The fear and excitement of going back to school

Off to school with daddy. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Off to school with daddy. Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

So, it's September. There's a chill to the air, the days are drawing in and the winter coats have been pulled out from the back of the wardrobe. All across the country, children are packing their shiny new stationery into pencil cases and slinging rucksacks over shoulders.

Pigtails have been plaited, name-tags ironed into uniforms and the echoes of arguments over school shoes have faded into the distant past. It's the start of a new term and a chance to wipe the slate clean.

Some children will be looking forward to the first day of school with wide-eyed anticipation. I remember that feeling, even now. It's the chance to see all your friends once more, to meet new people and, for those moving up into high school, the reinvention as one of the 'big kids.' At that age, you're desperate to grow up and the return to school is just another step along that path.

But for others, the rustle of the calendar flipping across to September won't be a welcome sound and the schoolbag will be packed slowly, with a sinking feeling of dread. These won't be the kids rushing through the school gates to greet their friends. They'll be the ones hanging back until the last possible minute, kicking their heels on the pavement and avoiding eye contact. I remember that feeling too.

Whenever I think about it, there's a wash of relief that I'm not that age any more. It's not that I didn't like school. But I can't begin to imagine the pressures that are placed on children now. Sometimes, as adults, we wish that we could be children again and enjoy the simplicity of an existence that's free from the responsibilities of jobs, mortgages and relationships. But life as a child isn't simple. It's more complicated now than it ever was when we were that age.

School is a microcosm, a bubble in which everything is amplified. For us, as adults, it's hard to understand why it matters so much to fit in because we've grown past the point where we care. The size of the heel on school shoes is not a question of life or death to us but simply one of practicality. There seems to be no need to take half an hour on your eyebrows before Maths. But for children now, who run the risk of having their every fashion failure documented mercilessly on social media, there's an unhealthy need to look perfect at all times. There's more emphasis than ever on the way we look, how much we weigh or how well we can contour our cheekbones. They're not the lessons that children should be learning at school. But sadly, they're inescapable.

It's not just appearance that's the subject of scrutiny too. Back in the day, if you did something stupid – and I had my fair share of those moments, I must admit – then the worst that might happen would be a few whispered rumours that would circulate until the next scandal came along.

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Yet now a message can spread like wildfire with the click of a button. An entire year group can know of your antics before the start of the first lesson the next day. To walk into a room filled with knowing glances is hard enough in your mid-thirties. To do it as a teenage would be unbearable.

I don't have children, although I have had the privilege of playing stepmother to two amazing teenagers who have both overcome their own individual battles to grow up into adults that would make any parent proud. But if I did, I honestly don't know how I'd deal with some of the issues that my friends' children have experienced.

Bullying over social media is the prime example. Bullying was cowardly enough two decades ago, but at least it would stop when you walked through your front door. Now, however, bullies are offered the chance to send messages that disappear instantly once read and which can be sent every hour of the day or night, from many different accounts.

It's challenging for the adult too to feel such helplessness, knowing that you can't protect your child, even under your own roof. There's no escape and suddenly, the safety of home is nothing more than an illusion.

But home must always be that haven, that route of salvation for an unhappy child. However irrational the comments over school shoes, we need to remember ourselves how it felt to be the one that didn't fit in.

So this September, as you stand and watch with pride as your child trundles along the pavement, bag swinging merrily in hand, bear in mind that all may not be as it seems. Be watchful, be aware and be supportive; and if they want to spend half an hour on their eyebrows before Maths, understand why. Because after all, the return to school isn't all about the children. There's a great deal that we, as adults, need to learn too.