A year ago, an eighth grade student came into my counseling office looking stricken. Over the weekend, Lara’s parents had told her they were moving from Maryland to a country in South America. Her father’s global job had taken her to far-flung places before, but she hadn’t seen this move coming. “I thought I’d be going to high school with my friends,” she told me, “not starting all over again. I don’t even speak Spanish!”
I felt for her. Change is hard, especially when it’s foisted on you. I worked with Lara to identify any elements in her control, including her own attitude. She had lived everywhere from Germany to Texas, and we talked about how she had successfully navigated those transitions. We also identified a few positives, including the likelihood she would master a new language.
The irony wasn’t lost on me. At the time, I was agonizing over a job offer that would help me grow professionally. The new role would require building a counseling program and working with kids in a much broader age range. I would teach a kindergarten wellness class, which terrified me but would stretch my skills.
Unlike Lara, my dilemma was of my own making, but I felt a similar lack of control. My fear of change was at odds with my intuitive sense that it was time to shift gears. The decision did not feel straightforward, and I was confused. I would be exchanging familiarity for the unknown. I wouldn’t get to enjoy the comfort that comes with experience. I also would have to abandon projects I had worked hard to get off the ground.
I made lists of pros and cons and consulted a couple respected mentors, secretly hoping one of them would tell me what to do. I felt stuck and kept waiting for something to tip the balance. I realize now that fixating on what I would lose made it very difficult to see the benefits of the new job.
In the end, I got enough clarity to take the leap. Now, those same kindergarten kids who were so scary in the abstract are my best teachers. They regularly demonstrate how to let go and embrace the new. Every day they model that life should be a little messy and unpredictable. Here are just a few of the character traits they embody that have helped me equate change with fun and adventure.
Lesson 1: Curiosity and Creativity
I could curate a photo blog called “Weird Stuff Kindergarteners Eat.” Even the pickiest eaters experiment with food combinations. I have scooped yogurt over pimento olives, helped spread hummus over jelly, and watched one child mix pineapples into his spaghetti.
Their curiosity extends far beyond food. One girl tucked a tiny acorn into her pocket to show her friends, mystified that such a small item could grow on an enormous oak tree. This prompted a question about whether big leaves grow on small trees, which segued into discussion about how stars talk to each other. When I spend time with five-year-olds, I see the world through a different lens. Even the mundane is magical, and my comfort zone starts to feel a little boring.
Lesson 2: Courage and Grit
Five-year-olds are not self-conscious. They will share their deepest feelings with abandon, start dancing or talking to themselves whenever the mood strikes, and tell wildly inventive stories. All topics are fair game and tact is overrated. I have been told I should wear more sparkles and improve my jump roping. Little kids also are tenacious. They will make multiple attempts to scale a wall or position a Lego or draw a heart, unencumbered by fear of judgment. I try to follow their example, muting my inner critic so I can keep plugging away when things get tough.
Lesson 3: Joyfulness and Optimism
Every Wednesday, the kindergarteners have extended recess. Somehow, over the ensuing week, they always forget this fact. This means that every single time I announce that they can stay outside longer than the first and second graders, they whoop with happiness. I hope they never realize it’s a recurring privilege, because their unbridled joy is so infectious. Happiness is a choice, whether it’s kids celebrating ten extra minutes of recess or adults focusing on an overlooked but gratifying part of their job.
I may always be resistant to change, but I have learned that risk-taking is liberating and has a ripple effect. Growth begets growth, often in ways that extend well beyond the decision at hand. And with practice, managing uncertainty becomes easier.
Lara also needed to overcome her fear. She took solace in the fact that she had done well in past moves and resolved to stay positive. In October, she sent me an email that ended with this line: “I just wanted you to know that I am HAPPY.” At fourteen, she already understood that to gain the most, it’s often necessary to give something up.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda. She regularly writes columns on parenting, counseling and education for the Washington Post. She tweets @pfagell.
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