Peggy Lunak and Laura Daly spend every day teaching
kindergarten at Stony Creek School in Alsip, and they've had plenty
of caboose babies come through their classrooms. With more than
four decades of teaching experience between them, they have a few
words of wisdom for parents who want to stay as engaged in their
last child's education as they were in their first
The ritual of Kindergarten Parent Night: A room full of
fresh-faced moms and dads, peppering the teacher with questions
about snacks and flash cards as they carefully inspect every square
inch of the room where their precious baby will begin his or her
But if you look a little closer at any given group of
kindergarten parents, you are guaranteed to find at least one mom
hovering near the back, half-listening to the presentation while
she furiously composes a grocery list, texts her teenage daughter
and tries to conceal the gray hair and laugh lines that tell the
world she's a decade or so removed from the majority of parents in
Whether you call this last one your "caboose baby," "bonus
baby" or-as several of my friends refer to their third or fourth
(or fifth) child-your "oops baby," you've probably learned in the
past few months that this school experience is just a little
different. I certainly have as my final baby, Emily, gets settled
into her kindergarten class, while my other kids are making their
way through second, sixth and eighth grade.
Emily's Friday folder? It usually gets emptied Sunday
night instead of 3:30 Friday afternoon. School pictures? Let's see
what I can find the night before in that hand-me-down bag at the
back of the closet. This began even before kindergarten when I had
to program an Outlook calendar reminder for preschool
This isn't to say I value Emily's school experience any
less than the other kids', but the cold, hard truth is being a
parent of four kids at 41 is a whole lot different from having one
in kindergarten and one in preschool at 33.
So what's an "older" mom or dad to do to stay
Start by giving yourselves a break, says Joan Rice,
co-author of What Kindergarten Teachers Know: Practical and Playful
Ways for Parents to Help Children Listen, Learn and Cooperate at
Home. She's been a primary grade teacher for 20 years and has seen
families of all shapes and sizes come through her class. She
recalls one mom who made herself a nervous wreck about staying
involved when she sent her 10th child to kindergarten.
"I had to say to her, 'You need to lighten up on yourself
a little bit.' I can't stress the importance of cutting yourself
some slack," she says. "It's OK to say you just don't have the
energy anymore because your body is telling you that you don't. I
think it's so much more important to realize the support and the
energy you can give to your last child may need to come from a
At her Parent Night, she offers the option of "Happy Hands
at Home," which lets parents sign up for volunteer activities they
can do at home instead of coming into the classroom. The kids love
bringing home the folder of "homework" for their parents, and it
makes moms and dads feel like they are contributing.
"It's important for Mom and Dad to remember that Bobby
will never know how involved they were in big brother Billy's
kindergarten," she says. "With successive children, heavy
involvement just isn't a possibility for some parents, due to time,
money and energy. It's more important that they are there to listen
to Bobby, ask him questions, work with him on kindergarten skills,
and show him support and enthusiasm."
She also encourages her seasoned parents to be a mentor to
younger moms and dads who haven't been through the school
experience until now. Even though many moms are back to work at
least part time when their youngest is in school, take a few
minutes to introduce yourself to a first-timer and let her know you
understand how anxious she's feeling.
Of course, introducing yourself to a younger mom means
getting over the fact that she's, well, younger than you, which is
not always easy.
I was reminded of this when I was chatting with a new
friend and she mentioned "moms our age."
"How old are you?" I asked. Her reply-29-made me cringe
because no matter how you slice it, having a full decade between us
means the phrase "our age" does not apply.
Lynn Petrak, a mom of four in La Grange, has been
wrestling with those feelings since her youngest, Annie, started
kindergarten this year with barely a look back and a
"I did not expect how old I felt standing there with the
other moms who were videotaping, photographing and holding on
tightly to their first-born kids," she says. "There was the
difference in the First Day approach, yes, but there also were
definite differences in the other moms and me. Like the skinny
jeans. I am neither skinny nor the owner of skinny
While it would seem logical that the older mom is the more
confident one, Rice says it's common for moms like Petrak to want
to just run in, do what they need to do, and run out.
"They usually express feeling 'out of touch' with the
early childhood classroom, so keeping their confidence boosted is
really important," she says.
While Rice encourages older parents not to overload
themselves with guilt for not volunteering at every classroom
party, she says it's imperative they make an effort to facilitate
play dates or other ways for their youngest to be with other kids
the same age.
Even the busiest family should be able to accommodate ice
cream and a trip to the park.
I'll admit that's a tough one for me. I work from home, so
the last thing I want in my already loud and crowded house is
another child. Then again, what fun is a new Barbie townhouse if
Emily doesn't have a friend to share it with?
So for now, I'm working on knowing when to make that extra
effort (even if I lack time, energy and money) and when to stop
worrying about whether I'm involved enough.
And for those times when I do give in to worry, I've got
the advice of my older sister Kathy, who kept tabs much more on how
her two older boys did in school than she did for her youngest
"By then, I trusted my parenting skills," she says. "And I
figured the other two turned out OK, so she would be fine,
Jacqui Podzius Cook is a freelance writer who lives in Oak
Lawn with her husband, four kids and two dogs.
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