In the first week of school this year, I passed a kindergarten colleague in the hall with a student hanging off her arm. As we crossed paths, she said, “I’m too raw of a mommy for this job.”

I totally get it. Her being a “raw mommy” means that she exudes maternalism that the kids adore and glom onto… but it also means she’s spending her inner resources all day long, at a rate of about 5L/second.

I think this is a truth that applies to a lot of teachers – especially in elementary school. There are not many jobs with this level of psychological/spiritual output – each year, and even each day, has an emotional arc that requires pretty intense investment.

My personal catch-phrase about teaching is “The more you care about it, the harder it is,” and I think it’s particularly true for the smallest children. At the kindergarten age, it really feels like, as teachers, we’re helping to raise them.

But it’s very tricky, because whether we have our own children or not, the parental instincts we have cannot be allowed carry us. It is clear from the beginning: we DON’T get physically affectionate with kindergartners. With slightly older students, we might hold their hands and accept their hugs when they’re given, but that’s all – and it’s fine. They’re a pretty independent bunch by Grade 1.

With three- to five-year-olds, it’s a different story. They don’t just want to hug you occasionally or hold your hand. Lots of them want to lean their faces on your knee, stroke your clothes, and sit in your lap. And they have reasons for it. Often, just being physically at school is hard for them. Yesterday morning, I had two brave little girls, both four-year-olds, who got teary-eyed because they missed mom and dad (at 10 a.m.). They’re not habitual criers whatsoever, they were just having a one of those blue mornings. They were both trying really hard to be brave and concentrate on their activities… and it was a serious effort for me not to just scoop them up and hug them. I had to squelch my mom-self  and settle for a small pat on the back, a tentative little shoulder squeeze… and my very nicest words. Poor little sweeties.

And sometimes it’s not even about comforting them, it’s just because they’re so darn cute. Some of them are still only three – really tiny people. Some of them are barely past baby talk; some still have dimples in their hands; basically all of them have cheeks that need to be kissed. I never hold back with my son – if I want to kiss him all over, I go right ahead – so it’s an exercise in restraint not to squeeze these adorable people every day.

I know I’m not supposed to do those things; as a teacher, I would be wrong to touch these kids like their mom would. When I catch myself wishing I could, it’s a total internal conflict. This issue is treated in such a way that it would be easy to feel ashamed and indecent for wanting to cuddle your tiny students… but I remind myself that I’m not. I’m simply maternal… and human.

I do think back wistfully to my stint at Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica, at the end of teachers’ college. It’s a school that can afford to act like a family: small, private, community-oriented, loving. By the end of my first week there, kids would climb onto my lap and I could give them a snuggle, just as instinct would dictate.

At least here at my school, I have an alternative. Mr. A turned me on to the magical properties of puppets: small kids will watch a puppet even when they’re totally tired of watching the teacher. Hence, he lent me Max the Math Turtle. The kids LOVE him. Not only does he zap the kids’ attention like a magnet, he can also give hugs and kisses, secretly on my behalf. It helps.



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  1. emerge says:

    Aw, Max sounds great! Because… it’s NOT WRONG to want to hug a child. It’s just that in this system it’s not really allowable. But if you were in another situation, say, at Camp, or in a playgroup with other mommies and their kids, you would be totally within natural and acceptable zones to extend your maternally physical nature to whatever children wanted it for comfort or closeness or whatever. And there may be places where that’s ok in a school setting too. It’s just not ok in this one. But that doesn’t mean the impulse is like predatory or twisted or something. I sure think that would be hard too… when I volunteered at the ESL preschool, we had kids hugging us and climbing on our laps, and I don’t know if it was illegal or not, but no one ever said anything! It was I think seen as a sign that they were comfortable in the classroom. And in Japan, it was totally a thing – they were all over me. Unlike everyone else in the country. I heard it was a societal feature – kids under 6 or so get tons of physical attention but then at a certain age it’s suddenly turned off and no one ever touches anyone else again. (More or less.) Anyway, I really appreciated the little kids as my one source of physical contact in Japan!

    I guess that’s one thing that’s a lot easier about teaching adults. No one ever wants to climb on your lap or hold your hand. (Well, *usually* not.)

  2. Beth says:

    I loved the beginning: the more you care, the harder the job is. That’s so true. Taking home the problems that little guys have to carry and crying about them at night – ditch diggers don’t do that.
    Anyway, I accept hugs and hug back but I don’t initiate hugs. And I have kids in grade 4 that I taught a year or two ago who will stop me in the hall for a hug.
    I remember wearing nylons and having K’s rub my leg as they sit on the carpet while I read a story. It’s all about texture, nothing personal. I had one little one who loved to rub the suede of my Birkenstocks.
    Oh, the reverse is also true – the more you care, the more joy you find in your work.

  3. Auntie CL says:

    the puppet idea is wonderful! i used a puppet with my own children – Patty (because A. patted her affectionately)- eventually Patty Pan (sister of Peter) – there were various interactions that could occur through the medium of Patty that were far more fraught if done directly. Magic!

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