Dear Molly,

You wouldn’t know this, but last week when I dropped you off at the first day of kindergarten, I started crying the minute after I said goodbye. And here, you were so brave. Even though I could see you wanted to cry and flee the chaotic classroom, you didn’t. But me? I was a mess.

I was so worried about you. This school’s so different than your small, safe preschool. You hadn’t made any friends yet. There were big kids screaming, shoving, and running all over the bleak asphalt playground, where I watched as you stood and stared in terror. There were so many new rules – in class, at recess, in the hallways –even I felt confused and overwhelmed.

When I left the building, a man wearing a school badge standing sentry at the entrance saw me wiping my eyes. “It’s OK,” he said gently. “They have to grow up.”

He knew! Somehow this schoolyard sage knew I wasn’t weeping over a parking ticket, but from the fear that my little girl wouldn’t be OK, that she needed to be saved. Who else to do the job than her fiercely protective mom (No! I didn’t say “helicopter mom,” I said “protective”!), who at that moment was concocting a dramatic rescue plan to pull her daughter immediately out of this place and homeschool her until she went off to grad school. Unless, of course, she still wanted to live at home. For, like, ever.

This mystery man appeared out of thin air. (Come to think of it, I’ve never seen him again. Hmmm.) He uttered the right words that instantly pulled me back from the ledge.

The moment was so powerful because, like a good parent, he kindly yet firmly reminded me that the best way I can help you this year at school, and in the many school years to come, is to let you go, to let you grow up. Not that this will be easy, for either of us. The truth is that growing up and going to school can be really hard.

But this is where a parent’s education comes in, learning that hard work is part of the deal, that the best of parental involvement means supporting and cheering on our kids and the teachers who work so hard in the name of learning. It’s hard to make new friends, to learn to read and write and add, to do the hula hoop with the big girls on the blacktop. Hard isn’t bad. When we accomplish something difficult, not only do we learn new skills, we discover with pride that we’re capable and resilient and even more prepared for the next challenge.

It took me years to learn this with your brother, who next year will be jettisoned into another scary educational voyage when he begins high school. Just as with you, when he started school, I wanted to save him from the painful moments. I wanted him always to be happy. But I found out that my good intention to act as a human Band-Aid from school’s inevitable wounds wasn’t protecting him, but sending him an unspoken message that he wasn’t able to handle it. He found strength when I backed off.

So this year and in the years to come, to help you succeed at school, even when I’m terrified because you’re terrified, my vow is always to tell you that you can do it and that your teachers are there to help you along the way. I’ll remind you that even though you are paralyzed with fear when you don’t know what to draw for your daily school journal, you did it yesterday, and the day before, and because of that, you’ll succeed at doing it again. I know you can do it on your own, however hard that is for both of us to learn.

Love, Mom