The first “Back to School” sale I came across this year was on July 2nd. Down came the Canada 150th specials and up went the early deals to get us prepared for the first days of school, only weeks after school had ended. Back to school sales so early in the summer is, of course, about selling us more stuff, and sooner. It’s also about stores competing with one another for the same target market. Jump on it early and you get the sales. All of this is dysregulating to us parents, teachers and I am sure even for students who want the stuff they see advertised. But there is another issue that I am reflecting on in this article about the impact of this sort of “get ready now” messaging that creeps into the space we need to relax, restore, recharge and enjoy the summer. Holding space for “summer”, even for those of us like me who work throughout most of it, gets crowded out by the urgency stirred up to be ready for what’s coming.
If you’re anything like me, you are the work before play type and you get done what needs to get done before you are able to truly relax. Great on one hand—we accomplish a lot—but what if you never get to the genuine “play”? What happens to our summer rest and restoration phase if the to-do list is bottomless and we are surrounded by messaging urging us to be ready sooner and sooner? This isn’t a new issue I am raising—just think about conversations you’ve had over the years about holiday sections in stores that go up months before the event. It does raise the question of why we as a society value the “readiness” mantra so much. And for me today, the question I am mulling over is: What if I leave the “readiness” to the week before school and do this intentionally as a celebration, versus some dreaded sign that I am a less-than-prepared mother and role model for others?
I’ll spare you the suspense—that’s exactly what I decided to do. I am focusing on the joy of the process of preparing for school and living that as a ritual to celebrate as part of the transition into fall and back to school. When I reframed the back to school readiness messaging through a Self-Reg lens it was an instant shift, and an easy one to make. To take a twist on Stuart Shanker’s well known quote: “See a child differently, see a different child,” I saw myself as a parent differently, and I instantly saw a different parent. I am one that is more than capable of meeting my daughter’s needs to be ready to start school in September. And more importantly, I wanted her (and I) to enjoy that process to the fullest as part of her transitioning from summer to school. I recognized that the messaging for “sales” was a stressor for me, but when I reframed this, it truly lost all of its influence over me.
“Early preparation” can be a strategy to reduce stress (Step 3 of Shanker Self-Reg®) but reflecting through a Self-Reg lens on this reveals once again that what through one lens (and context) can be a positive stress, through another can be a negative stress. Here are just a few back to school experiences I have had over the years that really illustrate the very different kinds of stress that I am talking about.
When I was a classroom teacher I just loved the energy that I felt most years around mid-August. I was starting to get excited for the next year, I’d start planning, thinking about my classroom and how I would approach the first week. There was usually a creative burst that would ignite and it was just a feelgood anticipation. Sometimes it started early but this was born from my enthusiasm, not the pressure or worry that I would be behind if I didn’t get moving.
As a parent, I enjoy the excitement that I see in my daughter as school nears. The anticipation is not all joyful, there are some mixed emotions that come up, but it’s all manageable stress. I co-regulate her as needed, particularly helping her manage the stress of the strong emotions that well up. Sometimes this is just soothing and reassuring, other times it’s just being present to experience the joy she expresses or the “nerves” she notices. My role as a Self-Reg mom is to help her reframe what she is experiencing and to help her manage her energy and tension when it is more than she can handle on her own in a given moment. These days she is more than capable of not only surviving this but thriving and growing as she does.
Seeing a sign in early August for back to school sales used to make me feel a bit anxious as a parent. It was my visual reminder of what I had not yet done. A stressor that brought with it a glimmer of the guilt and anxiety I will feel if I don’t get this one all covered before school. Nothing serious, still manageable. However, this year’s July 2nd sign was such a gift. I didn’t feel anxious at all. I remember finding it genuinely funny. And something quite lovely happened: I reframed and realized that I don’t want to take away from the joy of back to school week as a parent for myself or my child and so I have zero interest in getting “ready” before the holidays are fading out.
I also consciously decided with my work at The MEHRIT Centre that I would not be reaching out to any school folks for 2017/2018-focused conversations before mid-August unless they asked me. I didn’t want to be that added “have to get ready” stressor for others enjoying their well-deserved summer break if I could help it. You might call this living in the present with a mindfulness lens, but for me it’s more than that. It’s lived Self-Reg – all 5 steps:
- I reframed my behaviour (that “be ready or be behind” anxiety)
- I recognized the stressors affecting me across all 5 domains (biological, emotion, cognitive, social, prosocial) and when they were positive and when they weren’t
- I reduced the stress I was experiencing in large part simply through the reframing. It brought with it a disruption to the influence and external pressure to get “ready”
- I reflected on my own states and the brain-body experience of calm and stressed, as well as what I noticed in my daughter
And then best of all I got back to the business of boldface to my own Self-Reg needs with a focus on restoration and enjoying summer, knowing that the transition to school was not something to dread or try and head off early, but to look forward to experiencing as a process when the time was right.