For several years, my son went to a wonderful daycare. The staff were caring, he had friends to play with, lots of walks and visits to nearby playgrounds, field trips, lots of learning, and just about anything else a preschooler could want in a day. He loved that daycare and enjoyed his time there.
This September, he started kindergarten. He’d no longer be going to daycare, and would be leaving behind a familiar place and people he loved. I was worried about how he’d deal with the transition, about saying ‘goodbye’ to the staff one last time, about what would happen when it sunk in that he wasn’t going back and probably wouldn’t see the other kids again.
When that Last Day came, my son seemed to take it all in stride. As he was leaving, he told the other kids and the staff that he’d be going to kindergarten now. He gave them big hugs, and raced out the door as usual, no tears, no fuss. I, meanwhile, waited for the shoe to drop.
A few days after the Last Day, we drove past his daycare while out running errands.
“Mom,” he piped up from the back seat, “is daycare locked or open?”
“It locked right now, sweetie.”
“Okay.” He paused. “I hate that daycare.”
I paused, shocked. He spoke entirely without malice and as matter-of-factly as though he was saying “I like crayons,” or “gas stations smell weird.” Still, though, I was taken aback that he spoke that way about a place that he previously always loved.
“Don’t say that,” I admonished him without thought. “That daycare was a very good place for you. You had a good time there!”
“Yeah, but now I hate it. I don’t go there anymore. I go to kindergarten. I like kindergarten.”
I was mildly upset by this declaration. After all, my son is normally a very loving little chap and for him to declare that he hated daycare seemed unusually nasty of him. Still, I didn’t make a fuss over it and instead just changed the subject.
This scene repeated itself over the next few days. He would ask a question about daycare – whether it was locked or open, what the staff were doing, what the other kids were doing – and then declare that he hated daycare.
Several days later, a realization struck me. He was reframing.
Reframing is a particularly useful technique I teach people who are anxious about public speaking. My clients and participants learn to manage that anxiety by consciously changing how they perceive the sensations. They learn to look at the physical feelings, such as the pounding heart or fluttering stomach, differently. When giving the talk, they make a point of relating to their audience differently, of seeing their role as a speaker differently. To make this work, you have to repeatedly remind yourself of the new way you are perceiving things, the new way you are choosing to ‘frame’ the experience in your mind.
This is a very conscious action – it takes repetition and effort to bend your brain towards a new way of looking at these situations. And this is exactly what my son ways doing, albeit in the blunter, slightly feral way that is to be expected from a 5-year-old. He was consciously choosing to see his daycare in a different light, not as something he couldn’t have but instead as something he didn’t like and didn’t want anymore. This gave him the mental resources to handle the difficulty of separating from a place, from people, and from friends who had been part of his daily routine for over half his life.
Maybe it’s a marker of my naivety as a young parent that I didn’t figure this out earlier (he is, after all, my first kid). But this realization helped me appreciate how capable kids are at developing their own coping mechanisms. It also reinforced to me how much we choose our reactions by choosing our perceptions.
While I wouldn’t recommend the black-and-white, sour grapes style of reframing my son used, he did a pretty good reframe for his limited experience and emotional vocabulary. And it’s a pretty good reminder for us as adults that we can make a difficult thing easier if we put in the effort needed to see it through a different frame. If a 5-year-old can do it, so can you.