The month of May marks six months since we kicked our son Daniel out of the nest – albeit only as far as nursery school, I hasten to add. Monday to Friday, 8am ’til 5pm, he is officially outsourced to the Montessori nursery school in the wilds of Tiantongyuan where we live, outside the orbit of the Fifth Ring Road. Six months ago, I confess, it felt like we were cutting him loose. I really wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. Every child and parent must go through the traumatic first day of school experience at some stage, but at 2 and a half years old?
In China, it’s pretty normal for young children to be sent to nursery, and there were arguments beyond precedence speaking in favor of the move. Dan was being fussed over by ayi and the relatives, and we were keen for him to learn that crying and stamping his feet isn’t going to get him what he wants. Beyond our desire to see him socialized, it was also, I admit, a convenient solution for the rest of us: Dan has two working parents, and grandparents with lives of their own.
But there were misgivings, too, especially for his laowai dad, who had been looked after at home until school age by Mummy. At just over 2 years old, Dan could barely walk up the stairs if you held his hand, let alone understand why he was suddenly being dumped with a bunch of strange adults and snotty-nosed kids all day. Moreover, a Chinese friend of mine worried that he would be bullied, as he looks like a "xiao laowai" to most Chinese eyes (though so far this seems to have only won him only admirers).
In the end, the ayes had it and we agreed to try the nursery around the corner. It wasn’t pretty to start with. There may have been only a few tears on his first day, but there were plenty for weeks afterwards, and Dan didn’t really settle in for months. Getting him (and ourselves) up early on dark winter’s mornings was a chore. "I’m not going to nursery tomorrow, am I?" he would ask most nights. My sense of guilt grew with his resistance.
But through sheer bloody-mindedness we stuck with it, and I’m relieved to say that Dan is now used to nursery. He even seems to look forward to it. He has taken a shine to some of the teachers – energetic lasses in their early twenties who even at the end of the day seem unjaded by the hours spent entertaining the little horrors.
My latest guilt complex is therefore receding, but I still have my reservations. Predictably, Dan has picked up his share of bad habits. His violent tendencies have become better channeled to elicit pain – including a kick to the groin, on one memorable occasion. He has also perfected a routine in which he starts acting like a bossy little girl or an angry teacher. Sounds endearing? In other people’s children only, I assure you. Also, his English pronunciation is going downhill.
Dan has complained, too, of being hit by groups of other boys (which we believe is mostly imaginary), and recently provoked a little boy to bite him (which was not imaginary – he brought home evidence in the shape of teeth marks on his shoulder). It turns out that he is far from an angel himself. At a recent English performance put on by the nursery – an impressive display of choreographed pandemonium by about 70 under-sixes – I watched on as Dan manhandled a couple of other kids in front of the parents. The moral of this story? First, never underestimate a "xiao laowai." Second, farming my son out to nursery school is no substitute for parental guidance. For better and worse, the experiment continues.