My daughter says she hates school

It happened again recently. A well-meaning family friend looked at my six-year-old daughter and asked THE QUESTION: “Do you like school?”

My daughter looked over her shoulder at me and I could see the concern in her eyes. With her look, she was asking me, Is this someone we can trust? Should I tell the truth? Or do I say what I think most adults want to hear?

I looked at my daughter and said, “You can answer her question honestly. You’re allowed to make up your own mind about school.”

Still uncertain, she looked back at the family friend, shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know. It’s okay.” This tepid response is a stark contrast to her first days of kindergarten and earlier in her first grade year when she would loudly exclaim, “I hate school! I never learn anything there! They never let you move! They never let you get messy! You can’t talk unless you raise your hand and the teacher calls on you!” Based upon her more neutral response, I can see that she is learning that adults want kids to like school.

The family friend turned her eyes from my daughter’s face to mine with a look that read, “Your kid doesn’t love school?!” I could see the anxiety in her expression. What will happen to this small child if she does not learn to love school? Is she headed into a life of delinquency? Will this girl ever find success in the workplace? Ever know the ease of financial stability? Ever recognize her academic potential? What will become of a child who does not love school? After all, the vast majority of us have been raised to believe that education is the pathway to success, the great equalizer that allows all of us a chance at the American dream.

The conversation went on with the friend prodding, “Well, do you like your teacher, at least?”

“She’s okay,” my child responded. Yet again, the family friend looked at me with eyes growing wide.

“Your teacher is just okay?” she said, the concern growing in her voice.

On that day, with that particular person, I left the friend’s concern hanging in the air between us. I let my daughter run off and find her sister to resume their play. I didn’t try to smooth over the rough edges of that conversation. I’m learning that it’s okay for my daughter’s truth to make others uncomfortable. I don’t need to silence her or justify her feelings in the hope that adults will see her or her school in a particular way. After all, it is possible that a school environment that does work for many kids does not work for my daughter. Additionally, I have realized that her dissatisfaction with school does not mean that there is something wrong or broken about her.

Strong words and the meaning behind them

When my daughter started kindergarten and began her litany about why she hated school, I listened to her reasons and didn’t pay much attention to the initial part of her statement: I hate school. In our home, we often hear strong words from our kids that are meant to communicate their big emotions about a situation. Sometimes those words have been, “I hate you, Mom!” Given that I try my best to react to those moments by listening to the feelings behind the words (though sometimes the words do sting and I fall short of my goal to let it roll off my back), I didn’t think much of my daughter’s word choice. Instead, I paid attention to the words that came next and heard her asking for a different type of educational environment than she was given.

  • “I never learn anything” became “I am not being challenged or learning about the topics that most interest me.”
  • “They never let you move” became “I need more opportunities to use my body during the school day.”
  • “They never let you get messy” became “I have sensory needs that are not being met. I feel controlled when I am given creative tasks and outdoor recess time because of the focus placed on remaining clean.”
  • “You can’t talk unless the teacher calls on you” became “I have ideas about the subjects we are learning that I am not able to communicate. I want to be able to talk about the things I’m learning.”

Given that I interpreted my daughter’s rant about her educational environment in this way, I was taken aback when my mother-in-law said this past summer that she was “deeply disappointed and concerned” that my daughter hated school. Until that moment, I was living in a world in which I believed my child was bringing forward intelligent critiques of the school system and advocating for her needs. Sure, her communication was a little rough around the edges, but for being only five and six years old, I thought she was doing a stellar job.

My mother-in-law’s comment sent me back to my own childhood with well-meaning grown-ups staring down at me and asking THE QUESTION: “Do you like school?”

I can still recall the look of approval and relief on their faces whenever I would say, “Yes.” In the beginning, I did like school. At some point, that changed, but my answer always remained positive. After all, I got good grades. I behaved at school. I had friends. What did I have to complain about? And, there was always that pressure from grown-ups to affirm that the current educational structure worked for me. Responding in the negative would have conjured up a kid who refused to complete her assignments or was frequently sent to the principal’s office. That wasn’t me. (I say that with no judgment toward anyone who didn’t do their schoolwork or who frequented the principal’s office, or has a child who fits those behaviors now. I say that just to communicate the judgments and misperceptions people have about kids who don’t like school. That’s all.)

My daughter can dislike school and be a model student who is above grade level in some subject areas. Just because a child plays by the rules of the classroom environment does not mean that the environment is a positive one for that child. Additionally, we look to see if a child can perform certain classroom expectations, like sitting still with their legs “crisscross applesauce” and their hands in their lap, but we rarely ask, “Is this the best way for this particular child to learn?” Sometimes we believe that all is well with the child and the environment when the child can jump through the academic and environmental hurdles placed in front of them. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes even the children who seem to be performing well are screaming, “I hate school” on the inside. As the adults in their lives, I hope we take the time to listen beyond our own beliefs and biases about school to hear the kind of environment our children are telling us they need.

Michelle is a former college administrator turned stay-at-home mom in central Ohio. She is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow as a person and a mom alongside her five and six-year-old daughters. Michelle attempts to knit, crochet, practice yoga, and read fiction in the midst of mothering.