Dropping your kid off at childcare without feeling like a jerk: a behavioral scientists’ guide to mastering childcare drop off

We all dread the day – whether your baby goes to daycare at 3 months old or starts preschool at 3 years old, the idea of sending your little one off into the care of someone you don’t know can be devastating. No matter how much research you do on the quality of the care provider, as a parent you just can’t shake the feeling that you’d rather keep them safe and warm with you …forever…or at least until they turn 18! Regardless of the exact age your child heads to daycare or school, at some point we must let our little ones go and send them into the arms of someone else.

So, how do we separate, and walk away without feeling like a jerk? (that’s the non-scientist way to describe it!).

First, know that there is no right or wrong decision when it comes to childcare. Everyone is different and whatever you choose to do – keep your child home for several years or send them off to daycare after a few months, is perfect. It’s perfect for you. It’s perfect for your family. And it’s perfect for your child. So, wipe the criticism anyone else has of your choice out of mind and focus on making that drop off easy, fun, and enjoyable.

I’ll never forget the first day I dropped my son off at daycare. He was just a little over 3 months old and although I was giving him to a sweet, loving, kind, and amazing human who came highly recommended from friends, I couldn’t help feeling like a jerk. I cried most of the way home, thinking “I just left my baby with a COMPLETE STRANGER!”

Part of this feeling comes from the fact that most, if not all kids at any age will cry and engage in all sorts of emotional responding when their primary caregiver leaves them. It’s normal. It happens. There’s nothing you could have done or should have done to prevent the emotions that come. I knew that my son would cry on that first day, but I still felt solely responsible for my child’ stress and it took everything in my power not to turn my car around, scoop him up, quit my job, and stay home for good.

But I didn’t turn that car around. I left him with that sweet lady and went to work (at a job I really love!) Over 2 years later, my son is happily in full-time preschool, drop offs are easy, and he loves every moment of his day. So much so that on his days off he asks when he can go to school again and see his friends. My feelings and his feelings have changed quite drastically and although I do miss him during the day and wonder what he’s up to, I’m happy he enjoys his days so much, and that I enjoy mine too.  Being apart during the day helps us cherish the special time we have together to talk about how our days went and connect on all that is new.

I’m focusing this blog on the toddler/preschool age because I think that ages 2 to 3 years old can be the most difficult in terms of drop off. At this age, most kids have a decent amount of language, so they can scream things like “mommy, don’t leave me!” or “I want to go home!” And, they can walk away from their caregiver, run after you, and cling to your clothing as you cry your way out the preschool door. These behaviors magnify your feelings of stress and may make you respond in a way that only makes the experience worst over time.

So, how does one master the school drop off (especially the first and early days), successfully? Using science, of course!

Pre-First Day Activities

  1. Mentally prepare. Give yourself permission to recognize that the first day (s) will be rough. Your child will cry, cling, and perhaps run after you.
  2. Coordinate with your care provider. Speak with your care provider before the first day about your plan for drop off. Arrange for the provider to have toys and other preferred activities available for your child and ready to go when drop off occurs. Although your child won’t magically transition just because a toy car is available, these activities will serve as a visual cue that the environment can be favorable and perhaps even fun.
  3. Prep your child. Start talking to your child a few weeks before the first day about what’s going to happen. Who will be there, what “school” is and what they’ll get to do when they are there (play with toys, sing songs, play on the playground). Explain that you won’t be there, but that you (or someone else they love) will always pick them up at the end of each day.
  4. Do a trial visit. Ask the staff if you can swing by for an hour during a particularly fun activity. Most daycares and/or preschools will allow this if you remain present. My son loves singing, so we decided to take him for circle time about a week before his official day. He was very excited about it and we talked about circle time the remaining days before he officially started.

On the actual day

  1. Take a deep breath
  2. Explain to your child that today is the day school will start and remind them of the fun things you’ve been talking about all these weeks
  3. Once you arrive and before you signal you are leaving, mention a few enjoyable things you see in the environment – e.g., “oh wow, they have cars here! Those look like a lot of fun!”
  4. Clearly tell your child you are going to let him play and that you are going to leave. ****

Note that some parents avoid telling their child they are leaving because they think it’s easier for him/her. At this age, your child has enough language to understand that you are leaving. The crying is likely to occur whether you tell them or not, so you may as well be clear and honest. Avoiding it won’t make the experience ANY less difficult and telling them may help them more fully prepare for your upcoming transition.

  • Give your child a big hug and kiss, tell them you love them and hand them over to the caregiver. This step is a big deal and relates more to you feeling okay with the transition – you need to feel like you gave your child a ton of love and transitioned fully before they begin crying and begging you to stay. But while this interaction should be full of love, it should be very, very brief.

Again, some parents avoid this clear sign of affection and departure and try to “sneak out.” I don’t recommend this. Your child will likely cry regardless so avoid the surprise of them turning around to see you’re not there. Be honest, clear and have that moment of love before you leave.

  • WALK OUT THE DOOR. KEEP WALKING. KEEP WALKING. CRY A LITTLE IF YOU NEED TO. KEEP WALKING. GET IN YOUR CAR. DON’T TURN AROUND. This part is critical and it’s where you have the most opportunity to make things worse. Many parents may turn around and hug their children, tell them it’s going to be okay, pick them up, etc. Avoid doing these things at all costs. You are NOT A bad parent for continuing to walk away. You departed lovingly and now you’re teaching them that the transition needs to happen. It may feel a bit cold, but trust me, the last thing you want is for your child to learn that the tantrums and crying will serve as an effective way to get you to turn around. Because you know what? Turning around and consoling them reinforces the behavior, will make it worse and result in the crying continuing for a long time to come.  It may even result in you eventually pulling them out of school, quitting your job and changing your whole life. KEEP WALKING! I promise, it will be okay.

Continue this process for EACH drop off. Whatever you do, don’t turn around. By continuing to walk away, you’ll be teaching your child that the behavior has no function and so there will be no reason to continue doing it anymore. And you’re doing this in a loving way – teaching your child that leaving you is a normal part of their experience and is a loving and helpful thing to do! It’s not cold or disheartening in any way! Your child deserves to have this experience and learn some independence! To know that they ARE gong to be okay without you (and you’ll be okay without them too!)

Know that every kid is different, and some kids may cry for many days, whereas others may cry for only a few moments on the first day. Just remember to follow the steps above and stay consistent. It’s a lot like sleep training (check out my blog on this topic!). Always get a report from the caregiver – most will text, call, or email letting you know that your child stopped crying within moments of your departure (a nice piece of info as you head out to conquer your day).

So, while I vividly remember the first day I dropped my son off at daycare, I also vividly remember the first time I dropped him off at preschool when he didn’t cry. He ran over to his friends, dropped his jacket said “bye mom” and started playing with cars. It was magical – and made me feel like a great parent, avoiding jerk status all together.

So go forth and master the childcare drop off like a boss (and definitely not a jerk!)

You got this!

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