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As grandkids head back to school, we can all learn a thing or two

Nothing says routine more than the first day of school. That's why my son and daughter-in-law, a.k.a. the parents, moved their brood into their new house this week even though they still don't have a kitchen and the paint isn't dry on some of the walls. Ever since selling their old house, they had been camping out in our place while my husband and I fled town, pleading urgent work commitments three time zones away.

The parents were too busy taming chaos to fret about Grade 1 jitters, so I was doing it for them. What else is a granny for, if not to worry about her children and grandchildren, especially from a distance? When I FaceTimed on Labour Day, I found all three children in the bathtub being scrubbed up by mama, who was imploring them not to splash too much because the grout was still wet.

Daddy was wandering around the empty rooms, worrying aloud that the hotplate he had ordered, in the absence of a kitchen stove, might not arrive before the week was out. The other grandparents, who had been imported from out of town to babysit while the parents set up beds and transferred clothes, toys and who knows what else from our house, had taken up exhausted refuge on the front porch and were sipping a cool drink or two while awaiting the next call for reinforcements.

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I silently thanked whatever deity might be handy that I was not available to pitch in, refrained from enquiring about the state of my house and glanced at my watch to see if it might be time to uncork a beverage of my own.

Neither of the twins, who are 6 and entering Grade 1, seemed keen on the idea of making new friends, getting used to new teachers or being placed in separate classes so they can individuate – a psychological concept pioneered by Carl Jung and much touted as a pedagogical principle. Roughly, Jung believed that individuation is the process of integrating the conscious and unconscious minds into the Self. In other words, the business of becoming a self-determining individual.

Parenting and education experts, such as Joan Friedman and Christina Baglivi Tinglof, have seized the concept and applied it to twins and other multiples because of the innate bonding which begins in the womb. They advise a delicate balancing act between respecting children's natural affinity for each other and encouraging them to develop separate personalities and skills.

Our girls have always shared a room, worn different clothes and been in separate classes, but I have watched as one twin stands back while the other pushes ahead socially or one asks her sister to decode sentences in a story rather than work it out for herself. Their connection means they don't seem to squabble as much as other siblings. "That's because they gang up on us," my son says.

Being a duo fosters the assumption that the girls share the same attitudes, talents and skills – a point that was underscored by their little brother. We used to laugh when we watched him sitting in his high chair, swivelling his head from one older sister to the other because he thought they were the same person. He knows the difference now, and so should friends and family, which is another argument in favour of individuation.

But theory is nothing more than intellectual gobbledygook if it leaves a child bereft and lonely. "They'll adjust," opined my son, reminding me that military families move all the time. I remembered the trauma of my own first day of school: The sense of abandonment as my father walked out of the classroom while I was forcibly held by a strange woman who insisted she wouldn't let me go of me until I calmed down.

One of the twins had had an equally rough start to kindergarten two years ago, but by the end of the first day, she had recovered enough to complain that her teacher hadn't taught her to read yet.

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As I scrolled through the first-day-of-school pictures others had posted on Facebook, I imagined the girls in the clothes they had picked out the night before – one in a white dress, the other patterned – walking to their new school in a rambunctious and supportive parade, three generations strong, and I knew they would be okay. You can't build resilience without confronting risk or setbacks, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant write in Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy.

The person who needs a jolt of resilience is granny. I'm likely to live another couple of decades. I want to do that with an active mind, so I'm going back to school along with my grandkids. As neuroscientist Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice, explained in a recent TED Talk, "every time we learn something new, we are creating and strengthening new neural connections" and that builds cognitive reserves which can help us stave off the mind-numbing effects of Alzheimer's.

Forget crosswords, she says. That's about retrieving information you have already stored. Learn a language. She suggests Italian, but I've decided to dust off my execrable high-school French and sign up for classes to upgrade my vocabulary, polish my grammar and improve my conversation skills.

Apparently, the parents are thinking of enrolling the girls in a similar program. Maybe we can do homework together. I figure they can teach me a lot.

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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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