School Bus

How To Manage The Anxieties Of Your Preschooler's First Bus Ride

Next week, I will put my daughter on the bus to kindergarten.

I have been through this before. Two years ago, I released my 5-year-old son's tightly clutched hand, hugged him closely and edged toward the sidelines as he took that monumental step upward into the black hole of that bus. For one terrifying instant, Brendan disappeared into the belly of that massive yellow void, until I could locate him biting his lip and blinking fiercely through a murky window. I gamely smiled as the bus resoundingly shut its doors, and propelled him into a no man's land beyond my sphere of vision and influence. In a time honored parental tradition, I walked home and burst into tears for an hour.

My son had been in daycare since he was a toddler; so morning separation was not the issue here. But we both recognized the significance of this ride. Public school is an "institution" that is not as warm, fuzzy or parent-friendly as preschool. Kids have to learn to cope with lines, bells, new rules and rituals, and hallways filled with strange big and little people. No matter how nurturing the teacher, there is a terror associated with the first day of kindergarten. On top of that, I had to muster up the faith that the bus would somehow safely deliver him to a school located on the other side of town, and that responsible adults would be on hand to usher him safely to his classroom. One part of me felt as if I was abandoning him to a jungle.

Within a week, our emotional equilibrium had returned, and Brendan had mastered the mechanics of the bus ride to school. Yet, throughout the fall, I noticed that when any aspect of his routine varied, he became unglued. He raced off the bus in tears one morning after he realized there was a substitute driver at the wheel. He took notice when the radio station changed or the bus diverged from its usual route. One afternoon he emerged from the bus clearly ashen. The kids had discovered they were on a new vehicle, and this knowledge had sparked furtive whispers; were they all headed toward the wrong destination? My heart breaks every time I imagine a busload of 5-year-olds, anxiously peering out the window for familiar landmarks, terrified that they were going to be dumped at an unknown location to be greeted by strange parents.

Gradually, however, these kindergarteners found their "bus legs" and evolved into masters and mistresses of their universes. By spring, a certain cockiness had set in. The bus became their favorite part of the day. They bounded into line so eagerly each morning that they occasionally neglected to turn around and give their parents one final hug before embarking. Once seated, they sometimes became so engrossed in conversation they forgot to wave to us as the bus pulled away.

As the focus of their gaze shifted to what lay ahead, so did ours. A new parent/child dynamic was establishing itself, and some of the parents began to grouse. If we initially perceived ourselves as safe harbors where our children could return after their treacherous journeys beyond, we now began to feel more like the ones left behind as they set off on their excellent adventures. We even began to project forward to their adolescence, already foreseeing the moment when they would refuse to hug us in public, or insist that we drop them off a block away from school so as not to embarrass them in front of friends.

For me, this transformation triggered ambivalent emotions. On the one hand, I felt relieved and grateful that my son was successfully navigating the tricky terrain of school adjustment. Yet, I also came to recognize that this new dynamic would only intensify in the years ahead. His world now revolved around a community to which I was peripheral at best. If I liked to think that I provided a trampoline from which he could hurl into his life, I also understood that from here on in the allure would be more in the forward motion and less in the bounce.

Next week, this process starts for my daughter Renee. I predict she will be weepy and will cling to me as the bus pulls up. Hopefully, she will spot her friend MacKenzie through a window, and that will give her courage to take the step that places her beyond my reach. When the bus closes its doors and pulls away, an irrevocable transition -- gradual, but monumental nonetheless -- begins to take place.

For the mother as well as the child. I will engage in this ritual with the knowledge that it will not be repeated again. Renee is my last, not my first, and that recognition may spark its own series of emotional tremors. Next week, I officially become the mother of two "school-aged children." For once, I intend to take a few moments to honor this occasion in all of its ambivalent glory. I plan to linger, bathe and wallow in my sadness, awe and pride for a few moments before I brush away the tears and drive to work.

Sometimes a bus ride isn't just a bus ride.

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