‘I don’t like my school anymore,’ my six-year-old son told me after his first day in year two last week. ‘I haven’t got any friends.’
This seemed peculiar given that he is still attending the same school as the year before, with the same pupils and even, for the time being, the same teacher.
I listed the friends he talked about constantly before the summer holidays and he seemed dismissive of both them and me.
‘Anyway, I don’t want to go to that school anymore,’ he continued, ‘I want to go to a privacy school.’
Assuming he meant a private school, I was more than a little confused. He had spent the whole summer with his entirely state-schooled family. How does he even know what a private school is? I asked myself.
‘I said ‘privacy school’, he corrected me. ‘I want to go to a privacy school so I can chillax my beans round the pool with no one interrupting me.’
‘I’m pretty sure that’s what we all want’, I whispered to myself, chuckling at his ridiculous turn of phrase.
And so it continued for more than a week: complaint after complaint after complaint about the friends he didn’t have or didn’t want to have anymore. I found myself so uncharacteristically dismissive of his comments that I even began seeing them as an opportunity to make some changes I had been considering myself.
‘Shall we move?’ I asked him. ‘Maybe north London would be easier all round,’ I suggested forgetting, once again, that he’s a geographically illiterate child rather than a upwardly mobile housemate.
‘No, Daddy!’ he scolded. ‘I never want to leave this house. I want to live here forever.’
So what really is the problem? I wondered.
A few days later I bumped into a friend I made in the street in a few years ago.
‘Are you Ben?’ she yelled out of nowhere as I made my way to my son’s nursery to pick him up one day in 2014. ‘I’ve just bought your book.’
We chatted for a while and opened up to each other in the most extraordinary way almost immediately. I was beginning to appreciate that openness begets openness and that you can learn so much from people you barely know simply by letting them in. We’ve known each other for more than three years now and stopped for a chat every time we’ve seen each other since. In fact, our sons are now at the same school.
‘Jackson’s not settling in well at all after the summer holidays,’ I explained as I leapt into her space while she was minding her own business on Tottenham Court Road last week.
Just saying the words out loud suddenly helped me to piece it together.
‘But then I guess six weeks is like forever for a child so young,’ I mumbled, clearly taking the words from her mouth.
‘That’s it,’ she agreed, ‘it feels like so long that they come back all insecure in their relationships. They think they need to start all over again.’
It all began to fall into place: the shyness on day one, the coy looks between kids who were inseparable before the summer, all of them holding back in the playground. I had grown frustrated with what I saw as his whinging when he was just expressing his own sense of insecurity. A kind of insecurity that must be pretty common post-holiday.
I walked away thinking about how important it is for parents to talk to one another. And not about our children’s outstanding exam results, how many instruments they can play, how they suckled on lactose free breast milk from birth or how they haven’t had any refined sugar since, but about their feelings and unusual behaviours. We can uncover so much wisdom and insight when we just take a moment to open up and share.
The more I put myself out there and seek empathy from others in every aspect of my life, the more I come to believe that we find the answers to our problems much more quickly through conversation than rumination. If I’d walked on by when I spotted my friend in the street I may have got my sandwich a little quicker and been back at my desk a little sooner, but I certainly wouldn’t have found any peace. And what a wonderful thing that is to find on your lunch break.