My Dear Daughters (The Present Isn’t Worse than the Past)

Off to Kindergarten_My Daughters_Misfortune of Knowing BlogToday, my children begin Kindergarten, an especially meaningful milestone considering their precarious start in life. They arrived almost fourteen weeks too soon, one weighing 922 grams and the other weighing just 760 (which is under two pounds).

Now, five and a half years and a combined eighty pounds later, Kindergarten is another indicator of how far they’ve come, their first major social transition. My twins approached this milestone with as much anxiety as excitement.

As I’ve discussed before, one of my daughters had been concerned about starting Kindergarten before learning how to read independently, which isn’t a Kindergarten requirement. Then, after the following conversation, we learned that another misconception about Kindergarten had added to her fears:

“Mom, I don’t want to leave you.”

“Leave me?”

“I don’t want to go away to Kindergarten, like you did to college. I don’t want to live somewhere else.”

I assured her that her new school is in our neighborhood, and she assured me that she would never go far away from home, not even for college. Her twin made a similar promise; however, being a natural adventurer, her tone was less emphatic.

I thought about these promises as I read a century-old letter from novelist and screen director John D. Swain to his son (featured on Letters of Note last week). Swain wrote it on the occasion of his son’s “dawning college career” at Yale, his alma mater and also mine.*

He noted the “unassailable barrier” between them, saying:

My son, my loyal and affectionate boy, some day it may be yours to know the pain, the unreasonable pain that comes over a man to know that between him and his boy, and his boy’s friends, an unseen but unassailable barrier has arisen, erected by no human agency; and to feel that while they may experience a vague respect and even curiosity to know what exists on your side of the barrier, you on your part would give all—wealth, position, influence, honor—to get back to theirs! All the world, clumsily or gracefully, is crawling over this barrier; but not one ever crawls back again!

Right now, there is no barrier between me and my affectionate little girls, and while I hope we’ll always remain close, our relationship will most certainly change between now and the time they go off to college, which may or may not be as close to home as they had “promised.”  I am raising them to no longer need me. That’s the goal for the future, but I am thankful that that time isn’t now. Kindergarten is just a step towards it.

It’s a milestone that leaves me feeling a little like Swain did in 1908, when he declared in his letter, “I think I had never realized before that I was getting old.” However, with age comes experience and perspective, which Swain distills into advice for his son. Much of this advice remains true today, even for little Kindergarteners.

For example, taken somewhat out of context, Swain advises his son to think for himself, cautioning him against pursuing a path to satisfy a “mere filial desire to please.” He also tells him to never quit, saying, “That is all the secret of success. Never quit! … If you can’t win your race, at least finish—somewhere.” These words remind me of what my college Dean said as she faced an incoming class of anxiety-prone freshman: “the paper you turn in is always better than the paper you don’t.”

I will share similar advice and other guidance with my daughters in the coming weeks and years. They are beginning an academic journey like the one I began 27 years ago, though education has certainly changed quite a bit since my time. I went to Kindergarten well before Columbine, Sandy Hook, and other school shootings emphasized the ubiquity of guns; I went to school before No Child Left Behind forced schools to prize test scores over learning; I went to school before funding woes crippled many districts.

But I have never been a person who glorifies the past. To quote Thom Gunn, an edgy poet whose works my children probably won’t read until college, “I don’t regret the present. I don’t feel it’s cheap and tawdry compared with the past. I think the past was cheap and tawdry too.”

My educational experience was far from “cheap and tawdry,” but it had its share of disappointments and obstacles, such as an elementary school teacher who mistook shyness for stupidity. However, I had many great teachers, too, ample opportunities, and an experience enriching and supportive enough that we decided to send our children to same school district from which I graduated in 1999.

I want my children, one of whom I suspect is a budding perfectionist (often a debilitating condition), to take a long view of their education and of their lives. I want them to understand that many paths lead to success, which is based on how they define it, and that, no matter what, we will be there for them at every turn.

Do you have any advice to share? Is there something you know now that you wished you had known in elementary school?

Look who wanted a backpack too!
Look who wanted a backpack too!

*While on the subject of the past versus the present, it’s worth pointing out that no one of my background/gender went to undergrad with Swain or his son.


  1. Such a sweet post, and lovely pictures! How are the girls getting on this week? Better? I’m sure they are both going to come to just love school – all the new things to learn and experience. The beginnings can be tough, but it does get better (or so says one of my co-workers, who had a daughter who refused to go on the bus for the first few weeks – she’s in first grade now and happily riding the bus).

    1. Hi Jaclyn! Thankfully, the girls are having an easier time adjusting to school in the morning. It actually helped when we started them on the bus because it makes them feel like big kids. My older twin (it’s just six minutes, but she’ll always be the older one to me) had a meltdown as the bus pulled up on the first day, but she enjoyed the ride and has asked to take the bus every day since then.

  2. I just hope that no present day child is regularly humiliated to tears in front of his/her classmates for being less able. I also hope that there are no longer rows of stars signifying who are the best and worst performers. What dread some of my contemporaries must have had every morning as they got ready for school. True this was a long time ago 😦 and no doubt things have changed.

    1. I certainly hope that has changed! My understanding is that educators place the emphasis on the child’s effort, not on the end result, but I imagine that it’s hard to refrain from rewarding the children with the highest scores when standardized testing is a major part of American education.

  3. I was just feeling nostalgic while blogging this morning, so it was great to come by and see your post today. 😉 I can still remember the fear I had for those first days of school, and while I don’t miss that stress, it was also sort of exciting, too, in retrospect.

    I hope your daughters had a great first day! 🙂

    1. I feel nostalgic every September while looking back on my school years. I’m so excited that my girls are finally at this stage. The first two days (last Tuesday and Wednesday) were rough in the beginning, but both of my girls said they had a good time overall. Then they got a mini-vacation (school was closed for Rosh hashanah), and now they’re looking forward to returning to school on Monday. 🙂

    1. Thank you! The first and second days were difficult in the beginning (one of my girls was distraught and had to be peeled off of me; it was awful), but both girls came home saying they had a good time at school. Now school is closed for two days (for Rosh Hashanah), which is giving my girls time to relax after an emotional start to the school year.

    1. It must be exhausting and rewarding to teach Kindergarten! My girls had a rocky start on their first and second days, but they warmed up. They love their teachers. Great teachers make a huge difference. 🙂

  4. It’s sweet that your daughter thought she was moving away from you — no wonder there was such anxiety! Ah, the multiple meanings of “go” — and so many other words. But that reminds me how much a person of any age can be scared by our expectations of things we haven’t done yet — which expectations might be so far off! How innocent all of us still can be in having new experiences.

    1. It’s true! I feel like any advice I give to my children is equally applicable to me. As for the multiple meanings of “go,” this experience has reminded me to be much clearer with my children. I speak to them like they’re adults, and they don’t always ask for an explanation when they don’t understand a word or a phrase. These misunderstandings all stem from me.

  5. When I was younger, I longed to get out into “the real world” and be a “grown up.” Now, after being in the real world and trying to pretend to be a grown up, I really wish I could go back to those younger days! It is such a cliché, but my advice would be to remember that all of life’s steps have a purpose, and that living in and appreciating the moment will help fulfill the full extent of that purpose. There is no use in lamenting in what has or has not yet happened. (Oh boy, I am such a hypocrite right now.) Best of luck to your children and everyone else who is starting school today!

    1. Advice becomes an overused expression only when it’s right! So, any advice post is going to be full of clichés. Thanks for sharing some of your wisdom. It was a rocky first couple of days (with lots of crying for one of my girls), but I think my twins are starting to enjoy being in Kindergarten. The one who cries is very shy and feels overwhelmed by the number of people in her class and at the school overall. I remember that feeling, which never went away for me.

  6. This is a wonderful post and I think you are spot on in your attitude and thoughts. Kindergarten still seems so far off when I look at my 2 1/2 year old, and yet I know these next three years will go by so fast.

    I can’t even pretend that her schooling will mirror my own. Technology alone is so much different today than when I went to school in the 80’s and very early 1990’s. I’m sure some things will be similar. And all I can do is let her know I am there for her and guide her as best I can.

    1. Thank you! My youngest is the same age as your daughter, and I keep thinking that it was only yesterday that her older sisters were her age (actually, sometimes I think it was only yesterday that *I* was her age!). So far, my twins’ Kindergarten feels very much like my Kindergarten experience–especially the tears in the morning (only for one of them)–but that will change as their use of technology in school increases and as other changes become more apparent to me. At this point, the only major differences I’ve noted are: (1) increased security in and around the school; (2) no nap time; and (3) homework. When I was in Kindergarten, it was more like what my kids’ pre-K experience was. It feels a lot more structured now.

    1. It went well in the end, but the morning was rough. One of my daughters was hysterical, making it hard for me to leave her. My other daughter handled it much better. Thanks for asking!

  7. I’d tell your kids not to sweat the small stuff. When they get past school and become adults, they will realize they obsessed over things that weren’t worth the trouble. It really isn’t all that important in the scheme of things. Beyond getting good grades, none of it really matters.

    1. So true! Grades are important, but I hope my kids will have a more realistic view of what grades are “good.” I can’t believe I used to think an A- was the end of the world. In the end, I think the social skills I learned in school were more important than anything else.

  8. Your daughters will do wonderfully at school. You have set them on a path to excellence. I can understand them not wanting to be away from you. You have taught them so much and have done it with love and understanding. But forge on they must… I wish I had known that one day teachers would go to jail for corporal punishment. We had one that threw chairs at students and hit them with his fists. No kid ever reported him either for fear of reprisal.

    1. Thank you, Donna! We’re definitely trying our best with our girls. It’s awful that a teacher could get away with treating students so badly when you were in elementary school. I’m sorry you went through that.

        1. It must have been scary to go to school wondering if you’d be on the receiving end of such abuse. I would’ve hated school if that had been my experience.

  9. Aww how sweet. On the topic of present versus the past, I think we tend to remember some past experiences in our lives that at the time were miserable but now we think, that was a lot of fun. Also being in the present, we can cherry pick the past and say, see they were like this, this and that but we exclude the other things that could change the story (not necessarily with intent).

    1. I agree with your points. Life experience and the passage of time can give us perspective on past events–or help us forget them as a coping mechanism. Then, because many of us have a tendency to complain, it’s harder for us to appreciate the present. I also think most efforts to glorify the past are based on insecurity (our fear that we’re losing our relevance as we age), making us disparage the present.

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