The beginning of a new school year can bring relief or disappointment, or both. As a mom of three young children, I’m looking forward to the return of familiar school-year routines—and I’m also dreading the return of early morning tardy bells. My kids feel their own ambivalence: It’s exciting to get a new lunchbox, but scary to walk into a new classroom full of people.
Almost all transitions create a subtle (or not so subtle) cocktail of emotions. But transition times are often so busy that we don’t attend to our interior lives in the flurry of tasks and deadlines. The result is a kind of survival mode that runs on adrenaline and cultivates numbness. Last August, I Tweeted a summary of my family’s first three days of school: Day 1—“Everything is awesome!” Day 2—“Everything is terrible!” Day 3— “Where am I?”
In the modern West, we value productivity and efficiency. A “successful” start to the school year looks like securing all the items on every supply list and making it to all the meet-the-teacher events on time and intact. Some of us thrive on these kinds of tasks. Others of us feel defeated and frazzled by them.
But for all of us, the busyness of transitions can mask the slower, deeper work of spiritual formation that new seasons call forth in us and in our relationships. In other words, survival mode can only serve us up to a point. It might help us cope (and get those supply lists taken care of) but it cannot steward our hearts.
As Christians, we have access to a different, more layered mindset to help us navigate the back-to-school rush. Instead of merely focusing on external routines and benchmarks, we can prepare for the intangible work of soul care that the stresses of transition will bring. We can embrace spiritual practices that cultivate grace, both for ourselves and for those in our care.
Managing change usually involves emphasizing the positives. Leaders of people and organizations cast a vision for what can be, and we invite others into an exciting new future. But change also involves loss. A family moving to a new house means saying goodbye to a familiar place. A church calling a new pastor means actualizing the departure of a previous leader. A child starting a new school year means the end of slower summer days.
It’s tempting to suppress or minimize the losses that accompany change, especially if those losses don’t seem very significant. We don’t want to seem ungrateful for the good new things ahead or lose momentum when leading others toward the future. But ignoring grief is counter-intuitive because repressed sadness prevents us from entering freely into joy.
It might feel safer to distract our children from their sorrow. But when we give them space to name and process their grief—even over small things like the end of summer or the absence of a favorite classmate—we honor their humanity and help them live more integrated lives.
Making room for grief doesn’t necessarily need to be complex or serious. Sometimes it looks like simply validating a child’s feelings when they express a complaint or lament, rather than immediately attempting to redirect it. Sometimes it looks like offering the same permission to ourselves—to name what’s hard without qualification or a positive spin.
Other times, sadness can be drawn out through conversation. My oldest child was three when we moved from Virginia to South Carolina to be closer to my extended family. As we packed up our house, I’d ask him, “How do you feel about moving to a new home?” He usually replied, “A little bit happy and a little bit sad.” That became an oft-repeated phrase for us over the next few months and gave us a framework for parsing out what felt happy and what felt sad about our big move.
Feelings aside, transitions like starting school (especially new ones) can also cause stress. When people living in close proximity are all stressed, we should expect friction. Fuses will be short. Offenses will happen. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget in the moment when a child is melting down because he wanted triangle-shaped sandwich halves, not squares (even though he specifically requested squares).
Setting our expectations in advance prepares us to respond with grace toward others in our households—or our carpool lines or our cubicles—who are processing significant changes in their daily routines.
But even with realistic expectations, we will still fail. So we must be prepared to practice repentance and reconciliation. We must be ready to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” a lot during stressful life transitions. In some ways, this practice is liberating. It frees us from any expectation to be perfect and evokes gratitude for the God of grace.
When James wrote, Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed (5:16), he was referring primarily to physical healing. But interpersonal healing also takes place when we are freed from the pressure to be flawless. This is particularly important in the era of mommy bloggers and other social media influencers modeling their seemingly perfect family lives.
When we practice repentance and reconciliation in our homes, we create a culture of grace. This begins with modeling it ourselves. Apologizing to our children in humility demonstrates our shared need for a Savior. We lead the way in illustrating that when “we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us of all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
My kids and I pray “sorry prayers” as part of our bedtime liturgy, and it has been formative for me to do this alongside them. Sometimes when I confess my sin, they want more details: “What did you say in a mean voice to Daddy?” Other times they are probably not even listening. But this simple practice has helped me to see myself as their equal, a co-heir of the grace God gives to all his children.
Often after an argument and its resolution, someone in my house realizes that they need a snack, or a hug, or a nap. Sometimes if we address those needs on the front end, the argument is avoided altogether. The summer-to-school season comes with times of heightened stress and transition, and attending to basic physical needs is especially important.
My college pastor used to advise us not to make any big decisions when we were tired, hungry, or cold. It became a kind of joke among my friends, but now as a parent, I understand this maxim on a new level. We are material beings: Our emotional, mental, and even physical health is integrally connected to bodily processes like nutrition and sleep. It might seem spiritual to deny or minimize this, but when God made us from the dust of the earth, he called it “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
Tish Harrison Warren writes,
We are not gnostics. We worship a God who was fully incarnate. He ate lunch, skinned his knees, and felt tired. Yet, it’s so easy to think that the really spiritual things are cognitive, not bodily. We need to believe the gospel in our brains, read Christian books, pray with words, feel worship in our hearts. But if we are to live lives of discipleship, we must do so first in our bodies.
And so, after a long day at school or work, sometimes the most spiritually mature thing to do is to sit down and eat a snack or go to bed early. This is part of how we care for others and for ourselves. In a world that valorizes overwork and burnout, embracing our limits is a subversive act. And in a world that promotes disembodiment, honoring the physical needs of our children is an act of discipleship.
When we attend to our feelings, our relationships, and our bodies—without shame or condemnation—we steward the gifts God gave us. We remember what he said of our humanity: “It is very good.”
Hannah King is an Anglican priest and writer serving at Village Church in Greenville, SC.