by Linda Anderson Krech and Gregg Krech
The start of the school year marks the passage of time for families with children. One day we’re waving goodbye as our children get on the bus for kindergarten and soon enough we’re waving goodbye as they drive off to college.
In our own family, we’re approaching the tail end of this school experience, with one daughter beginning her senior year in high school, and the other beginning her freshman year in college. And though our parental roles are very different than they used to be, there’s still a role for us to play. Our parental roles are always in flux, as our kids become more grown up, competent and responsible, year by year. Taking some time to think about this, and tweak your plan each year, can help the process along. What kind of responsibilities can you shift to your child this year? Having a chance to think this through together can help your family get off to a fresh start each school year.
Here are nine themes that you might consider as you plan for the school year ahead:
1. Sleep: A study of 3,120 Rhode Island teenagers found that 85% of the teens were chronically sleep-deprived and accumulated at least a 10-hour sleep deficit during the week. While adolescents need an average of 9 hours a night, 26% said they usually got less than 6.5 hours on school nights. Bed time has often been a battleground for parents and kids, but the presence of bedroom technology has significantly added to the complexity and challenge of this issue. We must rise to the occasion, as parents, and help our kids get the sleep they really and truly need. The transition from a lax summer routine to an early rising day can throw kids for a loop. Setting up a gradual transition plan, the week prior to school, can help them with the adjustment. The same applies to wake-up time. At what point do you want your child to have the responsibility for getting up on time in the morning? If you find yourself involved in a battle each morning, it might be time to provide an alarm clock and step aside. Our daughters knew that if they missed the bus in the morning, we would drive them but they would need to repay us in time for our inconvenience. Each family needs to come up with their own plan for such issues, based on their needs, values and expectations. Being deliberate beforehand can help a great deal.
2. Organization: Try to create a good, solid daily routine for yourself, taking care of assorted tasks in the evening — homework, teacher’s notes, backpacks, clothes, lunch money, etc. If your kids learn to get up with plenty of time to spare, you can minimize the chaotic morning rush. And in terms of the bigger picture, it can help to get a year-at-a-glance calendar so that everyone can get oriented to the bigger picture ahead. (We use Google calendar and find it immensely helpful).
3. Anxiety: Each child will go into the first day of school with a different sense of anticipation. For some, that anticipation is grounded in excitement. For others, it’s encapsulated in anxiety. For many, it’s a bit of both. Let your kids know that it’s normal to have a wide range of feelings when starting something new. Remind them that nobody really knows what’s going to happen on any given day, and that’s what makes life an adventure. Tell stories of your own school experience as a child, if you can share something that’s helpful. As they change grades, teachers and even schools, it’s likely that these changes won’t always go according to plan. Dealing with the turbulence of social and academic challenges is one of the ways our children learn to cope with the joys and sorrows of life. Be wary of rescuing them from the very challenges that would help them to become strong, skillful and resilient.
4. Homework: Many teachers will start giving homework on the first day or two. This is a wonderful opportunity to teach your kids the habit of doing unpleasant tasks first. They get to experience the satisfaction of completing their work and freeing themselves to enjoy the rest of the day and evening. It’s a great lesson that will pay off for them in later years.
5. Don’t Get Seduced By Back-To-School Shopping: At this time of year, the media floods us with ads ranging from new fashions to electric pencil sharpeners. There’s a sense that if we don’t send our children to school with countless accessories and designer erasers we are guilty of parental neglect. In fact, this is a great opportunity to teach our kids about how advertising tries to influence us in ways that often reflect misguided values. Although it’s cultural heresy, you might suggest that binders and backpacks could actually be used for a second year, instead of automatically assuming they must be replaced. You also might set an example by foregoing some of your own clothing money and donating it to a worthwhile charity or some special cause that your family believes in.
6. The Drive to School: If you drive your kids to school in the morning, you’ve got an opportunity to spend precious time with them. But the ride can feel like more of a burden than an opportunity, if things have been hectic and unpleasant in the morning and if you are trying to compete with technology during the ride. If that’s the case, you might devise a plan for how to spend the commuting time. Gregg divided the ride into thirds – the first third was the time for connecting, with no technology of any sort in the background. Just chatting and riding along. During the second third of the ride he would put on the news, so they could all be aware of the world beyond their own personal concerns. And during the final third of the ride the girls got to put the radio on. Without some kind of strategy, it’s easy for everyone to be isolated through their own headphones, with no chance to connect or share the time together.
7. Parents Are Students Too: Parents can use the beginning of school to consider their own learning goals for the coming year. Is there something new you would like to learn to do? A foreign language? A musical instrument? Learning something new not only keeps our minds fresh but sends a message that learning is a lifelong process, not just something we do in school. The question, “What did I learn today?” can be an interesting theme at dinner and allows the kids to get a peek at what their parents are learning while they’re at school. (You might consider joining our September distance learning program, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness, which is filled with experiential learning opportunities!)
8. Family Meetings: The beginning of the school year is a great time to begin having family meetings. These gatherings provide a chance for everyone to share what’s on their mind – what concerns they may have, ideas, suggestions, gripes, questions. Depending on the age of the kids, you can try different ideas for structuring the meeting – using a “talking stick”, or have each person call on others to speak when discussing their own topic. Family meetings contribute to family cooperation, since everyone has a chance to be involved and invested in the decision making process.
9. Celebrate the End of Summer: The start of one thing is the end of another. Can you do something as a family to help celebrate a great summer? Sometimes we use the last weekend before school to take an overnight trip to a beautiful area of Vermont, just a couple of hours away. Perhaps you can take a day trip somewhere or host a sleepover party or a dinner with other families. You might spend an evening making a photo album (hard copy or web-based) of your photos from the past summer. Find some way to create a ritual for reflecting on and expressing gratitude for the highlights of the summer season.
Each year, the beginning of school marks the passage of time. One day we’re waving goodbye as our child gets on the bus for kindergarten and pretty soon we’re waving goodbye as she drives off to college. This ritual only happens 12-16 times in our lifetime. It may seem like a laundry list of items on a checklist, but there is wisdom in seeing the whole process as a gift and taking conscious steps to make it a joyful time for the whole family.
Linda Anderson Krech, MSW is the author of Little Dreams Come True: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Parenting (ToDo Institute Books, 2005) and Gregg Krech is the author of A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (Stone Bridge Press, 2002). They both live and work at the ToDo Institute in Vermont, an educational center which teaches the principles of Japanese Psychology.